Archive for November, 2009
WILD SPECIES REPORT
Banteng: Endangered herbivores
Magnificent wild cattle of Southeast Asia
Bovids threatened with extinction
It was a hot steamy morning deep in the wilderness of Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site located in the central province of Uthai Thani. Not much was stirring other than a few birds and insects as the sun rose high in the sky. A hot breeze whiffed through, and heat shimmered from the center of a natural mineral deposit several hours walk from the nearest road. As the day got hotter, thirst kicked in among the many species of herbivore that live in the forest nearby.
Banteng bull in Huai Kha Khaeng
Muntjac (barking deer), sambar, banteng and gaur use this important source of minerals. Many smaller mammals, birds, and reptiles also come to the lick as part of their everyday life. Tiger, leopard, and wild dog frequent the area in search of prey. Occasionally, wild elephant stop for a drink. A male barking deer stepped cautiously down to the water hole. Moving slowly and constantly watching out for predators, the young buck took a long-awaited sip of the life giving minerals. Shortly after, it disappeared back into the forest it had come from. Silence again took precedence as the morning wore on.
Banteng bull and cow in Huai Kha Khaeng
About an hour later at the top-end of the clearing, a herd of twelve banteng magically appeared and went straight down to the waterhole, as their kind have done for aeons. The herd included one old bull, a couple of young bulls and cows, plus three calves, and, like the deer, were extremely alert for carnivores. All of a sudden, a cow snorted an alarm, and the herd bolted for the safety of the bush. Curious by nature, the herd bull stopped short near the forest edge for one last look. The herd surrounded the bull and the young calves trailed behind before disappearing into the trees. For a moment, they were vulnerable to attack by predator. Banteng are very sensitive to any disturbance and flee immediately on the first hint of danger.
Banteng on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng
Another hour went by and suddenly, a solitary banteng bull appeared from the forest and moved down to the waterhole but stayed only momentarily. These loners usually pursue the herd during the mating season and have an irresistible urge to mate with the females. However, the herd bull will keep the young bulls in check.
The spirits of the forest had just provided a vision; some beautiful moments in the lives of banteng, Southeast Asia’s wild cattle. My friend Robert Semon and I were sitting in a photographic blind set up just inside the forest edge, but with an open view to the water hole. Banteng had been the main photographic objective on this trip, and it was magnificent seeing and photographing these wild bovids. My camera was very busy during that short period. As it was the first time I had photographed them, the encounter will be forever etched in memory.
Mature banteng bull in Huai Kha Khaeng
Coming back to Huai Kha Khaeng a couple of years later, my team erected a photo-blind while I went looking for tracks. A large granite rock sits in the middle of this oasis in the forest, so I paid my respects to the spirits of the forest thanking them for my previous good fortune here. It was about an hour’s walk back to the truck, and another hour to camp, but I was feeling lucky. After dinner, and a few drinks with the team, I retired to my hammock for an early wake-up.
The next morning I was in the blind at 6am and, after a three-hour wait, a lone banteng bull lumbered down to the waterhole for a drink. My wish had come true. After getting very close to the blind, he sensed danger and bolted. I shot several rolls of film. Alone, the bull was open to attack by tiger or wild dogs. It was very exciting photographing this beautiful creature.
A couple of years later, on one of my many forays into Huai Kha Khaeng, I decided to stay overnight in a permanent photographic blind set-up along the banks of Huai Mae Dee, a tributary of the Huai Kha Khaeng. That night as I lay in my hammock, I wished once again to see banteng. The next morning, the mist was thick as soup, coating the forest with dew. My focus was on a mineral lick across the river. Many rare species of large mammal visit this natural deposit for a drink, and a nibble on the lush grass growing on the rocky slope. A female muntjac nervously appeared, took a drink but quickly departed.
Banteng cow on the Huai Mae Dee
At about 8am, as the sun was just peaking over the treetops, a large herd of banteng stepped out into the mineral lick. There were five bulls and numerous cows and calves in this herd totaling 18 banteng, and it was an exciting ten-minute session. It was during the mating season, the reason so many bulls had come together. I was shooting a digital camera by now and did not stop photographing them until the last one had gone. As always, I gave thanks to the spirits of the forest for my good fortune.
The accompanying photographs show the beauty and gracefulness of these magnificent ungulates. Over the years, I have seen these wild cattle many times, not only in Huai Kha Khaeng (present herd estimated at over 250 individuals), but also over in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, eastern Thailand (about 80 banteng). These two santuaries are the last bations of a sizable banteng herd left in the Kingdom.
Banteng cows at a waterhole
Huai Kha Khaeng still retains the best prey/predator relationship with many tigers and a sizable herd of banteng plus many other ungulates like gaur, sambar and wild pig. Khao Ang Rue Nai has very few carnivores but Asian wild dogs do take banteng from time to time. Humans unfortunately, are the most devestating predator and are directly responsible for the disappearence of these wonderful creatures. Trophy hunting and bush meat are the two main reasons for this demise.
The other remaining sites that have recorded banteng but are probably now close to extirpation of the species with very few remaining are: Om Koi Wildlife Sanctuary in the North; Nam Nao and Tap Praya national parks in the Northeast; Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary and, Sai Yok, Sri Nakharin and Kaeng Krachan national parks in the west; Khlong Saeng and Khlong Yan wildlife sanctuaries in the south; and Sri Satchanarai National Park in the foot-hills of Central Thailand. Their present numbers are estimated to be no more than a very low 300-500 nationwide.
Fossils of an antelope-like ox named Leptobos was discovered in Early Pleistocene deposits 1.8 million years old in Eurasia. Another ancient cattle found in Europe called Bos primigenius or better known as aurochs were domesticated some 6,000 years ago but died out about 500 years ago. Banteng are common ansestors to Bos bibos, a cattle that inhibitated the vast plains of Asia during prehistoric times. Fossil finds of banteng from the Pleistocene epoch in Bali and Java are common.
Banteng herd on a sandbar in Huai Kha Khaeng
Wild banteng Bos javanicus have a scattered distribution throughout Southeast Asia, and three subspecies are recognized. The Java banteng Bos javanicus javanicus of Java and Bali, the Borneo banteng Bos javanicus lowi, and the Burma banteng Bos javanicus birmanicus, also of Thailand and Indochina. Only a few thousand wild banteng are reported to survive throughout their entire range, since human encroachment and poaching in all the above countries have exacted a heavy toll on them. Their future hangs in the balance. Thailand is no exception and the banteng population has declined drastically since World War II.
Banteng bull at a mineral lick in Huai Kha Khaeng
The Kingdom’s protected areas include national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, and are all controlled and managed by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP). It is extremely difficult defending these forests from human intervention, and the DNP has a heavy burden to bear. Let us hope that they will succeed in this very important but really tough task!
One alternative to disappearing banteng is a reintroduction program to save the species. There are a few breeding centers around the country with banteng. Unfortunately, most of the stock is Indonesian banteng. Years ago, Kukrit Pramote, Thailand’s Prime Minister using government to government relations, imported Indonesian banteng that were released at Lum Phow Non-hunting Area in Kalasin province. There are about 60 surviving on a 900 rai plot. Only one breeding center at Khao Nam Phu, Kanchanaburi province is reported to have Thai banteng. Several young banteng were taken from Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary next door and produced off-spring. Presently, there are about 10 individuals at Khao Nam Phu.
Banteng bull at a breeding station in Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary
Another pilot program started in 1991 was initiated at Khao Kheow Open Zoo and 13 banteng (unknown origin) were released to adjacent Khao Kheow-Khao Chumpu Wildlife Sanctuary (144 sq.kilometers) in Chonburi province. There are now an estimated 49 banteng surviving in this herd with a few mature bulls living in a very splintered habitat. Poachers however, are a serious threat here using pipe guns and rope snares left in the forest, and inflict casualties on these reintroduced denzins. DNP needs to make sure they are protected to the fullest.
Rare white-spotted banteng cow – endemic to Huai Kha Khaeng
Banteng have been called the most beautiful of all the wild relatives of cattle. The colouring of young bulls and cows is generally a vibrant reddish brown, though some are fawn. The old bulls in Thailand are mostly blackish-brown, but Indonesian banteng bulls are very dark brown to black in some. Regardless of sex, all Thai banteng have a white band around the muzzle, small white patches over the eyes, white stockings on all four legs, and a large white patch on the rump. Another distinct feature is a black stripe along the spine. The dorsal ridge is pronounced in the large adult bulls. Some Thai banteng have white spots along the flank, but this is not found among the other subspecies.
The skull and horns of banteng are less massive then their cousins the gaur Bos gaurus, but are nevertheless formidable weapons. They use their horns for protection, but the males also use them to decide who will get the females during the breeding season in May and June. Gestation is nine and a half to ten months, and one or two calves may be born. The calves are suckled until they are fourteen to sixteen months old.
Banteng bull and cows at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng – note very dark colored bull
Banteng look very much like some domestic cattle and are probably ancestral to them. In Indonesia and Borneo, banteng have been successfully domesticated and are widely used there. For some reason, this practice has not caught on in mainland Southeast Asia. However, many villagers living close to banteng habitats have had wild bulls mingling with their domesticated cattle, and hybrids have been born. Hybrids have also been reported from some forests in the west where banteng and gaur overlap.
The habitat where banteng are normally found is open deciduous forests and hence banteng are more seriously endangered than gaur. They are grazers and prefer open grasslands. However, they have become more nocturnal due to hunting pressure and are rarely seen during the day, preferring to come out in the open at night. Herds of two up to twenty-five or more have been recorded and usually there is only one mature bull.
Banteng bull and cows at a waterhole in Khao Ang Rue Nai
Solitary bulls, or loners, are quite common, as the herd bull has kicked them out. They will typically shadow the herd, especially during the breeding season when they are hoping for the chance to mate with the cows that come into heat. The herd bull will remain supreme only for as long as he remains fit and has not broken a horn.
The future chances of these magestic creatures is slim. Pressure from humans and increased population growth over the long run can only have an adverse effect on the flora and fauna of the nation. The question is, how long will these magnificent bovid survive and in what places? Can we say that in 50 years banteng will continue to live in their protected areas, safe from human poachers and encroachment. Nature’s clock is ticking relentlessly, and only time will tell.
Land of the plateau – pristine forest in the Northeast
Hog deer haven and introduction site
On Thai wildlife day, December 26, 1983, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit released four hog deer made up of two mature males and two females in breeding age at ‘Thung Kamang’ grassland in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary situated in the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum. This was the beginning of what is now a successful introduction program in order to save the species.
Hog Deer on the run in Phu Khieo Wildlife Santuary
The Crown Prince in 1987 introduced another four hog deer, and reintroduced several male and female sambar (Thailand’s largest deer) in the same area. In 1992, Her Majesty the Queen once again released more hog deer to boost the numbers of the herd. She also released three Eld’s deer (one male and two females). Unfortunately, this species has been difficult to monitor because of their preference for deep forest unlike the hog deer that prefer grassland and swampy habitat.
Phu Khieo massif
Over the years, the herd of hog deer has steadily increased due to a safe haven away from poachers and encroachment. In 2004, there were approximately 75 deer, and in May 2008, Kasetsart University conducted a survey around the grasslands and headquarters area counting more than 120 individuals. There are now approximately 140 hog deer in three or four separate herds. The sanctuary officials are constantly monitoring the herd with six hog deer fitted with radio collars and have established their range in the sanctuary.
It’s November and not a single cloud can be seen in the clear blue sky. Early morning air is crisp and cool. Heavy dew blankets Phu Khieo as mist rises from the forest. The sun arcs up into the sky and morning heat builds up. A mature sambar stag barks a warning call alerting all the animals within audible range that a predator is on the prowl. In the grasslands, a herd of hog deer grazing on tender young shoots is now on high alert. They are nervous and begin moving as the top carnivore of this forest stalks them.
Sambar yearling doe in late afternoon light
A pack of hungry Asian wild dogs working like a well-oiled machine concentrate on their target. They bump into the deer scattering them. The dogs go after an inexperienced doe and separate her from the herd. The chase is on. The deer becomes confused and makes a wrong turn. The dogs pull the struggling creature to the ground and go in for the kill. Within an hour the carcass is stripped and almost nothing is left except a few scraps. But it’s just another day in the balance of nature where natural selection and the struggle for life and death between predator and prey is played out.
In the early 1830s’ during the reign of King Mongkut, the French missionary Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, in his excellent book entitled ‘Description of the Kingdom of Siam’ published in 1850 reported seeing large herds of deer grazing on the central plains. Hog deer were still quite common in the Kingdom even at the turn of the 19th Century and could be found in all the river basins of the far North, the Northeast, the West and the whole of the Chao Phraya River basin and its tributaries. Hog deer fossils taken from sand dredging in many rivers dates back thousands of years to the Holocene, and teeth fossils of hog deer were discovered in a cave in Phu Khieo dating to the Pleistocene.
Hog deer buck and doe – the male has a radio collar
Unfortunately, these lowland deer were totally overcome by habitat destruction converting natural grasslands and swampy areas into agricultural land throughout the hog deer’s former range. Hunting deer was also a big business and warfare in Asia drove the skin trade. From the late Ayutthaya Period up to the early 20th Century, Siam exported millions of deer pelts from all the large species of deer including Schomburgk’s deer (extinct), sambar, Eld’s deer and hog deer to Japan. Deerskin being soft and supple was used to make leather for Samurai armor and clothing, boots and equipment mostly for the military. This was one of the main reasons for the disappearance of these remarkable creatures from the wild.
Short-nosed fruit bats
Captive breeding of hog deer, Eld’s deer, sambar and muntjac (barking deer) is carried out in some of the 22 wildlife breeding centers around the Kingdom set up by the Royal Forest Department, and now managed by the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP). The Phu Khieo Wildlife Breeding Center outside the sanctuary has been active since 1983 and is still breeding deer and wild pigs for future release into other wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.
Essarn is not all barren and dry like many people think. Over in the western part of the Northeast is Phu Khieo – Nam Nao Forest Complex that incorporates 19 protected areas, covering some 7,725 km2 (twelve national parks and seven wildlife sanctuaries) in the provinces of Chaiyaphum, Khon Kaen, Nong Bua Lum Phu, Udon Thani, Loei, Phechabun and Lop Buri. The complex incorporates a number of large forests on the Phetchabun and upper Dong Phayayen ranges. Phu Khieo, established in May 1972, is the largest sanctuary in the complex at 1,560 km2 made up of, a rocky plateau and steep mountains. The protected area is covered in forests of pine, deciduous, dry dipterocarp and evergreen with many streams that flow into the Chi, Lam Phrom and Sa Phung rivers.
Phu Khieo has elephant, gaur, sambar, muntjac, mouse deer, tiger, clouded leopard, golden cat, back-striped weasel (extremely rare), black bear, gibbon, langur and macaque plus many other mammals can still found here. Jeffery McNeely found tracks in 1977 of the Sumatran rhinoceros on a mountain in the middle of the sanctuary. The last set of rhino footprints was recorded by the sanctuary staff some 10 years ago but has not been seen since. Crocodiles are thought to lurk in the backwaters but again, only footprints and feces have been discovered several years ago. These two species need further investigation and research to establish if they still exist, especially the rhino.
Rare birds such as the Oriental darter and white-winged duck live in the secluded wetlands found in this forest. Other birds include hornbill, osprey, black baza, blue pitta, Siamese Fireback, plus loads of babblers, flycatchers, barbets, kingfishers and other forest birds. The very rare purple cochoa has been sighted and photographed here.
Oriental Darter by the lake
Much research has been carried out by foreign and local researchers from various organizations. Stonybrook University in New York sent a team to monitor and record behavioral habits of the Phayre’s langur and crab-eating macaque. Lon Grassman, as a master student with Kasetsart University, did a camera-trap survey and, collared golden cat and clouded leopard plus other carnivores with support from Texas A&M University and he received his PhD from this excellent work. Kitti Kreetiyutanont who heads the Phu Khieo Research Station has done much research on biodiversity of flora and fauna found here, and in the buffer zone outside the sanctuary. He also has done some archaeology work finding pottery and tools thousands of years old. There are some cave drawings in the sanctuary indicating past civilizations. Wanchnok Suvarnakara, the deputy superintendant, is an avid wildlife photographer and has recorded many species on film and digital, and published a photographic book.
For the first time in the history of wildlife sanctuaries since Salak Phra in Kanchanaburi was established in December 1965, a woman has been nominated as superintendant to Phu Khieo. Dr Kanjana Nitaya received a doctorate on management, and has run this protected area with determination to succeed. The staff and locals who have benefited from her management skills and leadership over the last four years respect her. In 2006, Phu Khieo was voted as the best wildlife sanctuary in all categories by DNP due to criteria established by the department. She is proud of this achievement and hopes this will help the conservation of this magnificent place well into the future.
However, poaching and encroachment is still an on-going problem for the staff. Another serious long-term idea from politicians in the lowlands is to build a dam across the Sa Pung Nua River on the southern face of the plateau not far from Nong Bua Daeng in Chaiyaphum. If this dam were to become a reality, a large swath of forest would be inundated and damage the ecosystem already in jeopardy. All efforts should be made to stop this project before it goes too far. As Thailand’s best wildlife sanctuary, it should not be compromised by the construction of a man-made scheme.
Saving a species from extinction should be a top priority of the DNP. Other ungulates like goral, serow and banteng should be reintroduced into protected areas where they once thrived. Some may argue against introduction or reintroduction, but as we loose more and more species, release is a practical way to save Thailand’s rare animals from extinction in the wild. It is up to the department to instigate and increase these introduction/reintroduction projects, and then to protect these animals from danger by all means available. Budgets for enforcement and protection need to increase, and more staff to man any project to save a species from extinction is an utmost priority.
Hog deer buck in the grassland
Historically, the range of the hog deer spread from India and Nepal, east through Burma and Thailand, to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This deer is now restricted to just fragments of its former range. In Thailand, the last sighting of hog deer was in Nong Khai province in the Northeast sometime during November 1963. There are some hog deer herds in the wilds of Cambodia and Laos.
Hog deer were typically found on alluvial plains and lowland forest along rivers, particularly near marshes with tall grass. Today it would be impossible to reintroduce these deer into any of their former habitat, but a few protected areas like Phu Khieo are ideal. Any introduced or reintroduced species needs the full protection afforded by a national park, wildlife sanctuary or non-hunting area.
Hog deer are medium-sized animals that resemble the larger and more common sambar deer in appearance. Male hog deer antlers are similar in shape as sambar but smaller. Depending on the season, they have grayish to dark brown fur. Females like all other deer species, have no antlers. Fawns have spotted coats. Spots can also be clearly seen on some adults.
These deer are more of a grazer than a browser and feeds on grass. They are gregarious, forming large family groups. The rut starts in September and goes on through October. A single fawn is born eight months later, during the rainy season around July or August. Hog deer received their name because of the way they move. Unlike other deer, they seldom jump over a bush or high grass, but they tend to run through the underbrush with head held low to the ground, much like a hog.