Archive for April, 2010
Endemic dinosaurs once thrived on this land
Thailand’s five endemic dinosaur species
During the early Cretaceous period 140 million years ago (mya) in what is now Kalasin province in northeast Thailand, a lone theropod dinosaur walked slowly along a riverbank hunting for prey. Herbivorous dinosaurs also inhibited this land and were probably the main diet for the huge carnivore. This solitary predator walked upright. Weighing about two tons it left massive footprints 18 inches long and 12 inches across in the sandy banks of the river. Over millions of years, the sand bank eventually solidified but these footprints have miraculously remained intact. This prehistoric heritage is one of Thailand’s most important fossil sites of when the dinosaurs ruled the land.
Theropod fossil track
The Mesozoic (meaning ‘middle life’) is also known as the Age of Dinosaurs and comprised of three periods: the Triassic (248-206 mya), the Jurassic (206-144 mya) and the Cretaceous (144-65 mya). Dinosaurs evolved over 160 million years into a myriad of shapes and sizes. While some were the tallest and heaviest animals to ever walk the earth, others were no bigger than a chicken. Hundreds of species adapted to widely different environments. This adaptability contributed to the success and diversification of the dinosaur.
Thailand’s Dinosaur Sites
Thailand has the largest and finest representation of dinosaur fossils in Southeast Asia. The only other fossils in the region are from a few discoveries in Laos. Thai fossils show a close relationship to the Chinese and Mongolian dinosaurs. To date, all dinosaur fossils and footprints discovered here are from Mesozoic freshwater sediments, which has turned into clays, sandstone and limestone.
Geologic Time Scale
One man has undeniably been at the forefront of the discovery of Thai dinosaur remains. A walking encyclopedia on the subject, Varavudh Suteethorn of the Department of Mineral Resources is surely Thailand’s top paleontologist and geologist. He has found more dinosaur fossils in Thailand than anyone else, and has published scores of scientific papers. Varavudh’s has also found a stegosaur or ‘plated lizard’ and recently a carnosaur, both from the late Jurrasic. He and his team will invariably discover more new species in the future.
Eric Buffetaut and his wife Haiyan Tong of the National Center of Scientific Research in France have worked on a Thai-French project. Considered leading authorities on the identification of Thai dinosaurs, they have published many papers in collaboration with Varavudh. The meticulous work of this Thai-French paleontological team has found some 15 species in Thailand.
Thailand’s Mesozoic Formations
Thailand’s dinosaurs range from the late Triassic period to the early Cretaceous period. The first fossil was discovered in 1976 in Phu Wiang National Park in Khon Kaen province. A femur fossil from a sauropod was discovered by Sutham Yamniyom, a geologist with the Department of Mineral Resources. Then teeth from a theropod and several bones from a sauropod of the early Cretaceous were found in Phu Wiang. These were from the Sao Khua Formation, a very productive stratum.
Five new species of dinosaur known nowhere else have been found in Thailand. In 1986, Siamosaurus suteethorni, a fish-eating theropod named after Varavudh, was unearthed in Phu Wiang. It also dates from the Sao Khua Formation. In 1992, a small, parrot-beaked herbivorous dinosaur, Psittacosaurus sattayaraki, only about a meter long, was excavated in Chaiyaphum province. In 1994, the largest dinosaur ever found in Thailand appeared. A sauropod of the early Cretaceous, it was named Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae after HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who followed the excavation keenly. This giant plant-eater has been found at three sites on the Khorat Plateau.
Theropod fossil tooth
In 1996, a carnivorous theropod Siamotyrannus isanensis, was discovered and was once the oldest Tyrannosaur found in the world (but a new discovery in China is slightly older). It is one of Tyrannosaurus rex’s earliest known ancestors. The next species from the Northeast is a very primitive sauropod from the late Triassic named Isanosaurus attavipachi. It is the oldest sauropod unearthed so far. The fact that Thailand’s dinosaur discoveries have often proved to be the earliest example of lineages well known all over the world has led many scientists to believe that many dinosaur species originated in Asia.
The Kingdom’s single most significant discovery was in 1980 at Wat Sakawan, a Buddhist temple in Sahat Sakhan district, near the city of Kalasin. The temple lies at the foot of Phu Kum Khao hill and the site attracts many visitors all year round. The first fossils were found and kept at the temple. Subsequent excavations by Thai-French paleontologists discovered seven fossilized skeletons of the sauropod Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae in the Sao Khua Formation. At the same site, several fragments of theropod teeth were also found, which suggests scavenging on the sauropod carcasses. Theropod teeth were also found together with sauropod fossil bones at Phu Wiang.
Sauropod Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia with fossilized dinosaur footprints, boasting nine sites in the Northeast. In 1974, the first set of theropod footprints was found on a slab of sandstone in Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary in Loei province. These tracks are from the Phu Phan Formation and date from about 120 mya. There are older footprints, about 140 mya, from the Phra Wihan Formation at Phu Wiang National Park. They show several paths traversed by ornithopod, theropod and sauropod dinosaurs of the early Cretaceous.
Sauropod fossil teeth
In 1996, two schoolgirls spotted two different sets of dinosaur footprints from the Phra Wihan Formation at Phu Faek Non-hunting Area in Kalasin province. The two-ton, three-toed theropod dinosaur portrayed at the beginning of this story made the clearest and best-preserved footprints in Thailand. A smaller set criss-crosses the larger set for a total of 21 footprints. The prints unfortunately lie in a seasonal stream and are covered with running water during the rainy season.
Huai Hin Lat formation 220 million years old
In 2003, a set of tracks was found by the Nam Nao Conservation Group in Nam Nao district, Phetchabun province. Villagers told of footprints that they believe had been made by the spirits of the forest. Superstition plays a big part in their lives. The conservation group contacted Varavudh Suteethorn, who investigated and determined that the tracks had been made on a huge mud flat by an archosaur or ‘ruling reptile’ sometime during the late Triassic 220 mya.
Arcosaur or ‘ruling reptile’ Triassic track
This formation is known as Huai Hin Lat. Over millions of years, the 200 by 250 meter slab somehow remained intact as geological forces thrust it up to a 40-degree angle. There are three separate track-ways, and they are the Kingdom’s oldest fossil footprints. Because this important site is situated just outside Nam Nao National Park, it is not in protected land. These important fossil sites need absolute protection for them to survive.
The downside of Thailand’s wonderful discoveries is that fossils are in big demand by both local and international collectors, stimulating village people to pillage fossil sites. Some fossils end up sold at the weekend market in Bangkok and tourist venues as curios. Scientific knowledge of millions of years of evolution is being lost to wanton ravaging of these sites. Recently, a young influential man was caught with some 300 dinosaur fossil bones waiting to be shipped abroad. Most were real and a few fakes. It is essential that such looting be controlled.
Sao Khua formation 130 million years old
Thailand is recognized as a major dinosaur site, in fact one of the richest in the world. These fossils are revealing very important information about Mesozoic dinosaurs in Asia. The joint Thai-French search for fossils continues, and surely new revelations will emerge to delight paleontologists worldwide. Thailand’s dinosaur fossils and fossilized track-ways are a special part of the Kingdom’s wild heritage, and need full protection from the authorities responsible for the natural resources.
The dangerous side of a great profession
Cartoon by Smith Sutibut
Wildlife photography is one of the best professions in the world. To see Mother Nature’s beautiful creatures through the lens and then later in photographs is both exciting and rewarding. Sharing these images with other people creates conservation awareness. Not many people take it up, but those who do know the real benefits. I consider myself lucky working in the field of wildlife photography full time.
But there is a dark side. Many things in the wilderness cut, bite, sting, maim and even kill. Little insects carry diseases that can stop you in your tracks if not diagnosed in time. Such was the case when I caught Plasmodium falciparum (cerebral malaria), which suddenly became a raging infection within a couple of hours. Only a complete blood exchange transfusion saved my life.
Wild elephant feeding on discarded fruit
At the top of the danger list are animals like elephant, gaur, banteng, wild water buffalo, tiger, leopard, bear, wild boar and even male deer. In the event poachers wound any of these animals, they can be very dangerous and can easily kill humans – be they wildlife photographers, nature trekkers, field researchers or park rangers. Some animals are very protective of their young especially elephants. The tiger will also closely guard and defend their kill or their young.
Nothing is scarier than an Asian elephant in dense jungle charging with the intent of crushing you, or the roar of a tiger. Gaur, banteng and wild water buffalo – when wounded – will patiently wait a few meters off the trail and charge as you approach. Wild bovid will hook you with their horns as they pass and many a hunter has suffered a painful death. Buffalo are even worse – they will also come back to trample the intruder. The Asiatic black bear and the Malayan sun bear are fierce and will literally tear you to shreds. People would be lucky to survive an encounter with any of the large mammals.
Carpenter ants in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary
A friend of mine in Sai Yok district, Kanchanaburi province in Western Thailand barely survived a tiger attack more than ten years ago. A young male tiger and its mother were killing cattle, taking many of the village cows and buffaloes. One day my friend went looking for the killers along a forest road. Spotting the young tiger crouching low a few meters away, he shot and mortally wounded it – but not before it pounced on him. He shoved his gun crosswise into the mouth of the roaring beast and kicked at it but he was bitten and slashed on his arms and legs. The tiger died shortly after with the gun in its mouth and my friend was rushed to the nearest hospital seriously wounded. He very luckily survived the incident but has many permanent scars. The incident made the front-page of a few Thai newspapers.
Asian wild dog in Kaeng Krachan National Park
Asian wild dog and feral dog can also be a serious menace when in large packs. A huge pack of more than 20 wild dogs in Khao Yai National Park has scared people walking on the trails. Another friend of mine who works in the park came across this pack and watched the dogs devour a sambar in one hour, bones and all. Feral dog are a nuisance on Doi Inthanon National Park, south of Chiang Mai, where a pack of some 30 dogs roam around the radar station on the peak. These dogs are killing off wildlife in the park such as deer and wild pig one at a time, and there is no telling what they might surround and eat in the future if the dog pack is not totally eliminated.
Reticulated python in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
Snakes like the king cobra have attacked during nesting time in February if unsuspecting people find themselves between a mother snake and her eggs. I knew of a man in Eastern Thailand who failed to come home after three days. Family members found him with three puncture wounds on the head and shoulders, and his upper torso had turned black from the venom of a big snake.
I know someone who jumped off a boat wearing rubber thongs and romped in the jungle on Phi Phi Island near Phuket in the south, where he was bitten on the foot by a green pit viper. Only quick action by Royal Thai Navy personnel, who rushed the man to a hospital by helicopter, managed to save him. His foot went black and swelled up to twice its normal size. He was extremely lucky – doctors at a hospital in Bangkok saved his foot and possibly his life.
Green pit viper in Kaeng Krachan
Many other poisonous snakes can kill, if they bite you. I once had a scary encounter sitting on a chair in a photographic blind in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary as I waited for gaur and other animals near a mineral lick. I happened to look down when a pit viper slid between my legs from behind. A natural instinct might have been to stomp on it, but I froze and the snake continued on its way. I was at least two days travel to the nearest hospital and, if bitten, would probably not have made it back for medical treatment in time.
Very mature pythons can and will, on occasion, take people. These snakes cannot differentiate between large mammals and humans that approach them. A friend of mine was out looking for bamboo shoots in the forest when a large python took his dog some 20 meters ahead. Within seconds, the dog had been suffocated and crushed to death. He looks back on the incident and says it could easily have been him. While looking for frogs one day in a forest stream, he was chased by a big python but managed to escape.
Forest scorpion in Huai Kha Khaeng
Little arthropods like spiders, scorpions and centipedes love dark and damp places. Boots and sleeping bags are inviting to these dangerous creatures. Many of them have venomous bites and stings that can become extremely serious if not treated quickly. Bees, wasps and hornets will attack intruders who walk into their space. I was stung on the back of the head by several wasps once while running in a mango orchard. Luckily, I was not allergic to their venom. A friend running behind me had to go to hospital. His head swelled up with welts where he had been stung, and he lost consciousness. But he survived the ordeal.
During the dry season, ticks of various sizes will latch onto just about anywhere on your body. Many of them have microbes that can make humans very sick, not unlike Rocky Mountain fever and Lyme’s disease. I once had a tick that clamped on to my upper shoulder while in Nam Nao National Park in Petchabun province, Northeast Thailand. By the time I realized the tick was there, it was too late. An infection had set in and my shoulder and head throbbed for many days afterward. The bite was very itchy and bothersome for more than six months until antibiotic cream finally killed the infection.
Leech in Thung Yai Naresuan
Leeches, found in many of Thailand’s forests, are a problem for photographers or naturalists wanting to romp around in the wet season. In some areas along the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park, there would be 20 to 30 leeches crawling up my pants at any one time while looking for the Siamese crocodile. I was wearing high-top combat boots, leech-proof socks and tucked-in nylon pants that prevented them from getting to my legs. But some of these tenacious bloodsuckers still climbed up and got in around my waist, wrists and neck. These invertebrates fortunately do not carry a disease, although bites can stay infected for months.
Ants can also be very annoying. Some are harmless but others are downright dangerous. A single ant bite can leave a serious welt, and getting bitten by hundreds of the little creatures can quickly create a disaster. They invade clothing or sleeping areas looking for food. Some species start biting on contact with humans. The large carpenter ant about an inch long can stop you in your tracks.
Poachers with sambar antlers in Huai Kha Khaeng
Spider web is also a nuisance that you can encounter just about anywhere. I once walked into to a web and ended up with both my eyes infected for several days. Fortunately, I always carry a good supply of medicines and had antibiotic eye cream that helped kill the infection. Some microbes in water and dirt are also very dangerous and can cause intestinal and skin problems.
One of the smallest but most irritating and dangerous of all insects is the mosquito. There are more than 420 species in the Kingdom but only three species of Anopheles carry the deadly malaria. Other dangerous diseases such as dengue and encephalitis transmitted also by the mosquito can also kill.
Poachers and dog camera-trapped in Sai Yok National Park
Malaria is one of the major diseases of the tropics. There is three strains found in Thailand: Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium malariae and Plasmodium falciparum. The P. vivax infection can last for three years and a relapse may occur when your body’s immunity level drops. P. malariae stays with you for your entire life and P. falciparum on the other hand, strikes once and after treatment, will not return unless re-infected. All three strains have the same symptoms when infection begins, and all three are deadly.
My bout with P. falciparum was a close call. I have had P. vivax off and on for over 30 years. But this time I misjudged the infection and delayed for four days before going in for a check-up. When a blood test was taken at Mahidol University’s Tropical Disease Department in Bangkok, I had P. falciparum and about 30 percent of my blood volume was infected.
After being moved to Vichaiyut Hospital on Rama VI road in Bangkok, the infection started proliferating very quickly and rose to 80 percent by the afternoon. I was going into shock as the microbes took control of my body. Fortunately for me, the director of Vichaiyut Hospital, Dr Sompong Punyagupta, and his assistant Dr Thanomsri Srichaikul, have saved many malaria victims in Thailand with a technique called ‘Blood Exchange Transfusion’ for patients with infections of 50 percent and above of P. falciparum.
The patient’s blood is replaced with new blood at 1.5 times the person’s total volume. A special attachment is surgically inserted into the main artery in one leg, which allows the draining of old blood and the infusion of new blood at the same time. Survival rate is about 90 percent for serious cases and I thank my lucky stars that this technique was available to me. It was a close call and one that I hope will not repeat itself.
Many people ask about preventative medicine against malaria. The best prevention is not to get bitten by malarial mosquitoes, which only come out in the evening for a couple of hours and then again in early morning. Keep well covered up, use good insect repellent and always sleep in a mosquito net. All of Thailand’s border areas are havens for these deadly insects, and thousands of people die every year from these dangerous diseases resistant to medical treatment.
Some plant species can also be very dangerous. Thorns with razor-sharp points can easily penetrate clothing and skin leaving deep scratches. Sometimes the point will break off inside and quickly cause infection. Rubbing up against some plants can give you immediate pain; and if one is allergic, can turn into serious complications. Just a small amount of sap from the Sapium tree entering the bloodstream through a scratch will easily kill a human. In the old days, hunters to bring down large animals used this sap on crossbow arrow tips.
Probably the most dangerous encounter one could have is to bump into poachers, bandits or drug runners in the forest. Many National Parks or Royal Forest Department guards plus police and army personnel have been killed or wounded in the line of duty by these ruthless people. Once I was sitting alone in a photo-blind in a wildlife sanctuary at a mineral lick waiting for photographic opportunities when six poachers walked down to the water hole. Five of them had shotguns and the sixth man a set of sambar antlers.
I snapped a couple of frames, and sat motionless hoping they would not detect my presence. The spirits of the forest looked over me on that day and the group passed by without incident. It was however, a very dangerous situation and one that I hope will not happen again.
There are a multitude of other dangers that can happen in the forest, like dead tree branches falling on you or devastating flash floods during the rainy season. One could easily fall and break a leg or arm kilometers from a hospital or medical attention.
Getting lost in the forest can also make life miserable. This happened to a good friend of mine who went out for some bird watching. She and another two people were lost for several days without food and water. They became quite ill but were saved in the nick of time. Sometimes the forest can be unforgiving.
Respect for Mother Nature is important but remember, when off the beaten track, be prepared for the worst. Always take good first-aid kits, plenty of food and water, and good shelter. Know your limitations and let someone be aware of your movements in and out of any wilderness area. If you love nature, I believe the spirits of the forest will take care of you. But you should always follow the old boy scout motto: Be prepared!
WILD SPECIES REPORT: The last wild herd in Thailand
Massive beasts with a mean temperament
Wild water buffalo calf by the river
Probably, the most significant species in Huai Kha Khaeng is the wild water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Due to a very small population with only about 50-60 individuals surviving, the future of these remarkable creatures in Thailand is uncertain. Many perils threaten them, such as foot and mouth disease, which could easily be passed on by domesticated buffalo living just outside the southern boundary of the sanctuary. Poaching and encroachment are also serious concerns.
Mother buffalo fully alert to any danger
I once photographed a female (with a rope through her nose) and a few of her calves mingling with a wild herd in the sanctuary not far from the southern boundary. I made a report to the authorities, and these domestic buffalo were separated from the wild herd and quickly chased out by the rangers.
Domestic buffalo mingling with the wild herd
It is a fact though; some local villagers have deliberately mingled their buffalo with the wild buffalo so the offspring would be sturdy. This is a very dangerous situation, which if not checked, may lead to the total demise of all the ungulates like deer, pigs and wild cattle in Huai Kha Khaeng. It may sound drastic, but that could happen one day. Cattle disease has no boundaries.
The southern border at Krueng Krai ranger station still remains a gateway for danger and must be protected at all costs. However, enforcement is difficult due to low budgets and just a few rangers to look after a very large area. This needs a serious revamp. The Department of National Parks (DNP) has increased security here but some locals seem intent on slipping through.
Wild water buffalo herd
Stricter laws are needed as a deterrent, and increased budgets and personnel implemented so this wonderful place is properly looked after. Anyone caught in the interior with firearms and evidence of poaching should do a long prison term. Unfortunately, with the present laws and possibility of corruption, law-breakers usually get off light and become repeat offenders.
Over the years, I have seen these magnificent buffalo on numerous occasions. During the late 1990s’ while I was still shooting film and working in Huai Kha Khaeng at the southern area, I managed to get some good shots of a herd wallowing in the river. But it was not the first or the last time I would bump into wild water buffalo.
Wild water buffalo herd
In 2006 armed with a new Konica-Minolta D7 digital camera and 600mm lens, I bumped into two bulls right across from Krueng Krai ranger station. One was a very old bull with a huge set of horns, and the other a younger bull posed for the camera over the course of several days. I was using a boat-blind but had no power except a paddle, and getting around was a bit difficult. However, it was still very gratifying seeing these rare beasts and photographing them.
Late last year, I had a unique experience photographing a young male calf and its mother. Green peafowl and otters are plentiful but my main objective is always the same, photographing the buffalo. My last encounter was in March of this year. I again motored up-stream and bumped into two large bulls cooling off in the river. They were very shy and took off as soon as they saw me but not before I got a couple of good shots. Judging from their horns, these two were very mature bulls.
Very old wild water buffalo bull
At the beginning of the dry season, the river is very low but still deep enough to navigate up-stream using a new camouflaged kayak with pontoons on either side, and a silent trolling motor hooked up to a 12v truck battery for power and maximum maneuverability. Controlling the boat-blind is easy as I motor along using the electric motor and I can easily steer the craft with a rudder made of aluminum attached to the stern. I use three anchors (one fore and two aft) when I need to be steady in the water.
A Nikon 400mm f 2.8 lens and camera is firmly attached to the hull using aluminum tubing and braces plus a gimbal-styled tripod head suitable for a large telephoto. I sit comfortably behind the camera ready to shoot at a moments notice. This boat actually is very stable and has allowed some close encounters with large mammals. Camouflage material is draped over everything to blend in with the background.
Wild water buffalo herd
Over the years, quite a lot of research has been carried out on the buffalo in Huai Kha Khaeng. One of the first was Napparat Naksathit, the former chief of Khao Nang Ram Research station. He did an ecology and distribution survey of buffalo in 1984. Then Tanya Chan-art in 1986 and Wichan Ucharoensak in 1992, did consensus surveys to determine numbers. Dr Rattanawat Chaiyarat from Mahidol University did his thesis on the buffalo. Dr Terrapat Prayurasiddh, now the deputy director general of the Royal Forest Department, did an aerial survey using a helicopter, also to establish numbers. Around that time, the deputy chief of Huai Kha Khaeng, the late Pongsakorn Pattapong researched and photographed the buffalo. He was an avid photographer but passed away from too much exposure to chemicals while developing his own film. And finally, Manoch Yindee is currently working on wild buffalo genetics in the sanctuary, and domestic buffalo throughout the Kingdom.
A mature buffalo bull can weigh up to a ton with hooves more than 20cm (8 inches) across. They leave deep tracks in the sandy soil by the river. These magnificent bovids are much larger and more aggressive than their domestic counterparts. Wild buffalo have a distinct forehead with horn bases closer together than domestic buffalo, whose boss is wider apart.
Wild buffalo have a fierce temperament and if provoked, can be very dangerous to man. A herd will group together to face a predator like a tiger or Asian wild dog. Male solitary bulls charge without hesitation. Many a hunter has had a close call or been killed by these massive low-slung beasts. A bull will gore and then toss the intruder before stomping on the victim with its huge hooves. They are extremely determined and will sometimes continue to attack until the enemy perishes.
The author in an old boat-blind
Buffalo live in herds with one mature bull looking after the females. During the breeding season in October-November, the herd bull will fight other solitary bulls. Females have one calf, and gestation is about 10 months. A buffalo’s daily ritual is a visit to the river to drink and cool off. They will wallow to coat their hides with mud protecting it from biting insects.
This is the last wild herd in Thailand and, in Southeast Asia for that matter. India and Nepal have some large herds, and Cambodia may have a few individuals but they could be feral. Centuries ago, wild water buffalo were found in alluvial lowland plains and rivers throughout the Kingdom. As most waterways have been overcome by humanity, domestication of the wild buffalo was only a matter of time. It is said wild buffalo were domesticated before 2000 BC. Fossil evidence of buffalo from the Pleistocene Epoch has been uncovered in many sand deposits along the Chao Phraya River.
Antlers of a Schomburgk’s stag
The DNP is responsible for Huai Kha Khaeng and its management, and they should make protection and enforcement around the southern area a top priority. With only one location for wild water buffalo left in the Kingdom, total security is required so these magnificent creatures will be around for future generations to appreciate. It is hoped they will not end up like so many other animals that have gone extinct such as the Schomburgk’s deer and the Kouprey, and that would be a sad day indeed.
Trophy horns of a Kouprey bull
Published in the Outlook’ section of the Bangkok Post on April 26, 2010
WILD SPECIES REPORT: The last wild herd in Thailand
Massive beasts with a mean temperament
Young buffalo bull locked onto my boat-blind
Coincidence, according to the dictionary, is the occurrence of two events at the same time. I guess the following story would be seen by most as just that. However, I personally believe that good things come our way after we have made merit.
Such was the case when I showed up with a bag of rice at Huai Mae Dee, a ranger station in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in March of 2007. My longtime friend and chief of the station at the time, Khun Fern, accepted the rice, saying we would cook it in the morning and make an offering to some monks. I agreed and retired for the evening in my comfortable hammock. The weather was cool and I slept well after the long drive from Bangkok.
Up at six, the food was prepared and we both eagerly waited. After a short while, the holy man arrived with some of his followers. We filled their alms bowls with rice and curry. I gave a Thai version of my second book Thailand’s Natural Heritage to the abbot of the temple, hoping it would help the local people around to understand more about Mother Nature. Feeling good at having made merit, I packed up and headed south to where the wild water buffalo live.
Old buffalo bull by the river
After more then three hours of grueling off-road driving, a forest ranger and I set-up camp by the lower Huai Kha Khaeng about mid-day. We had lunch and put my boat-blind together. I then motored upriver for several hours. On the way, I observed some smooth-coated otters hunting along the shoreline but these carnivores quickly disappeared after seeing the boat.
About 4pm as I rounded a bend, a small group of wild water buffalo cooling off in the river actually surprised me and I hesitated for a few seconds locked-on to the herd. About the same moment, I heard a national parks helicopter in the distance out on patrol and it was headed my way so I quickly gunned the electric trolling motor to get closer to the herbivores not thinking there was any danger.
When I was about 50 meters away, I started shooting my camera knowing the helicopter would certainly spook the buffalo. Nonetheless, I noticed a young bull in the herd staring directly at me. He moved up the shoreline followed by a larger cow and the rest of the herd galloping towards the boat-blind. I just kept firing away until my heart shuddered – as I finally realized I was being charged. I suddenly made a gut-wrenching effort to motor the boat out of harm’s way, just as the noisy helicopter hovered overhead. After a few seconds, I looked back and the buffalo were gone.
Buffalo cow charging my boat-blind
Had I been saved by the arrival of the mechanical flying bird – or was it the spirits of the forest that caused such a coincidence and protected me? I will never know how close I came to an attack by the aggressive buffalo, but these photographs are some of the most exciting I have taken as a wildlife photographer. A month later, I photographed a herd of wild elephants in the river not far from the same site. There were a few tense moments with baby elephants in the family unit. My camouflaged boat-blind has definitely paid for itself.
The most gratifying thing was seeing these rare beasts and catching them on digital. There are only 50 individuals surviving in the sanctuary and they can be tough to see and photograph. But it was not the first or the last time I would bump into wild water buffalo. During the late 1990s’ while I was still shooting film and working in Huai Kha Khaeng at the southern area, I managed to get some good shots of a herd wallowing in the river.
Buffalo bull, a purple heron and several pond herons
Published in the Outlook’ section of the Bangkok Post on April 26, 2010
Day 7: March 10th – Conclusion: World Heritage in jeopardy
Indochinese tiger at a mineral deposit
After all the dust had settled, I can look back at the situation in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and honestly make an assessment of how and why this World Heritage Site is in jeopardy.
After hearing about three tigers (mother and her cubs) killed by poisoning, it seems poachers continue to enter this place and kill wild animals in the interior. A serious look at the ranger force and patrolling regimens, and the quality of protection is quickly needed before it is too late.
Deciduous forest abstract
For all the research going on in Huai Kha Khaeng, and the so-called smart patrols, how can poachers kill these rare cats? Other reports that wildlife snares and pipe-guns with trip wires are now found outside the headquarters area in Uthai Thani are alarming. These illegal hunters are slipping through the net so to speak due to too many loopholes in the patrolling and enforcement system.
In India several years ago, two national parks where researchers were working full-time had all their tigers exterminated in a year or so right under their noses. Good patrolling and enforcement is the only option when it comes to protected areas.
Here in Thailand, most of the forest rangers are locals and hence there are not many secrets outside the sanctuary. There are 19 ranger stations that receive money amounting to 1,200 baht cash per patrol for food from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who also run the ranger-patrolling program. It would seem that food, clothing and equipment would be better than cash that can possibly go astray.
Approximately two times a month a patrol of five or six men spend a week walking the forests on designated trails. The poachers easily stay out of their way because they know the terrain and continue to do business as usual. It is said a bag of tiger bones now fetches more than a hundred thousand baht. Seems like a great incentive to break the law.
All patrols should originate at the headquarters and nobody knows where they are going or what trail they will take until they are already in the forest to keep leaks to a minimum. Patrol groups should be in the forest 24-7 and continue to revolve so that rangers are always out in the field.
Seub Nakhasathien monument
Without a doubt, new blood in the form of properly trained and sufficiently paid rangers using special-forces techniques is seriously needed in Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan next door. Enforcement and arrests of perpetrators should increase and outdated laws up-graded with severe fines and detention, especially for repeat offenders.
Another very important issue is life and health insurance for the rangers in case someone is injured or killed while on duty, and this should be standard for everyone, whether government officer, or permanent and temporary rangers. A central fund should be established for this and in case of a tragedy or accident; the family will be taken care of.
Protection of this World Heritage Site is a number one priority for the government, and everything else should be second. Over the long run, good management, patrolling and enforcement is the only option to save Thailand’s natural heritage for the future.
Published in the ‘Outlook’ section of the Bangkok Post on March 29, 2010