Archive for October, 2010

Trail cameras catch Thailand’s cryptic wildlife

Indochinese tiger camera trap abstract

Camera trapping has been around for over a century when George Shiras III making history used the first flashlight camera triggered by trips wires in 1906. In the late twenties, two other men, F.M. Chapman and F.W. Champion, used pressure plates to activate their cameras. National Geographic and other magazines published many photographs from these early pioneers’ work.

In the 1970s, the first commercial camera trap was produced by TrailMaster.com using ‘active infrared’ to control the cameras followed by CamTrakker.com that used ‘passive infrared’ controlled traps to set off their cameras. Both companies incorporated simple point-and-shoot film cameras from Olympus and Yashica to capture photographs of wildlife.

Asiatic sun bear in Kaeng Krachan

Active infrared uses a beam between two separate units (transmitter and receiver hooked to a camera) and when the beam is broken, the camera is tripped. One the other hand, passive infrared detects motion within a given area covered by the sensor and will trip the camera when movement is detected (much like the sensors above automated doors in shopping malls and convenience stores). Both systems have merit and used in the right situation work equally well.

These first early-production units were designed and used by hunters in America to scout areas for deer, turkey and bear prior to hunting season. This in turn helped them to indentify trophy animals and movements of game in a given forest.

Gaur bull at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng

It was not long before wildlife researchers found camera traps could also benefit their work with a photograph, plus the time and date, allowing them to create an extensive database of the animals living is a certain area. Behavior, presence/absence and other aspects of mammals, birds and reptiles are recorded.

Gaur cow at a mineral deposit in Kaeng Krachan

Wildlife photographers have also used camera traps to capture images of rare, endangered or cryptic creatures. Some have used simple camera-traps but others have incorporated high-end SLR or DSLR cameras with several flashes.

Banteng bull and forest flies in Huai Kha Khaeng

Steve Winter with National Geographic Magazine got an amazing photo of a snow leopard using a Canon DSLR and three Nikon flashes that won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest in 2008. The following year, a camera trap photograph of a wolf jumping over a fence won first prize but was later disqualified as the carnivore was domesticated and trained to jump. The organizers of this prestigious event should put camera trapping into its own category.

Banteng cows at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng

The homebrew ‘Game Cam’ or ‘Trail Cam’ as it is now known by its users in the U.S.A. is a unique device with some units very high tech in its features, yet simple to operate and enjoy for just about anyone that has an interest in capturing photographs of wildlife.

Wild water buffalo caught by the Huai Kha Khaeng

The popularity of these cameras has grown at a fast pace over the last few years and opened up a number of usage possibilities to the users. There is also a huge ‘home-brew’ market for the do-it-yourself enthusiast plus the ready-made models that are available for those with a larger budget and no time to build one.

Serow in Sai Yok reserved forest

Camera traps have become very sophisticated and most now use some form of digital camera incorporated into the housing. There are now many companies producing them for less than one hundred U.S. dollars up to $900 or more.  Some are fair and some quite good but many are not suitable for the tough conditions found in Thailand’s forests, especially the lower cost models.

Sambar stag in Khlong Saeng

As a wildlife photographer and due to the high cost of buying and importing commercial models into Thailand, I decided to produce my own camera traps. In the beginning, I used passive infrared circuit boards obtained from ‘Radio Shack’ in the U.S and had my close friend Yutdhana Anantavara from Chiang Mai, an electrician working offshore in the Gulf of Thailand, to hook-up the delicate electronics and modify some simple ‘point and shoot’ film cameras (Olympus and Canon).

To stand-up to the rigorous conditions in a Thai forest where moisture, invading insects and elephants can destroy plastic bodied camera traps, I designed and built the housings from aluminum at my machine shop in Chiang Mai.

Buffy fish-owl landing by the Phetchaburi River

A local welder TIG welded-up the box and I machined it flat. By using silicon sealant available at most hardware stores between the box and the flat faceplate, and by using large 10mm machine screws to get a tight seal, sealing is 100 percent. These have defeated many inquisitive elephants.

A small bag of silica gel (desiccant) is inserted in the box to protect the delicate circuit boards, cameras and film from moisture. I tested them on feral cats that walked on a wall at the back of my shop with some good results. These early models worked very well and I then decided to deploy them in the forest.

Feral cat camera-trapped behind my shop in Chiang Mai

In mid-2003, I set six camera traps in Sai Yok National Park in western Thailand by wildlife trails and waterholes. Every month, I would visit the traps and change film, batteries and desiccant. After four months, I finally got my first tiger, and then a second cat a few days later up on a 600-meter ridgeline. All the hard work and expense finally paid off.

It was the beginning of a program to catch the tiger on film. Other animals caught in Sai Yok were elephant, sambar, barking deer, wild dog, wild pig, serow and stumped-tailed macaque. I even managed to catch a water monitor on one camera.

Indochinese tiger by the Phetchaburi River

Even some poachers and hunting dogs were captured on film. One of those original film cameras is still working in the field and I named it ‘Tiger Cam’ as it caught my second tiger.

I then moved down to Kaeng Krachan National Park in the Southwest where I spent three years camera trapping wildlife to establish a presence/absence program in conjunction with Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF-Thailand provided funding), and the Department of National Parks granted permission.

Gaur cow and calves in a mineral deposit in Kaeng Krachan

At that time, many tigers and leopards plus loads of prey species were thriving by the Phetchaburi River and a few of its tributaries, and many photographs were obtained over the course of the survey indicating a healthy ecosystem. Both prey and predator were living in natural harmony. I shut down the program after poachers stole three units near the headwaters of the river that was both costly and disappointing.

Sometime in 2007, my good friend Chris Wemmer, the Camera Trap Codger, who is now retired from the Smithsonian Institute, 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 digital camera trap market. The company is Pixcontroller.com. Unfortunately, they no longer offer parts but now sell complete units with digital camera and video.

Asian wild dogs by the Phetchaburi River

A quick look on the Internet, and several companies offering boards and components to build ‘homebrew’ trail cameras are on-line. The best and the most reliable are boards from Snapshotsniper.com and Yeticam.com. The list for complete units is long and is best searched on the web.

I finally purchased some of the new high-tech boards and made-up some new traps using Sony ‘point-and-shoot’ digital cameras. These were modified by EDI, a company based in Bangkok to work with the electronic boards. The aluminum cases remained the same as the early production units as the best option for durability, and against moisture and elephants.

Tusker camera trapped at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng

The first units were set-up at several mineral deposits deep in the forest of Kaeng Krachan National Park over a three-month period from October to December 2008. Animals digitally captured were tiger, elephant, gaur, sambar and muntjac. One camera had over 300 captures in one month at a mineral lick of elephant and gaur.

I then moved down to Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Surat Thani, southern Thailand and in the first part of 2009, began a new program setting both film and digital camera traps deep in the interior. Elephants, gaur, tapir, wild pig, sambar, muntjac, golden cat and Argus pheasant were captured.

Giraffe caught in Samburu Game Reserve in Kenya, Africa

This year in September, I made a trip to Kenya, Africa and took two camera traps with me. Due to the strict regulations about exiting the safari vehicle, it was difficult to set them up. But at one location, I was able to install one by a game trail. In four hours, a giraffe and elephant passed the camera. It showed how well these cameras can record passing wildlife, and the giraffe photograph shown in the story is the best one.

LBK camera trap using Sony W7 with a ‘Yeticam.com’ infrared board

in aluminum case with ‘Python’ locking cable

I now have more than a dozen digital camera traps using primarily ‘Sony S600 and W7’ cameras. They have been the best and most durable due to the manual features like ISO and f-stop adjustments, and compatibility with the infrared boards. Picture quality with the ‘Carl Zeiss’ lens is very good in the daytime and quite good at night.

The latest craze for camera trappers is ‘infrared capture’. The photos however are a greenish black and white, but are quite good for identification and scientific work. This system is unseen by animals and reported not to disturb them as a conventional flash.

Poachers and dog camera trapped in Sai Yok National Park

Video is another option. I now have two ‘Sony Handy Cams’ set-up with ‘Lanc’ video infrared boards that work very well. One is for daytime only and the other set to ‘night-shot’ with an infrared filter over the video light. Both work together at the same location over the course of a month between battery changes and downloads. It is just another option for those needing wildlife images, whether stills or movie.

The modern digital camera trap has allowed me to capture/recapture many rare and cryptic creatures on their own time, and in their own habitat. As wild animals continue to disappear, more protection, research and understanding are needed to save the natural world.

It is my main priority in life to educate all levels of society on what the Thai nation still has in regards to wildlife and the protected areas, and the need for proactive response to all the dangers facing Mother Nature. We must act fast to illuminate these threats to the Kingdom’s natural world so present and future generations can see, enjoy and cherish this wonderful heritage.

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Asian wild dog and Asiatic jackal

Thursday, October 7, 2010 posted by Bruce 1:35 PM

Thailand’s forest canids
Fearless carnivores – Stealthy scavengers

It is late afternoon in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand, a World Heritage Site. A sambar doe and her fawn at the river for a thirst quenching drink are on high alert. They sense danger and stamp their feet on the ground, and bark in response to a possible threat.

Asian wild dog in Kaeng Krachan National Park

A small pack of seven wild dogs out hunting surround the two deer to confuse and separate them. The mature doe bolts across the shallow waterway making her escape and the dogs pursue the young one. It is not long before the fearless creatures catch the fawn and literally tear the small ungulate apart devouring the little deer in minutes.

Asiatic jackal in Kui Buri National Park

One animal is killed so that others can survive. After that, the dogs drink at the river’s edge. It is raw nature in the purist form and one of the oldest phenomena in the world: survival of the fittest. The female deer carries on to live and breed again as nature intended.

Asian wild dogs by the Huai Kha Khaeng in late afternoon

In another scenario, a lone jackal wanders through the open forest of Kuiburi National Park in southwest Thailand in search of a meal. Its sense of smell is acute. Slightly smaller than the wild dog, the jackal catches the smell of rotting carrion killed by a larger carnivore – probably a tiger or leopard.

Prey species: sambar doe and fawn crossing Huai Kha Khaeng in early morning

It finds a maggot infested deer carcass and feeds on the kill until full, and then seeks out a waterhole for a drink. This stealthy canid has just preformed its task in nature as a useful scavenger cleaning up the environment. It then retires to its burrow until the urge to eat or drink again.

Predation is a very important part of maintaining the ecological balance of life in the forest. The predator – prey relationship is the process of natural selection. Carnivores remove the old and young, plus the sick, the slow or less wary prey animals from the population thus keeping the breeding stock sustainable and strong. They also prevent prey from outgrowing the carry-capacity of an ecosystem thus ensuring balanced harmony.

The forests of Thailand have two species of canid: the Asian wild dog Cuon alpinus and the Asiatic jackal Canis aureus that still thrive in the top protected areas where prey animals are abundant. However, these creatures have unfortunately declined primarily due to habitat loss and destruction, plus unintentional persecution by poachers using snares and poison. Both species are most likely not hunted for their meat but the pelts are valued by some. These carnivores are also despised by many people.

Probably the most feared predator in the forest is the Asian wild dog, also known as the ‘dhole’. The word dhole has an ancient Asiatic root implying daring or recklessness. Rudyard Kipling referred to the wild dog as ‘red peril’ in his well-known tome, ‘The Jungle Book’.  He gave a very unsympathetic portrayal, reflecting the age-old prejudice against the species. Its role however, of maintaining the ecological balance and complimenting other predators like the tiger and leopard, is viewed more rationally now.

Asian wild dogs hunt in packs and are true carnivores. They sometimes can take on prey as large as gaur and banteng, and are even known to attack other carnivores like the tiger and leopard. The wild dog is also a very efficient predator devouring almost everything including the meat, bones and hide leaving only parts of the lower intestines for other creatures.

Asian wild dogs camera trapped by the Phetchaburi River

The jackal being a scavenger, are mainly solitary. A male and female will den and hunt together after mating and rearing their young. In addition to scavenging on tiger and leopard kills, they hunt small living creatures such as young deer, rodents, birds, amphibians and reptiles plus insects. They are also omnivorous eating a variety of plant foods. Another trait is to enter villages or camps to scavenge garbage, and to take chickens and ducks. They even raid crops such as sugar cane. Their home range is only two to three square kilometers.

Asiatic Jackal in Huai Kha Khaeng

Several years ago while sitting alone by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park in southwest Thailand with my camera at ready during the mid-day, an Asian wild dog popped out of the forest directly across from my position about twenty meters away. I had just finished eating some noodles and laid the bowl on the ground.

As I was dressed in a camouflage suit with my camera, lens and tripod ready and well concealed, the female dog did not notice me. She was part of a pack scouting the river for prey and did not stay long. I was very fortunate and got some amazingly close-up photographs of the dog as seen in the lead photo. I have also camera-trapped many wild dogs at several areas in the park.

Asian wild dog by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

Early this year during the dry season, I made a visit to Kuiburi National Park just south of Kaeng Krachan. Kuiburi is home to many gaur and elephant plus the tiger, leopard and wild dog. I was sitting in a tree stand about ten meters up from a waterhole used by the large mammals. About 5:30pm, I saw a jackal out the corner of my right eye walking up the road. I was using my big Nikon 400mm lens coupled with a 1.7 tele-converter for a total of 680mm. The canid cautiously slinked up to the water’s edge and stayed for sometime drinking while I shot a long series of images. Amazingly, it was the first photographic record of a jackal in the park.

Asiatic jackal near a waterhole in Kui Buri National Park

Another totally unexpected encounter with the jackal also happened early this year in Huai Kha Khaeng. I was driving into the sanctuary when two breeding adults crossed the road in front of my Ford pickup. They high-tailed it but then stopped to stare about 70 meters away. I was able to get a few quick snap-shots of the pair. The rangers at the front gate said the two were raising a small family nearby. I certainly felt lucky at seeing and photographing the two predators.

Wild dog and jackal still thrive in some parts of the following complexes: Western Forest, Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai, Phu Khieo-Nam Nao, Keang Krachan-Kuiburi, Khao Ang Rue Nai-Khao Soi Dow. They also survive in the Mae Ping-Omkoi and other protected forests in the north, plus Hala-Bala and others in the south. Both species are threatened due to numerous problems already addressed.

Dhole camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

My close friend and associate Kate Jenks with the Smithsonian Institute has been researching wild dogs since 2005. She began a research and camera trap program in Khao Yai National Park and gained valuable information on the park’s carnivores. A very large pack of 23 wild dogs was once seen by my friend Mark Reed killing a sambar in the park and it is believed they have replaced the tiger as the top predator here. Several other people have bumped into this pack on the nature trails and they are seen quite often around the headquarters area.

In 2008, Kate then moved to Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Thailand and began a new collaborative project between scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Kasetsart University and the Department of National Parks.

The goals of the project were: conduct ecological studies of the dhole population in the sanctuary; evaluate the disease risk presented by domestic dogs to the health of dholes and the carnivore population; develop and implement an education and outreach initiative for local villagers about the importance of the dhole and other carnivores, and the role of these species in sustaining a healthy Thai ecosystem; and promote long-term conservation of the dhole in Thailand by assembling and sharing all findings at stakeholder workshops to create a feasible conservation action plan for the wild dog in the Kingdom.

Kate carried out camera trapping in Khao Ang Rue Nai in conjunction with the staff at the Chachoengsao Research Unit located in the protected area for over two and a half years placing cameras at 276 locations for a total of 5,794 trap nights. The team documented the presence of one dhole pack with six members. One female was missing a tail. In addition to documenting the distribution of dhole and other wildlife, camera-traps also documented villagers, poachers and domestic dogs in the protected area.

Asian wild dogs in Huai Kha Khaeng

Over the long run, it is vitally important for the Department of National Parks and other responsible agencies to do their utmost to protect and enforce the law in order to save not only the wild dog and the jackal, but all the other species and the ecosystems they live in.

Thailand’s natural heritage has taken millions of years to evolve and it is extremely important for the present and future generations to love and cherish this treasure. Mother Nature needs our concerted efforts and respect to survive. In the event you love nature, do your part, no matter how big or small, and she will surely reward you.

Ecology: The Asian wild dog

Described by Pallas in 1811, the Asian wild dog is a highly social creature sometimes living in large packs of twenty or more. They occasionally split up into smaller groups to hunt. These dogs are fearful of humans but are bold enough to attack large and dangerous animals such as wild boar, water buffalo and tigers. Dholes are post-Pleistocene in origin, and are more closely related to jackals than they are to wolves. It is thought they became social animals as an adaptation to living with tigers and leopards.

They usually live in fertile primary forest where there are many herbivores, and are more abundant in riverine evergreen forest than in mixed deciduous forest. The dhole usually hunt in the day and retire to their dens at night. While hunting, they use their olfactory sense to follow and find prey while taking turns to chase animals until exhausted. They mostly eat their prey live but will occasionally take in carrion depending on conditions.

The overall body length of the dhole is from 80-135 cm. and the tail is 28-48 cm. long. The males weigh from 10-21 kg. and the female from 10-13 kg. The muzzle is shorter than that of most canid with a large nose pad. Their ears are rounded, erect and short with white hair inside. The coat is reddish-brown, the belly white and the tail is black. They are found in Siberia, Korean peninsula, Mongolia down to the Indian sub-continent and across to Southeast Asia including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, Sumatra and Java. In Thailand, there are two sub-species: Cuon alpinus adustus North of the Istmas of Kra, and C.a. sumatrensis to the South.

Ecology: The Asiatic jackal

Described by Linnaeus in 1758, the Asiatic jackal also known as the golden jackal is related to the wolf. They are smaller than the dhole but bigger than the red fox. The body of the jackal is 60-70 cm. long with a tail at 20-25 cm., and they weigh 8-9 kg. These omnivores are slim and generally grayish-brown to golden-brown depending on the season, with black-tipped hairs on the shoulders and back tending to form a saddle-like pattern. Their ears are broadly pointed, and the tail bushy and black at the tip.

They prefer drier, open areas and are usually seen singly or in pairs. Jackals call just after dusk and before dawn. Generally tolerant of human disturbance but the species has declined in many areas due to excessive trapping.

Two sub-species are found in Asia: Canis aureus indicus found in Nepal, Bhutan, Assam across Burma and Thailand. The other is C.a. hola found in Palunpur and Gujarat in the southeast of India. Other jackal sub-species are found from the Balkan peninsula in the east of Europe to east Africa through to Turkey, Iraq, central and south Iran to the Indian sub-continent. The jackal is a very versatile species and one of nature’s clean-up crew and needs total protection like all the other denizens of the Thai forest.

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