Archive for November, 2011
Critically endangered crocodilian species
Thailand’s last few remaining wild crocodiles
Two hundred and thirty million years ago, the first crocodilians evolved from archosaurs or ‘ruling reptiles’ during the mid-Triassic period of the Mesozoic era when primitive dinosaurs also roamed the planet. Crocodiles have changed little in body structure since then. Apart from birds, these reptiles are the only living archosaurs.
My first Siamese crocodile in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary
“Note forest fly on the eye node; these insects take saline from the croc’s eyes”
In 1909, J.B. Hatcher discovered a few fossilized bits and pieces of a giant alligator in Montana from the late Cretaceous period 80 million years ago. Deinosuchus was also found in Texas by Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the 1940s. The skull of this huge crocodilian is two meters long and body length estimated at about 12 meters with a weight of 8.5 tons.
Sarcosuchus was another crocodile some 12 meters long and weighing up to 10 tons. Fossils were first found in Central Africa from the early Cretaceous 112 million years ago by French paleontologist Albert-Felix de Lapparent in 1964, and then by France de Broin and Phillip Taquet in 1966. Later in 1997, Paul Sereno discovered more fossils in the sub-Sahara desert and then tagged the beast as ‘Super-Croc’.
This huge crocodilian was also unearthed in Brazil by a British geologist, and described by Eric Buffetaut and P. Taquet in 1977 as the same species found in Africa. These ‘super-crocs’ pulled dinosaurs and other large animals into the water and devoured them.
The same crocodile camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai
In 1979, Nares Sattayarak, a geologist for the Department of Mineral Resources working in the northeast province of Nong Bua Lamphu discovered the lower jaw of a huge crocodile in a road-cut excavated from the Phu Kradung Formation of the late Jurrasic 150 million years ago. Named Sunosuchus thailandicus, it was described as a new species by Eric Buffetaut and Rucha Ingavat. Estimated to have been at least eight meters in length with a lower jaw over a meter long, it was Thailand’s ‘super-croc’.
Then in 2005 a fossil several million years old of a ‘gavial’, a large fish-eating crocodilian was unearthed by Dr Yaowalak Chaimanee and her team from the Department of Mineral Resources. This discovery was made on the Khorat Plateau at Ban Khok Sung in Nakhon Ratchasima province. The species still exists in Burma and India.
Sometime in 2006, Komsorn Lauprasert, a scientist at Mahasarakham University discovered another species of crocodilian 100 million years old that had longer legs than modern-day crocodiles and probably fed on fish, based on the characteristics of its teeth.
My second Siamese crocodile in Kaeng Krachan National park
According to Komsorn, “They were living on land and could run very fast”. The 15cm. long fossil-skull was originally retrieved from an excavation site in Nakhon Rathchasima province and then found in a museum. The species has been named Khoratosuchus jintasakuli after the province and the last name of the director of the Northeastern Research Institute of Petrified Wood and Mineral Resources, Pratueng Jintasakul.
Some 50 years ago, Thailand had three species of wild crocodiles found in a host of environments: the sea, estuaries, rivers and marshes. The most common species was the Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) and was considered a pest by village folk who lived near waterways that had the reptiles.
Another thin-snouted freshwater crocodile was (Tomistoma schlegelii), also known as the ‘false gharial’ found only in rivers of the southern peninsula.
Crocodile river in Khao Ang Rue Nai
The estuarine ‘saltwater’ crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) today is the largest in the world also known as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ crocodile. The species was very common in river estuaries and islands in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Huge saltwater crocs have been sighted swimming in open-ocean.
Unfortunately, both the saltwater and false gharial has disappeared from the wild of Thailand, and the Siamese is technically extinct with only two individuals left; one in the East and one in the West of the Kingdom. This is truly a sad state of affairs concerning the crocodile after having outlived the dinosaurs for more than 65 million years.
The Siamese crocodile was once very common in Southeast Asia including Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and possibly Burma. Populations throughout the region have seriously declined and exact numbers of wild crocs are not known in any of the range countries.
Wild Siamese crocodile in southern Cambodia
There is a small population still thriving in Cambodia. However, their habitats are under serious threat from hydroelectric dam construction and could be wiped out very soon.
Conservationists from ‘Flora and Fauna International’ and ‘Wildlife Alliance’ are capturing wild Siamese crocodiles and plan to use these to launch a conservation breeding-program in partnership with the Cambodian Forestry Administration. My close friend and English wildlife photographer Allan Michaud has photographed a Siamese crocodile in southern Cambodia.
Crocodilians for most of their 230-million-year history have been large, long-bodied, aquatic carnivores. Armor plating (in the form of bony scutes set in their hides), extended tails, short strong limbs, and powerful sharp-toothed jaws make them formidable predators.
Crocodile tracks by the Phetchaburi River
Crocodiles come onto land to defecate and, being cold-blooded, to bask in the sun to regulate their body temperature. Female crocs come ashore to lay 20 to 40 eggs in mound nests on land near the water’s edge. These streamlined submarine predators glide through water with ease, surfacing and submerging at will.
Siamese crocs grow broad and heavy, and mature individuals have distinct bony ridges behind the eye socket. Historical records report specimens of up to four meters in length but three meters is the average for a mature adult. They feed primarily on fish but also take frogs, small mammals and birds. Undulating their powerful tails while tucking in their legs, crocs can glide through water without making a ripple.
Stealthily stalking prey along the water’s edge, they can snatch in an instant with powerful jaws pulling it below to drown their victim. Some crocs lay in wait on the bottom of a river or pond in order to grab fish and can stay underwater for an extended period of time.
Crocodile pond in the Phetchaburi River
If the carcass is too large to swallow whole, they stash it under water until ripe and then tear it apart. Adults can survive for many months without a meal and thus are one of nature’s most efficient predators in terms of consumption proportionate to body size.
Man is the crocodile’s only enemy, and the wild Siamese crocodile is probably the most endangered crocodilian species in the world wiped out by man’s greed.
At the end of World War II, crocodile farming came into vogue in the Kingdom, and wild crocs were captured for breeding stock. Thousands upon thousands were caught in the booming trade. Habitat loss and crocodile farming started the countdown to extinction for these ancient creatures. With no laws to protect them, crocs were eradicated from every river and swamp in the country.
River carp at the crocodile pond in the Phetcahburi River
Farming crocodiles is big money business in Thailand. The false gharial and saltwater crocs are farmed along with the Siamese. A quick growing crocodile has been produced by crossbreeding the Siamese with the ‘saltwater’ species producing a ‘hybrid’ found in most of the farms throughout the country. This human ‘quick-growing’ creation is farmed for its meat and hide, and continues to be a brisk business.
The recent floods in the Central Plains have allowed hundreds of legally and illegally farmed crocodiles to escape into the environment. Many have been shot, some captured and some are still on the loose. The danger to humans is probably nil. However, farmed crocs are much more aggressive than wild ones and if one is sighted, the authorities should be notified immediately.
During my career as a wildlife photographer, I have had the great fortune to photograph two crocodiles in the wild: the first one in 2001 at Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary in the East, and in 2003, the second one in the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park in the Southwest. I also camera trapped the first one in 2002 shown in the lead photograph.
Siamese crocodile in the Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm
One thing has been determined about these two creatures: The old croc in Khao Ang Rue Nai is probably a male (no egg nests have ever been found here), while the mature individual in Kaeng Krachan is more likely a female as many nests have been found up-and-down the river over the years but the eggs are never fertile. Female crocs lay eggs regardless of fertilization by a male or not. The possibility of bringing the two together to mate is absolutely zero.
Some old reports suggest that Siamese crocodiles could still exist in the northeast in several other protected areas: Pang Sida National Park (Sa Kaeo province), Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary (Chaiyaphum province) and Yot Dom Wildlife Sanctuary (Ubon Ratchathani province) but with no actual records, it is doubtful if they still survive in these locations.
My good friend Kitti Kreetiyutanont of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP) wrote a paper on Siamese croc sightings in 1993 and, indeed, photographed one at Khao Ang Rue Nai. It is thought to be the same animal I photographed. In 2003, poachers in Yot Dom near the border with Cambodia killed a female crocodile with eggs, and its skull and skin are on display at the park.
Siamese crocodile photographed in Khao Ang Rue Nai
The DNP and other organizations should support surveys to see if any other wild crocodiles still exist in Thailand. Restocking a few carefully selected sites with yearling purebred Siamese crocodiles seems to be the only solution.
But that raises questions about the suitability of the farmed crocs available for release. Have captive animals been excessively inbred? Even more critical, have they been crossbred with other species? Only good genetic DNA analysis can unravel this intricate problem of the species’ integrity in the farms.
In 2004, the DNP in conjunction with a local crocodile farm started a pilot project to reintroduce Siamese crocodiles at Pang Sida National Park. Seven juveniles were being kept in a holding pen for future release close to Pang Sida waterfall. However, it is reported that a few escaped and the farm abandoned the project.
Over the last few years, newspaper reports of crocodiles seen in Khao Yai and Thung Salang Luang national parks were probably released without the DNP’s knowledge, and more likely to create media frenzy by someone.
The croc in Khao Yai is aggressive as several tourists found out one day standing by the banks of the river where the croc is living. The reptile rushed up to the people probably looking for food. The chief then roped off the area by the waterway. Siamese crocodiles are very secretive and avoid people period, and are difficult to see in the wild. The department should capture this croc and remove it being alien to this place above Haew Suwat waterfall.
Serious efforts are required to save Thailand’s remaining wild crocodiles. No matter how many crocodiles are kept in farms, only an intact natural population can truly save these ancient creatures from total extinction.
Thailand should serve as a role model for wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia, and the Thai people and the government should join hands to save and protect the Siamese crocodile for present and future generations. Action needs to be undertaken now to ensure that a creature of 230-million year evolution continues to survive.
Early in 2011, I set several camera traps and video units including a Bushnell Trophy Cam around a mineral deposit and water hole visited by wild animals including wild pig, banteng, sambar, tiger, gaur, peafowl and crab-eating mongoose plus more. This is a collection of video clips from the Bushnell captured over the course of one month from January to February.
From June to August 2011, I set a Bushnell Trophy Cam on video mode at the top of ‘Mon Liem’ mountain in the sanctuary. After collecting the camera, many clips of goral were taken, both during the day and at night. This is just a few of those clips.
A huge tuskless bull elephant at a mineral lick in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
This bull has been involved in a few close encounters with rangers, and actually killed one man while he was riding his motorcycle along the road in the sanctuary. These old elephants are to be avoided at all cost. I certainly stay out of their way when I’m working in this World Heritage Site which means slow and deliberate movement is essential and ears and eyes on high alert when walking through this forest.
Silent video is not noticed by a low-land village man scouting for game or forest products
This hunter/gatherer was caught by a very sensitive Bushnell Trophy Cam set on video mode during May-June 2011 up the mountain in this protected area. He was probably Hmong or Karen hill-tribe but had no gun. But this does not mean he did not have rope or wire sling, and poison in his backpack, or had already set some snares near wildlife concentrations like mineral licks. These are the main tools for poachers now-days. More camera trapping of this sanctuary is needed to get face recognition of people who illegally entering this place. Look for future posts of this nature.
A mature pig-tailed macaque up on a ridge-line in the sanctuary
This monkey showed-up in front of a Bushnell Trophy Cam set to video, and then made an amazing leap to a tree overlooking the lower valley. As a loner or solitary primate, he must have been pushed out of the group by a larger male. But the big question: What was he doing all the way at the top of this mountain?
Wild dogs pass a Bushnell Trophy Cam a few days later:
These videos once again demonstrate Thailand’s beautiful and amazing natural heritage, and the fact these carnivores are still thriving in the North formally thought to be extinct.
Additional photographs acquired on my first African Safari in 2010
Mother lion and cubs in Sweetwaters Game Reserve
Mount Kenya taken from Sweetwaters early in the morning
Nile crocodile by the river in Samburu National Reserve
Zebras grazing in Sweetwaters grassland
Wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara River during migration
White rhinos in Lake Nakuru
Another white rhino in Lake Nakuru
Waterbuck female in Lake Nakuru
Topi antelope showing affection in Masai Mara
Reticulated giraffe in Sweetwaters
Impala buck at night in Sweetwaters tented camp
African hare at night in Sweetwaters tented camp
Female lion on the Masai Mara
Griffon vulture in Sweetwaters
Grevy’s stallion in Samburu
Giraffes at a waterhole in Sweetwaters
Cheetah male resting in the Masai Mara
Cape Buffalo bulls sparing in Lake Nakuru
Buffalo bulls sparing
Cape buffalo and oxpecker in the Masai Mara
Black-backed jackal pair in Sweetwaters
An elephant in Samburu
The same elephant
And the elephant’s rear end
Great cormorant in Lake Nakuru
Kudu cow in Samburu
Gamma lizard in Lake Nakuru with a ‘regenerated tail’
African painted stork in Lake Nakuru
Painted storks in Lake Nakuru
Red-billed hornbill in Samburu
Female leopard in Samburu
Tail-end of a male leopard on the last day of the safari in Samburu
A Kenyan ranger at a truck-stop near Samburu
“They mean business and shoot to kill any poachers who enter the park”
Marabou storks in Lamu Island, East coast of Kenya
Northern Carmine bee-eaters in Lamu Island, a World Heritage Site
And that closes out this safari which was an amazing wildlife photographic adventure for me. I hope that everyone has enjoyed these images. In the works is my safari to Kenya once again in August of 2011, and I will post this very soon. Please comment and your feedback is always welcome.
This is my first video post on this website and there will be more to come
Asian wild dogs in Mae Lao-Mae Sae Wildlife Sanctuary, Chiang Mai province, Northern Thailand camera trapped by a Bushnell Trophy Cam
Please check it out.
The wild Siamese crocodile is one of the most endangered crocodilian species in the world, and extreme efforts to save this species in Thailand from total extinction need to be implemented quickly
A wild Siamese crocodile in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary
Just its head and snout are showing; Note the large forest fly on the eye node
The murky waters of a forest pool in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary lay still and quiet during the mid-morning heat. Occasionally, a fish catching an insect would disrupt the mirror image of the pond, where forest meets water. A dead leaf gently floating down landed on the surface, causing ripples in the pool. A pair of wreathed hornbill were croaking nearby and, high in the trees, pileated gibbon sang to their crescendo.
Situated in Chachoengsao province, Khao Ang Rue Nai consists of semi-evergreen forest and many streams. The forest is surrounded by farmlands and had been squeezed down to the last 1,030 square kilometres before being designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1977. Still, it is the largest tract of lowland forest left in eastern Thailand.
The same crocodile as above camera trapped but several years later
Fortunately, enough forest was saved where elephant, gaur, banteng and many other species have been able to survive. More than that, it is also home to possibly the last wild crocodile in the Eastern part of the country. Now extremely rare in the wild, crocodiles used to rule freshwater habitats in this part of the world. And they have been around for longer than most living animals.
The earliest crocodile evolved during the Triassic Period, some 200 million years ago, a time when primitive dinosaurs also roamed the planet. The Triassic Period was the first period of the larger Mesozoic Era, which was known also as the Age of Reptiles. However, by the close of the Mesozoic some 65 million years ago, most primitive reptiles save the crocodile had died out.
Another Siamese crocodile in Kaeng Krachan National Park
The largest fossilised crocodile remains ever found, in what is now Texas, date back about 80 million years to the late Cretaceous Period, revealing a creature estimated to have been 15 metres long and weighing over four tonnes. Only the skull of this huge crocodilian was found and it was two metres in length.
These submarine predators exist in swamps, rivers, lakes and seas, only coming out on to land to bask in the sun. Their strongest attribute is a streamlined body which enables them to glide through water with ease, surfacing and submerging at will. Crocodile are extremely secretive, disappearing without a trace in seconds. Perfect carnivores in every way, they eat very little in relation to their body size. Being very efficient creatures, they should be around for a long time to come. But sadly, that may not be the case.
Siamese crocodile in Khao Ang Rue Nai photographed by forest ranger Khun Kitti
Thailand once had three species of wild crocodile in abundance. They could be found in rivers and marshy areas of the Central Plains, and the forested areas of the East, Northeast, West and South.
The freshwater Siamese crocodile, Crocodylus siamensis, which today is just surviving in a few protected areas, was the most common. The tomistoma or false gharial, Tomistoma schlegelii, a thin-snouted freshwater species, was found in rivers of the southern peninsula. The largest crocodile in the world, the estuarine saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, was also very common in river mouths and islands in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.
The same croc as above by Khun Kitti
The gharial and saltwater croc are now extinct in the wild of Thailand, but are farmed along with the Siamese. A hybrid crocodile has also been reared in captivity, by breeding the Siamese with the saltwater croc, and this animal is primarily the one used for its meat and hide.
At the end of World War Two, crocodile farming was coming into vogue and animals were captured from the wild for breeding stock. It is an indisputable fact that they have disappeared in the wild as a result of habitat loss and the creation of crocodile farming. There was no protection since the reptiles were considered pests by many people living close to wild crocodile habitat.
Fresh Siamese crocodile tracks by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan
The last remnants are now confirmed in Khao Ang Rue Nai wildlife sanctuary and Kaeng Krachan national park. In April of this year, a fresh set of crocodile tracks was discovered (by the writer) along the river near Phanoen Thung Mountain in Kaeng Krachan. Ten kilometres downriver, another set of tracks had been found previously by camera trap specialists working with the Royal Forest Department, and a photograph was taken of a single crocodile on a sandbank by using an infrared camera trap in daylight. It is presumed that a viable population exists in Kaeng Krachan but more research is needed on how many crocodile are actually there.
There are reports that Siamese crocodile may still exist in Pang Sida national park in Sa Kaeo province, Yot Dom national park in Ubon Ratchathani province, and Phu Khieo wildlife sanctuary in Chaiyaphum province, but most are old reports from 1993. Other than Kaeng Krachan, the only place with photographic evidence of the crocodile’s presence is Khao Ang Rue Nai.
Khlong Takrow in Khao Ang Rue Nai; home to one male croc
Feeding mainly on fish, the freshwater crocodile will also take frogs, birds and small mammals when opportunity arises. With their powerful tail while tucking in their legs, they can glide through water without making a ripple. Using stealth, they move up very close to prey along the waters edge and then, in an instant, grab their victim in powerful jaws before pulling it below and drowning it.
If the carcass is too large to swallow whole, they stash it under water until ripe and then tear it apart. However, adult crocodile can survive for a year or more without a meal.
Perhaps that’s one thing that has enabled the crocodile of Khao Ang Rue Nai to keep quiet and survive. But unless proper protection is provided, it may not be lucky for long.
A serious study by the Forestry Department and other organisations should be undertaken to determine the creatures sex, age and the possibility that other crocodiles exist there. If only one animal is confirmed, then something should be done to ensure the survival of the species.
Restocking with yearling purebred Siamese crocodile seems to be the only solution. But is the species in Thailand’s crocodile farms purebred? It would seem that the animals are prone to crossbreeding and inbreeding, hence the integrity might be suspect.
The Siamese crocodile in the wild is the most endangered crocodilian species in the world. It is estimated that throughout the countries where they are to be found there are now no more than 200 surviving in their natural habitat. Extreme efforts to save the crocodile in Thailand from total extinction need to be implemented. Even though there are many crocodile farms with thousands of animals in them, the true wild population is the one that counts.
Let us hope that full measures will be taken to ensure that the Siamese crocodile will continue to outlive the dinosaur and not end up like the prehistoric creatures alongside whom they once evolved.
Thailand, with all its natural resources, should be the role model for wildlife conservation in Southeast Asia. All those concerned need to work together to protect, save and regenerate the wildlife and forests so that generations to come can be proud of the Kingdom’s natural heritage.