Archive for October, 2009
Wildlife Candid Camera – Infrared cameras ‘trap’ Thailand’s elusive wildlife
Indochinese tiger camera trapped in Sai Yok National Park
One evening as the shadows were melting into darkness in the jungle of Sai Yok National Park, an Indochinese tiger Panthera tigris corbetti was meandering up to a forest pool for his evening drink. At the planned position, a camera-trap mounted on a dead tree tripped a photograph of the cat, causing it to bound into a bamboo thicket. The tiger could not of course have understood exactly what had just taken place. Instinct triggered its reaction to the flash and the camera’s mechanical click. Taking a photograph of a tiger in the wild is a very daunting task but the wizardry of modern electronics has made the job much easier.
Gaur herd caught at a mineral deposit in Kaeng Krachan National Park
A few days later and just two kilometers away, another tiger pads slowly through the forest topping a 600-meter-high ridge in late afternoon. Its senses are on high alert for any movement or sound that could lead to its next meal. A passive infrared camera-trap set on a wildlife trail catches the tiger as it passes through an invisible motion-detection field. The time and date is recorded and the wildlife photographer has just triumphantly photographed one of Thailand’s rarest mammals in the wild – without even being there at the time; a rare candid wildlife photograph set off by the subject itself.
Mother and cub in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
Far away in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Thailand, a mother leopard guides her young cub to a sambar kill. The carcass is ripe after a few days but still good for a full meal. In early-morning darkness the leopards trigger an active infrared SLR camera and strobe strategically positioned close to the dead deer. When the film was processed, I saw two feeding leopards – a mother and its cub. The female is yellow but the young one is black. Photographs of the notoriously elusive leopard would be far rarer if not for modern technology.
The history of camera traps goes back more than a hundred years. In 1906, pioneer wildlife photographer George Shiras III used a flashlight camera with trip wires to photograph wild animals. His equipment was very heavy and very complicated to use, with the lens aperture being very difficult to anticipate. Two other men experimented with camera traps activated by pressure-plates: F.M. Chapman in 1927 and F.W. Champion in 1928. Their primitive traps produced many superb black-and-white photographs that thrilled magazine and book readers at the time.
Banteng herd at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng
For the last four decades or so, researchers and biologists to collect data on wildlife and also to investigate the secretive and nocturnal lives of such rare and endangered species as the tiger and leopard use camera traps. Beyond glamorous predators, species such as wild cattle, deer and pig are also, without discrimination, recorded to reveal such useful information as relative abundance and activity patterns. Camera trapping can lead to important scientific databases.
The units are most often attached to a tree, usually half a meter above the ground and three to four meters away from water holes, mineral licks, wildlife trails, forest roads or stream beds. The time and date is imprinted on each frame for scientific research.
An American hunter whose goal was to survey designed one of the first camera traps utilizing infrared technology and scout possible locations for big game like deer and bear. These active infrared sensors manufactured by TrailMaster.com in Kansas used a separate transmitter and receiver connected to a small ‘point-and-shoot’ camera which is triggered when the beam between the two units is interrupted by any moving object. A major drawback of active systems is that even an insect momentarily blocking the sensor will stimulate a photograph of seemingly empty forest. Active infrared camera traps are best suited to conditions that are dry with minimal insect activity. Further, three separate units are quite complicated to set up and maintain.
Problems with active infrared systems caused a researcher in Texas to ask a friend to develop a passive infrared camera trap, leading to the establishment of CamTrakker.com in Georgia. Passive camera-traps are a self-contained unit with the camera, batteries and sensing electronics sealed in a box. The sensor detects motion. The chief advantage of the passive system is the ease of a single unit installation with no alignment or external wires.
Asian leopard feeding on a sambar carcass in Huai Kha Khaeng
Passive infrared camera traps, which can work for one month or more between battery changes, have proven the most utilitarian for both researchers and wildlife photographers. The relatively high cost of commercial units is the major drawback, particularly to budget-strapped researchers in developing countries.
Both TrailMaster and CamTrakker have steadily improved their equipment over the years. Other companies have now joined the competition, bringing prices for entry level units down to about US$250 (Top-of-the-line models are about US$500 and CamTrakker offers a digital model that costs US$1,200).
Throughout my early years of wildlife photography, the thought of camera trapping had frequently crossed my mind. Finally, with many years of mechanical experience, I decided to build my own camera-traps. Using existing units as a model, I built a passive infrared camera-trap housed in a 6” x 6” tig-welded aluminum alloy box with a removable front cover. The camera-trap as an enclosed unit that is fixed to a tree using two stainless steel lag bolts contained within the box. A small bag of dessicant (silica gel) is set inside to protect the delicate electronics and camera from moisture, and the front cover is hermetically sealed using silicon sealant and stainless steel screws. The unit is elephant-proof that is very important in the forests I work in. Elephants destroy plastic camera-traps.
Tuskless bull elephant in Kaeng Krachan
Out of my home workshop, I was able to make these custom-built cameras for way less than half the price of imported commercial units. My very close friend Yutdhana Anantavara from Chiang Mai modified the cameras and installed the infrared electronic systems. This early work really helped me onto the road to successful home-made camera traps.
Feral cat camera trapped at my home in Chiang Mai
The first batch of prototype units employed several brands of ‘point-and-shoot’ cameras and different experimental housings. To evaluate each camera’s quality and reliability, I intensively tested each on the domestic cats that regularly walked on top of a wall behind my machine shop. Various films were tested but slide film at 400 ISO proved to produce the highest quality image.
My 1st camera trapped tiger in Sai Yok
To field test the new gear I took a trip to Sai Yok National Park in western Thailand. All of the cameras were placed along wildlife trails, waterholes and mineral licks. Over several months, the film was collected and developed. I was ecstatic when I saw two different tigers, an elephant, serow, muntjac, stumped-tailed macaque, bear, porcupine, water monitor, jungle fowl and wild pigs. The omnivores were the most frequently photographed and probably the tiger’s main prey species. A totally unexpected bonus was photographs of a few poachers.
Serow male camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan NP
Numerous camera trap surveys have been conducted in many of Thailand’s forests. A 2001 survey produced a photograph of a Siamese crocodile in Kaeng Krachan National Park. The croc was caught in broad daylight on a sandbar along the river. Park staff set cameras for a month along the Phetchaburi River. The amazing discovery of this very rare reptile has prompted more investigation into this endangered species. In 2003, I camera trapped a crocodile in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary.
Wild Siamese crocodile camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary
To analyze wildlife in a given area, researchers use two main techniques: a trail-based survey (where cameras are randomly placed along wildlife trails and roads covering 100 to 300 square kilometers) and a more intensive plot-based method. A smaller plot is chosen (usually 40-50 sq. kilometers) and a camera is placed in each one-kilometer grid. An area can eventually be exhaustively surveyed – the duration depending on the number of cameras used – to prove the presence or absence of tigers and other animals. The data then can be used for conservation management of the protected area.
Indochinese tiger abstract in Kaeng Krachan
Camera traps can reveal very disturbing information. Extensive surveys around Khao Yai National Park indicate that only two tigers survive. The patterns of tigers are as unique as human fingerprints so it is essential to get photos of both sides of each animal so that individuals can be identified. Researchers often set cameras on either side of a trail to capture both sides simultaneously. Khao Yai might have more tigers but the fact that only two individuals are confirmed is depressing. As of 2005, no tigers have been seen in intensive surveys carried out by Kate Jenks from the Smithonian Institute.
Indochinese tiger camera trapped abstract
Poachers have also been camera trapped here. Usually they walk obliviously past the camera but they sometimes damage or steal cameras. Elephants also destroy cameras, tearing the plastic commercial housings off the tree and smashing them or lobbing them into the bush. A Royal Forest Department researcher at Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in the deep south of Thailand found a unit damaged by elephants, but the camera was still working and developed the film. The last frame shows a very close view of an elephant’s trunk! Some researchers have built stronger steel boxes to protect the plastic units.
Buffy fish-owl landing by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan NP
My aluminum-cased camera-traps firmly bolted to a tree have survived many inquisitive elephants. However, they can be stolen or vandalized by determined people who do not want their photo taken. In May of 2005, I lost three cameras near the headwaters of the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Forest fires in the dry season destroy cameras. Insects will invade the interior of imperfectly sealed units, playing havoc with their operation. High humidity in the rainforest also damages electrical circuitry, cameras, film and batteries not protected by a well sealed unit and a small bag of moisture absorbing silica gel.
Infrared camera trapping has undoubtedly become a uniquely useful tool for conservation biologists. This ‘candid camera’ is also a blessing for wildlife photographers wanting images of rare and endangered animals. Who knows? In the future, a camera-trap could photograph a species new to science. I’m always excited when I get camera-trap film back from the lab. But the digital age had arrived. Film is being slowly phased out and digital cameras have now overtaken the market dominating it.
Asian Leopard hunting on old logging road in Kaeng Krachan NP
Wildlife Candid Camera: The Digital Age has arrived
LBK camera trap attached to a tree using Python locking cable
LBK camera trap with Yeticam board and Sony W7 in custom aluminum case
Digital camera traps have now become the new sensation, especially the home-brew (self-made) market. It is now a huge business with a few companies vying for market share. The most predominant are Snapshotsniper.com and Yeticam.com, and they offer parts (sensor boards, lens, battery packs, cases, etc.) to the home builder.
Very old bull gaur at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng WS
My friend Chris Wemmer, the ‘Cameratrap Codger’, was the first person to tell me about a new company in the US producing infrared circuit boards and other accessories for the home-brew camera trap market. The company is Pixcontroller.com. Unfortunately, they no longer offer parts but now sell completed units with digital camera and video.
Mature bull gaur at water hole
As a wildlife photographer, I decided to produce my own digital camera traps using passive infrared circuit boards acquired from the U.S., and digital cameras modified locally with housings and constructed from tig-welded aluminum alloy at my machine shop at home in Chiang Mai. The first cameras used Nikon L11 and L14 cameras and Snapshotsniper boards that were set-up in the forest of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in Southwest Thailand over a three-month period in October to December 2008.
Asian tapir – mother and calf in Khlong Saeng WS, Southern Thailand
Animals captured were elephants, gaur, tiger, sambar and muntjac. One camera had over 300 captures in one month at a mineral deposit in the park.
Asian tapir calf in Khlong Saeng
Down in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the first part of 2009, I set both film and digital camera traps deep in the forest. Elephants, gaur, tapir, sambar, muntjac, golden cat and Argus pheasant were captured.
Tuskless bull elephant camera trapped at waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng
I now have more than a dozen digital camera traps using primarily ‘Sony S600’ and W5-7 cameras, Snapshotsniper.com and Yeticam.com circuit boards.
Tusker elephant in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary
The Sony cameras have been the best and most durable due to the manual features like ISO and f.stop adjustments. Picture quality with the ‘Carl Zeiss’ lens is usually good.
A herd of wild pigs including a runt in Khlong Saeng
Camera trapping has allowed me the sheer pleasure of seeing Thailand’s amazing wildlife on both film and digital. As of this writing, I have expanded my camera trap fleet to more than 20 units and continue to run a trap-line in Sai Yok National Park. On my first setting in July 2011, I got a mature Gaur bull up a hill in the interior. Still waiting on a tiger.
Common crane sighting in Nong Bong Khai Non-hunting Area in Chiang Rai
Tremendous excitement prevailed when a common crane showed up for the first time in Thailand during November 2000. Experts had predicted the species would eventually be seen in the Kingdom (Lekagul & Round 1991) but the arrival of the crane was nonetheless big news for bird lovers. It was one of the greatest thrills in my life to be the first person to sight this solitary bird. Undoubtedly, local farmers saw the crane first but took no notice.
Common crane male in rice fields near Nong Bong Khai
While out scouting for photographic possibilities, I visited Nong Bong Khai Non-hunting Area situated at Chiang Saen Lake located in the northern province of Chiang Rai. The National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP) is responsible for the area, which is a year round attraction for nature lovers. Although surrounded by paddy fields, a swamp to the west of the lake still hosts many resident bird species. The protected area also attracts migrant birds starting in October, when ducks, herons, grebes and other water birds arrive to spend the winter. Some rest for a while before carrying on to other areas in Thailand and Southeast Asia, even on down to Australia.
Arriving at the non-hunting area early in the morning, as always, I drove over the hill for a quick scout of the swamp. My casual visit turned into quite a surprise. Amidst the expected grey herons and little egrets, one bird seemed not quite right. It took some careful watching to isolate the anomaly but once found the crane was very striking indeed, towering over the herons. Its unfamiliar facial pattern and grey plumage stood out in the clear morning sun.
Chiang Saen Lake in Chiang Rai
I immediately called my good friend Philip Round, Thailand’s foremost bird expert, telling him of the sighting. Unfortunately, commitments at work forced me to leave shortly after but I vowed to come back as quickly as possible. Within two weeks, I was back this time with my friend David Murray from Chiang Mai, who came along as my assistant. The crane was extremely wary and maintained a healthy distance with anyone approaching it. The bird, a male, was limping and we assumed it had probably been wounded by a gunshot. Mature cranes usually pair up. The absence of a female was strange and perhaps the crane encountered hunters along the way, and that might have disrupted the bird’s migration.
The next day in early morning darkness we set up a photo-blind near where the bird was first sighted. I got a quick glimpse, but then the crane trumpeted loudly a few times and took off. A few quick shots were snapped as it flew away, but they were distant. The next morning was cool and foggy. About 9 a.m. the fog finally burned off and, as if on cue, the crane swooped down landing in front of the blind, although still a fair distance away. I quickly photographed it with my 600mm Minolta, doubled to 1,200mm by a converter. Once again the bird flew away within seconds, possibly spooked by the blind. The next morning the hide was moved even closer to the middle of the swamp but the crane did not show.
As we were packing up about 11 a.m. the bird flew across the paddy field, with its right leg dangling. We drove to where it landed, and managed to sneak within photographic range. I was finally able to get a few non-flying photographs even though the light was harsh. I left area but was still not satisfied, and again promised to return.
Sunset over Chiang Saen Lake
In early January of 2001 my determination to capture this crane on film continued to burn. After checking with the staff at Nong Bong Khai to confirm that the crane was still present, I decided to try one more time. After almost a thousand kilometer drive from Bangkok to Chiang Saen (including a swing through Chiang Mai to pick up David), we arrived in the late afternoon and to our relief soon spotted the crane in rice fields west of the swamp. I was pleased to see that its limp seemed to have disappeared and that it also appeared a bit more at ease. David and I camped out close-by in frigid cold winter conditions and planned the next morning’s shoot. At 4 a.m. we set the blind very near where the bird was reported to roost.
At about 8am the sun became hotter and the morning mist lifted. The crane suddenly flew in from the west but landed just a bit out of range. Then he walked closer to the blind and, as if in answer to my prayers, stopped 75 meters away pecking for food on the ground. I wasted no time and quickly shot several rolls of film. The final frames shot as he took off showed he still favored his right leg, as it dangled in flight. That was the last time I saw this magnificent bird, and the experience will always be etched in memory.
He left the area shortly after that and was never seen again. Nong Bong Khai had provided a haven for several months while he recuperated. During his stay, this crane delighted many nature lovers, bird watchers and photographers. It even appeared in the newspapers and on television. This single visit was considered an aberration and unlikely to happen again.
Common crane lifting off from the rice fields
But in January of 2004, my good friend John Parr visited the lake and in quite a surprise to the bird community, observed a pair of common cranes. I immediately rushed up to see them but these birds were extremely wary and I could not get any pictures. However, I did see the two birds at the opposite end of the swamp over two days. The pair left the next day.
It was reported that some local people wearing bright clothing were seen very close to the cranes before they flew off. While I was sitting in the blind, I also observed people walking close to the swamp. The birds had probably been pushed to the limit. When or if common cranes ever return again is an open question.
Cranes belong to the family Gruidae and there are 15 species worldwide. They are large birds with long necks and legs, and all have large straight pointed bills. Cranes nest on the ground or in shallow water. They build a bulky bed of sticks and vegetation. Their trumpet-like call reverberates over long distances. These birds fly in a V formation or a long line. Paired mature cranes perform a beautiful courtship display, much like a stately dance.
The sarus crane Grus antigone was once found in Thailand but that was more than 60 years ago. Before the year 2000, it was the only species of crane ever recorded here. A mature saris crane is one and half meters tall with a red head and light gray body plumage. Unfortunately, they are extinct in the Kingdom. The species still survives in the wild of Cambodia, Vietnam and India. But like everywhere else in the world, these cranes are under serious pressure from humans.
The Royal Forest Department (RFD) established a captive breeding program for the sarus crane many years ago but unfortunately, these birds do not breed well in captivity. Successful pairing is very rare under caged conditions, and so the chance of breeding cranes for reintroduction is next to impossible. Most zoos in the country have specimens. However, the Khorat Zoo in Nakhon Ratchasima province has successfully reared sarus crane chicks.
No one knows where this common crane actually came from. It was possibly blown off-course from a flock migrating east or west. The species’ world range includes Europe, North Africa and Asia. The common crane is an uncommon winter visitor to southern China, and the northern areas of Vietnam, Burma and India.
The chance to see and photograph a wild crane might not come for a long time. I feel blessed to have been there at the right place and at the right time. Mother nature works in strange ways and perhaps some future migratory season will bring a tall bird with a trumpeting call to stop by Nong Bong Khai. I will surely be there.
A look at tiger and leopard evolution in Asia
At the beginning of the dry season in January, the jungle canopy is still mostly green but falling leaves begin to carpet the forest floor as the first cold snap arrives. Some species of trees start their transformation, producing a mosaic of yellows, oranges, reds, browns and greens. For the first few hours each morning, heavy fog blocks out the sun as moisture dissipates from the forest. The Phetchaburi River is crystal clear as it flows through this magnificent forest.
Indochinese tiger camera trapped by the Phetchaburi River
A large predator walks the trails seeking its next meal. Sensing danger, a muntjac barks a warning. The whole community of wild animals is on alert as macaques and langurs cry out from the trees above. A striped carnivore stalks a herd of wild pigs. The nervous omnivores squeal and panic, running through the underbrush to escape. But the big cat is lightning quick – it catches a young pig with sharp claws. The struggle is over in seconds as fangs penetrate to the spine.
Leopard camera-trapped on an old logging road
The tiger has just made a kill. It lifts the lifeless prey into deep cover and devours the carcass. After feeding, the big cat seeks water for a thirst quenching drink. It will then lie down and rest until the desire to eat or drink begins again. Tigers will sometimes move great distances in search of food. But where there is an abundance of prey species, these magnificent cats continue to live in balance with nature. The average kill ratio for a tiger is about twenty unsuccessful attempts for one actual kill. At a certain time of year, the male tiger will seek out a female to carry on his legacy.
Another tiger by the Phetchaburi River
Kaeng Krachan National Park is a great wilderness that sits in the Tenassarim Range in southwest Thailand. It is one of the most beautiful protected areas left in the country. Elephants, gaur, tiger, leopard, tapir, gibbons, hornbills and literally thousands of other plants and animals still survive in a rich ecosystem that is world class.
A tiger camera trapped at a mineral lick in Kaeng Krachan
To understand how the tiger and leopard evolved, we must go back to the beginning of these wild creatures. After the carnivorous dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago, mammals with sharp teeth, strong jaws and claws replaced them as the top land predators. The first successful mammalian carnivores were the Creodonts that evolved during the Eocene epoch 57-35 million years ago. Creodonts ranged in size from smaller than a weasel to as big as a bear. A bear-dog also evolved during this period. These carnivores all had voracious appetites that were satisfied by large concentrations of prey species, mainly the odd-toed and even-toed ungulates that browsed and grazed the lush forests and plains of the time. The early Creodonts evolved into the modern carnivores that we know today: the bears, cats, dogs and other predators.
Tiger camera trap abstract
The order Carnivora is separated into three superfamilies: The Arctoidea includes marten, weasel, badger, otter, bear and the panda; the Cynoidea are made up of the dog, fox and the wolf; and the Herpestoidea includes the mongoose, civet, hyena and the cat. Most carnivores are dedicated meat-eaters, but some groups such as civet, panda and bear are omnivorous, eating meat and plants.
Leopard camera trapped on a nature trail in the park
Nimravidae were the first cats to evolve in the Early Oligocene epoch, about 35 million years ago. They lasted till the Late Miocene, some eight million years ago, when huge grasslands had developed around the world. The large saber-toothed cats were the first of the family Felidae. These long-fanged felines evolved alongside huge herds of grazing mammals like antelope and cattle. There were several different species of saber-tooth, but they all became extinct about two to three million years ago.
Black leopard camera trapped on the main road in the park
Modern cats belong to the family Felidae and include: tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar, cougar and cheetah, and all the smaller cats such as lynx, bobcat, jungle cat, fishing cat to name just a few plus domestic cats. Wild carnivores feed almost exclusively on vertebrate prey and sit at the top of the food chain. Tiger and lion have few predators apart from man but a pack of wild dogs however are a constant threat to the large cats and their offspring. The tiger and leopard belong to the genus Panthera, or roaring cats, that include the lion and the jaguar.
Leopard camera trapped in the interior
Thousands of years ago when primitive humans lived off the land as hunters and gatherers, they survived by pure instinct. They killed animals for meat and skins, and also gathered many different tools and plants from the forests. As humans became more sophisticated, they used weapons to take down larger animals. Clubs, spears, knives, bow and arrows were all that separated them from almost certain death at the claws and jaws of a predator many times their size.
Black leopard camera trapped on an old logging road
The possibility of being eaten by a carnivore like a tiger or leopard must have been on everyone’s mind that lived in or near the wilderness. Entering the forest where every step could be the last was like walking a tightrope. Attack normally lasted only seconds as a huge predator pounced from behind, biting the neck and causing almost instant death. Very few people survive such an incident. It must have been a scary environment to live in.
The will to survive, however, was strong and men eventually conquered his fear of the wild cats with more modern weaponry. The tables had finally turned and the predators became the hunted. As human populations and settlements grew, the forests were quickly transformed into agricultural land.
An Indochinese tiger on the prowl at night by the Phetchaburi River
After firearms were invented, European royalty, native kings, landlords, planters, foresters, government officials and many adventurers journeyed to the forests of Asia in search of the tiger. Mostly, they came to prove their dominance over the big cat. A trophy of tiger on the wall or floor at home proved beyond doubt that the owner was the supreme species. One could boast of their prowess as a hunter.
But the fact is most hunters shot tigers and leopards from the safety of a tree-blind, vehicle or elephant back. The cats would be attracted to within gun range by cattle, buffalo or a goat used as bait. For special hunts, hundreds of local villagers were recruited as beaters, trackers and mahouts. To join a shikar (Indian word for the hunt) was the ultimate experience for the adventurous.
The same tiger as above a few moments later
More tigers have been killed for sport in India then anywhere else in the world. In the days of the Raj, it was common to see five, ten or twenty cats lying dead on the ground in front of a hunting party. The Maharajah of Surguja killed some 1,157 tigers during his reign. Some Englishmen claimed to have shot more than 100 tigers. Fortunately in 1972, the Indian government finally banned hunting because the tiger and many other species were threatened with extinction.
The most famous hunter ever to overcome his fear of the big Asian cats was Jim Corbett of India. From 1907 to 1939, he single-handedly dispatched scores of man-eating tigers and leopards. His book ‘Man-eaters of Kumaon’ is a classic. Some cats mentioned in the book had killed hundreds of people. Corbett National Park was established in his honor, and the Indo-Chinese subspecies of tiger Panthera tigris corbetti is named after him.
In Thailand, the tiger and the leopard were also hunted for sport but on a much smaller scale than in India. In the past, rural Thai people living near wilderness areas built houses high off the ground that protected them during the night. But daytime was another thing. If they worked in fields bordering thick jungle or they went into the forest, they risked their lives.
At the turn of the 20th Century as modern firearms, agriculture and transportation took hold in the Kingdom, the forests and wildlife began to disappear. Man-eaters also declined. However, during World War II along the death railway in the Sai Yok district of Kanchanaburi province there were still accounts of man-eating cats. In recent times, there has been no such record. From time to time, domestic cattle are still killed by a tiger or leopard but this is now very rare. Low wildlife densities in the forest and easy prey are the main reason for this occurrence.
Thailand is fortunate in that tiger and leopard plus another seven species of cat still survive in some of the larger national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Kaeng Krachan National Park is one of those protected areas that still harbor the big cats. Tigers can and do kill the leopard. Although their paths do cross, normally the spotted cat will avoid the striped predator. Documentary accounts and photographs do exist of tigers eating leopards.
In 2002-2003 while carrying out camera trap work in Kaeng Krachan in cooperation with the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, I was surprised and elated to see both species tripping the same cameras in several areas only days apart. In one month, four different leopards, one of them black, were caught on film. In the following month, a leopard was caught during the day, and a huge male tiger stopped and posed for the camera. Both species were using the same trail for their hunting forays. A few other protected areas like Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries have records of overlapping.
In Kaeng Krachan, an important discovery is that tiger and leopard hunt at all times during the day. It is usually thought they are only active in the late afternoon and throughout the night preferring to rest during the day. More research is required if we are to determine the pattern of daytime hunting by the big cats here. It is probably due to the pristine state of this forest and the lack of human activity.
Without doubt, the future of the big cats depends on one thing only – the complete protection of the remaining forests where they live. If the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries remain intact with a high number of prey species, the big cats will survive. But if overdevelopment and encroachment is allowed to continue, these magnificent animals will eventually disappear.
Unfortunately, too much time and money is wasted by too many organizations talking about saving the tiger and other wildlife, with very little actually being done. Human population growth will eventually destroy most wild places. Only true protection by a few dedicated people will slow the destruction of nature’s precious wildlife and wilderness areas. It is only hoped that the tiger and leopard will continue to survive as they have for millions of years.
Leopard – Panthera pardus
The leopard is closely related to the jaguar of South America. Both have a spotted coat pattern, incidence of melanism (black phase), and relatively short legs. The present distribution of the leopard is restricted to Asia Minor, India, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, Tibet, China, Siberia, and Africa. Fossils of leopards were found in Pleistocene deposits throughout Europe, the Middle East, Java, and Africa, some 1.5 million years old. These secretive cats are mainly nocturnal. Their populations and ranges are difficult to determine but radio tracking of collared animals has shed new light on their movements and area they live in. ‘Spots’ is more tolerable to humans and their settlements.
Tiger – Panthera tigris
According to fossil evidence Panthera cats branched from the other Felidae about five million years ago in Asia. The first tigers originated in eastern China. Fossils of the earliest tigers date back to the Pleistocene epoch, about 1.6 to two million years ago, have been found in Henan, southeast China, and on the island of Java in Indonesia. The historic range of the tiger covered much of Asia and some of its islands.
However, humans have had an enormous impact on the geographic range of the species. The big cat only survives in 13 countries: Russia, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The present range is less than five percent of the tiger’s former range. There are less than 5,000 tigers left in the wild.
Published in the Bangkok Post ‘Nature’ section on