Thailand’s Big Seven

Saturday, February 26, 2011 posted by Bruce 8:22 PM


Elephant, gaur, wild water buffalo, banteng, tapir, tiger and leopard

Large Mammals in the Kingdom and the amazing biodiversity of Asian mega-fauna

Asian tapir camera-trapped in Huai Kha Khaeng

The term Big Five has always been recognized as an African thing with elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard making up the group. In fact, the hippo and the Nile crocodile should also be included as the most awesome animals on the African Continent. These large creatures have always fascinated people interested in nature.

The Big Five was hunting terminology for bagging these beautiful creatures with a gun, and then showing off the trophies and hunting photographs in their homes or offices to family, friends and associates. To come face to face with these sometimes ill-tempered beasts, mostly on the ground, was the ultimate test for the affluent hunters who visited Africa, and was the Holy Grail if they managed to bag all of them, so to say.

Young bull gaur in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary

The ‘black-mane lion’ of the Maasai Mara in Kenya was one of the most sought after trophies and at the top of the sportsman’s list. However, hunting and killing of wild animals has somewhat gone out of fashion for most people around the world but it does continue on a limited scale. Those countries in Africa that still allow the huntsman an opportunity to take a trophy are few, and the cost is astronomically expensive plus the negative aspect of the sport, and the killing of these big beasts.

Last year I made a trip to Kenya and managed to bag the Big Five photographically. It was an amazing experience that is etched in memory. But it was from the safety of a safari van as the regulations in the parks and reserves are very strict about leaving the vehicle. But the thrill of seeing and photographing Africa’s wild mammals, birds and reptiles is an amazing experience, and one I recommend to anyone interested is seeing or photographing nature up close.

Bull elephant in Sai Yok National Park

Southeast Asia is also one of the world’s great wildlife treasure houses and maybe not as large or grand as Africa, Thailand’s Big Seven still flourish in a few of the larger protected areas in the Kingdom. This includes elephant, gaur, wild water buffalo, banteng, tapir, tiger and leopard. There is only one place on the planet that has all seven and that is Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Uthai Thani province in the central-west.

A hundred years ago, two species of rhinoceros (Javan and Sumatran) were found in the large forests around the country but unfortunately were completely decimated before the protected areas came into being. A short fifty years ago when Khao Yai National Park was established, the last few stragglers were hunted down and that was the end of rhino in Thailand. Killed for their horns and sold to Chinese medicine dealers and Arab knife makers (used for dagger handles), it was a sad ending to some very captivating mega-fauna.

Banteng bull in Huai Kha Khaeng

Someone in Huai Kha Khaeng once coined the phrase Thailand’s Big Seven and at one time, there were loads of photographs of all these beautiful animals from the sanctuary all over the walls at the Seub Nakhasathien meeting hall in the headquarters. Most of the original photos are now gone but time does moves on. Most up on the walls now are of conservation and research projects, and rangers at work that is also good. Many school children come to this retreat to pay respect to Seub at his spiritual home, and to learn about nature and his life, and the sacrifice he made for Thailand.

After 15 years of visiting and photographing wildlife here including the Big Seven on film and digital, I can say this place is the Kingdom’s finest protected area. The sanctuary is without doubt, one of the best wildlife havens in Southeast Asia, and the world for that matter. However, other parks and sanctuaries have some of the Big Seven but are lacking the buffalo.

Wild water buffalo cows in Huai Kha Khaeng

After publishing individual Wildlife Species Reports in the Bangkok Post on all theses animals over the last couple of years, an up-dated review is warranted. As we forge ahead into the 21st Century, it is apparent these marvelous creatures and protected areas are under serious threat. The more people at all levels of society are educated about Thailand’s natural resources, the better the chances for survival into the future.

Indochinese tiger in Huai Kha Khaeng

This should be the highest priority for the government and private sector. Old out-dated laws and regulations are hampering conservation efforts and need a serious revamp. Wildlife crime is on the increase and concerted efforts to improve protection and enforcement is unfortunately, a bit slow in coming.

Leopard camera-trapped in Kaeng Krachan National Park

Budgets, funding and more rangers and personnel are needed. Transparency is also a must with the national parks and wildlife sanctuary budgets so money is used properly and efficiently, and corruption stamped out completely. Now that will be a tough nut to crack. It is hoped this draconian situation will change, so the Kingdom’s natural heritage will continue to survive in today’s world.

Thailand’s Big Seven

Asian Elephant: Elephas maximus

Asia’s largest terrestrial mammal is slightly smaller than its African cousin but still a huge beast of the forest, and approximately 2,000 survive in the wild of Thailand. These giant herbivores create trails to feeding grounds, mineral licks and migration routes through large tracks of forest. They are a flagship species for conservation.

In the old days, the genetic survival of the elephant depended on its ability to mix with other herds sometimes a long way away. Unfortunately, roads and human settlements have disrupted migration routes, and the poaching of large bulls with big ivory has affected the elephant’s natural breeding ability. As their numbers in the wild diminish, the Thai people should exert more pressure on the ‘powers-to-be’ the need to improve protection and enforcement as it’s number one priority.

Gaur: Bos gaurus

Gaur are wild forest ox and the largest bovid in the world standing 1.7 meters at the shoulder weighing close to a ton for mature bulls. These even-toed ungulates still survive in some protected areas but are in serious decline. It is now estimated about 1000 remain in Thailand. However, some reserves have gaur breeding in fairly good numbers like Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan forest complex allowing them to actually increase in number if there is adequate protection.

These enormous beasts live in herds but also become solitary, primarily the males. But I have also seen and photographed mature female gaur alone. Mineral deposits play a very important role in the lives of these wild cattle as does thick forests and steep mountainous terrain with abundant water resources. Their future depends whether they are protected to the fullest extent. Unfortunately, their beautifully curved horns are highly sought after by poachers and people who covet trophies.

Wild water buffalo: Bubalus arnee

These low-slung beasts are certainly the most fearsome of all the wild bovid family in Asia. Once upon a time, they were found all over Thailand in swamps and alluvial rivers. In the old days, wild buffalo were rounded up for domestication and hence disappeared from everywhere except Huai Kha Khaeng where the last wild herd now lives. Their numbers are small and it is estimated that 50-60 thrive in the southern section of the sanctuary.

Human expansion throughout Thailand over the last couple of centuries and the use of this beast of burden was the wild buffalo’s demise. Most were tamed for farming and transportation but the last herd was saved just in the nick of time when the wildlife sanctuary was created in 1972. This herd however is continually threatened with an ever-increasing human population just outside the sanctuary, and the mixing of domestic with wild buffalo by the local farmers is a serious problem with possible transmission of cattle disease like anthrax or foot and mouth. Hunting them for their trophy is also a serious threat.

Banteng: Bos javanicus

Banteng are common ancestors to Bos bibos, wild cattle that inhibited the vast plains of Asia during prehistoric times. Fossil finds of banteng from the Pleistocene epoch in Bali and Java are common. These beautiful red wild cattle thrive well in only two places in Thailand and it is estimated about 250 individuals live in Huai Kha Khaeng in the west, and another 80 or so in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary in the east.

There are a few other small pockets where banteng is still found but these are not sustainable and they will eventually disappear. Protection of their remaining habitat is the most important element. Their horns and meat as with gaur and buffalo are also sought after. Banteng prefer open lowland deciduous forest and are easy pickings for poachers with jeeps, spotlights and rifles. As creatures of habit like gaur, they also need to visit mineral deposits and hence, fall victim to determined hunters.

Asian Tapir: Tapris indicus

The family to which the modern tapir belong, Tapridae, can be traced back as far as Early Oligocene times, about 40 million years ago. Tapir evolved from small hoofed mammals. These odd-toed ungulates eat only vegetation. It is also the largest of the world’s four species. They are solitary creatures unless breeding. The young have longitudinal pale striped bodies but as they grow older, the Asian tapir has a distinctive two-toned black and white coloring.

At one time, tapir could be found throughout the western Tenessarim Range all the way down the Thai Peninsula to Malaysia. That has all changed now due to roads, highways and human settlements that have divided up the country. However, it is estimated that maybe 300-400 still thrive in Thailand. Tapir are poached for their meat in some areas.

Indochinese Tiger Panthera tigres corbetti

The tiger is probably one of the most revered creatures in the animal kingdom and is a flagship species for wildlife conservation. As Asia’s apex predator, it present status is not good. Its current standing is at an all-time low with about 200-300 left in Thai forests if that. Where there are abundant prey species and good protection with no poaching, the big cat will survive and breed.

The Western Forest Complex with Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai at the core is the best tiger habitat in Thailand, and Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks in the Northeast is Thailand’s second best tiger reserve. Another good location for tiger is Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri forest complex but their numbers are low here.

Tiger bones are one of the most sought-after wildlife commodities and the pelt is now usually left to rot, as it is very heavy when fresh and difficult to take care of. The Chinese medicine trade is the number one reason tigers have dropped drastically in numbers worldwide, and this responsibility rests directly on China’s shoulders as the tiger moves closer and closer to extinction. They have been unable to stop the flow of wildlife black-market trade and one day soon, this magnificent predator will vanish forever. The world must bring pressure to bear on all countries that use primitive medical remedies at the expense of a wild species

Leopard: Panthera pardus

The leopard is probably much better off than the tiger due to its survivability, size and tolerance to humans. Exact numbers are not known due to its very stealthy character but there are probably 1000 or more still living in the western part of Thailand all the way down to Malaysia. For some reason, they are not found in the East or the Northeast.

Leopard can survive on much smaller animals and will even take farmer’s cattle, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens. Their ability to blend in and being primarily nocturnal, one hardly ever sees them. Both color phases (yellow and black) are found and they are solitary except during breeding season. Their bones are also taken and the pelt is in demand. Leopards like the tiger are susceptible to poisoning of carcasses used by poachers.

In closing, only two things can save the Big Seven plus all the other animals and ecosystems they live in, and that is they must be protected from the onslaught that carries on day in and day out. Stories are popping up in the newspapers about poachers caught with guns and animal carcasses, and it seems to be a hot issue at the moment. These perpetrators need to be removed from local communities and sent to prison setting precedence so others will stay out of the protected areas.

Secondly, wildlife conservation education must be administered into all levels of society. Thailand’s wildlife and forests have evolved over millions of years and are far too important. Awareness, strict enforcement, better funding and management plus up-graded laws are the key!

Comments Off on Thailand’s Big Seven

Sambar: Thailand’s largest Cervidae

Thursday, February 3, 2011 posted by Bruce 7:30 AM

WILD SPECIES REPORT: Majestic Asian deer and even-toed ungulate

Important prey species of the tiger and leopard

Sambar doe and yearling drinking from the Huai Kha Khaeng waterway

A mature sambar stag, Thailand’s largest deer with a heavy antler rack, barks a loud warning and stamps its front feet on the ground alerting all the denizens a predator is nearby. The pungent smell of a tiger floats through the forest, and animals within audible range are now on hi-alert. But the big cat is lightning fast and takes a young sambar doe from the herd that is perfect for a meal. Leaf monkeys squeal, squirrels chatter and birds call from the treetops. It is panic on the ground as the deer bolt in all directions.

But this is just the cycle of life that has gone for millions of years. One animal is sacrificed for the other to survive. Deer play a very important part in the prey-predator relationship for without them, the tiger would struggle to live and carry on its legacy as the largest cat in the world. Carnivores thrive if there are abundant prey animals to hunt.

Sambar yearling in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary

Unfortunately in most parts of the country, the human being has eradicated sambar and other animal species like wild pig and common barking deer in man’s utter struggle to live. This has up-set the balance of nature. The big cats have also almost disappeared and as of a consequence, are now on the brink of extinction.

Wild animals and their ecosystems are under constant threat as the population expands further into the last vestiges of Thailand’s great natural heritage. At one time, the country was almost completely covered by vast expanses of virgin forests where sambar and other ungulates plus predators lived in complete harmony. That has all changed now and only a few large protected areas can boast that these big deer, or the tiger for that matter, still live in the interior.

Sambar stag after a mud bath in Huai Kha Khaeng

In any given forest, sambar was one of the first animals to disappear when man began cutting down forests to grow agriculture and build settlements. These deer were taken for meat, and their hides were shipped to Japan for ‘Samurai armor’ back before the turn of the 19th Century, and then for military equipment all the way up to just before World War Two. Literally millions of hides were exported and this had a serious effect on all the deer species.

It was a big business at the time and as an outcome, the other large cervids such as Schomburgk’s deer that has been globally extinct since the 1930s plus hog deer and Eld’s deer disappeared from the wild of Thailand. Sambar were more numerous and preferring deep forest, prevailed slightly better.

Sambar stag during the rut in Huai Kha Khaeng

Fossil evidence suggests that sambar evolved sometime during the Quaternary Period from large ungulates living on the huge plains of Asia at the time. The saber-toothed cat was one of the main carnivores that thrived on these hoofed animals.

My very first encounter with sambar was almost 15 years ago when I began photographing wildlife in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Sambar was seen everyday crossing the river from Khao Ban Dai ranger station at the confluence of the Huai Kha Khaeng and Huai Mae Dee waterways. I was able to catch them on film fairly easily, especially at the mineral licks found by the river.

Sambar stag on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng

Some ten years ago, a large complex was built at Khao Ban Dai for VIPs including a huge visitor center plus three bungalows. Wildlife numbers dropped dramatically in the area due to the construction and the amount of labor numbering about 100 men and women that stayed on location for almost a year. Peafowl also disappeared.

Happily, the area around Khao Ban Dai has now begun to return to somewhat normal after observingthe chain of events and making regular visits to the station over the last few years. Sambar, wild pig, muntjac and green peafowl on occasion are seen on the sandbars during the early morning and late afternoon. Evidence of tigers and leopards from camera-traps now show these carnivores are roaming here once again but this is also probably due to its remoteness. Wildlife is making a slow comeback here.

Huai Kha Khaeng – Huai Mae Dee junction

Down in the southern section of Huai Kha Khaeng however, sambar is still quite abundant. One frosty morning about 8am as I was sitting in my boat-blind waiting for wild water buffalo to come to the river, a sambar doe and several of her offspring popped out of the forest for refreshing drinks about four meters away. I had no other option than to take a head shot of them at the water’s edge as seen in the lead photograph. It was exciting to say the least and it took her a few moments to recognize the strange anomaly by the shoreline. She barked a warning at me and at that distance was extremely loud actually making me jump. The huge doe then crashed into the forest followed by the younger deer.

With increased protection, wild animals will survive as long as visitation by documentary film crews, scientific groups, nature lovers and tourists is kept reasonable or on a very limited scale. However, on many occasions large official and influential groups or research parties make their way into some of the very restricted protected areas and hold drinking sessions that carrying on into the wee hours of the morning while running the generator so ‘World Cup or soap operas’ can be watched on satellite TV.

Sambar yearling in Huai Kha Khaeng

Off-road groups still plow into some wildlife sanctuaries because the road conditions are the toughest in the country but these thrill-seekers who are usually connected, don’t care what damage they cause. The roads then become difficult to transverse created by their highly modified off-road vehicles that makes it doubly tough for the patrol rangers who have standard 4X4 trucks.

Over-visitation by the human element is like the plague as seen in many parks around the country with no limitation on vehicles and visitors with their  ‘tent cities’ especially during the holidays. All of this of course is damaging but carries on for the prominent and connected, and surely has an affect disturbing the wildlife and ecosystem. A serious look into this behavior should be brought to the forefront. The term ‘double standard’ is also practiced in many reserves by some officials and will be difficult to stamp out.

Sambar stag in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

So with all this in mind, it should also be said that the situation on the ground with the forest rangers is still a long way from being good, and is definitely detrimental to good protection and enforcement. The age-old problem of the temporary rangers not receiving any pay for three to four months every year still exists. After visiting several protected areas in the east, west and south over the last few months, the first thing one hears is “no-pay” from October to late January and sometimes beyond due to a glitch in the system, or the so-called lack of a budget.

This phenomenon is not fully understood but it is basically against human rights when someone is employed and not paid especially around the New Year. People really need money at this time. In the last 15 years that I have worked and been around these rangers, it is still very disturbing that the ‘powers-to-be’ continue to overlook this very basic need. Some of these rangers then resort to beg, borrow and steal to survive. Many are in serious debt and struggle with moneylenders. Some commit wildlife crimes to get ahead.

Sambar herd, jungle fowl and crow in Khao Yai National Park

A close friend of mine who retired as chief from a large protected area in southwest Thailand set aside a special fund from his yearly budget to pay the rangers when the money did not arrive from the finance ministry. He also charged no interest when the money was paid back. These men had the highest esteem for this superintendent who really took care of his staff in times of need, and in turn these dedicated patrol rangers made a special effort to take care of this forest that actually flourished.

I know because I was on the ground then and caught many rare creatures like tiger, leopard, fishing cat, sun bear, banded linsang, banteng, gaur, Siamese crocodile plus many others on camera-trap and through the lens. It was truly an exciting experience seeing all these remarkable creatures living as Mother Nature intended.

Sambar doe and fawn in Huai Kha Khaeng

This system should be implemented by all the superintendants in the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Another option is to make all temporary hired rangers permanent staff so they at least they get paid on time for work rendered. But even permanent staff is now experiencing half payment. Under these circumstances how can anyone have incentive to go into the dangerous environment of the forest where poachers with guns shoot to kill? These men also have very poor insurance coverage.

It is hoped someone will take action to help these brave forest rangers that are probably the most important key to good protection and enforcement of Thailand’s natural heritage. For without them, sambar and all the other wonderful wild creatures in the Kingdom are in serious jeopardy. Pressure needs to be exerted from the Thai media so this draconian problem of ‘no pay for months’ on end will cease to exist.

Sambar doe in Sai Yok National Park

Sambar Ecology:

Sambar Cervus unicolor is a terrestrial mammal of the order Artiodactyla, or even-toed ungulate with two functional hoofed toes and two dew toes on each foot. These large deer have a four-chambered stomach and feed on plant material. Food is partially digested in the stomach and then brought back up into the mouth again for further chewing, to increase the amount of nutrition that can be obtained from grasses and leaves. As ruminants, this permits large amounts of food to be ingested quickly before moving to sheltered places for chewing, and better protection against predators.

Stags can weigh more than 500 kilograms and attain a height of 102 to 160 cm at the shoulder. They have long legs and can run at a fast pace to evade large carnivores. With their formidable antlers that can exceed a length of over a 100 cm, they are extremely dangerous to man when a male sambar has been wounded.

The coat is dark brown with chestnut marks on the rump and under parts. These cervids live primarily in woodland and feed on a variety of vegetation, including grasses, foliage, browse, fruit and water plants. Sambar is found in habitats ranging from tropical seasonal forests (dry forests and seasonal moist evergreen forests), subtropical mixed forests (conifers, broadleaf deciduous, and broadleaf evergreen tree species) to tropical rainforests.

They are seldom far from water and, although primarily of the tropics, are hardy and may range from sea level up to high elevations such as the pine and oak forests on the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. They also live in montane mixed forests and grassland habitats at high elevations in the mountains of Northern Thailand.

Sambar needs serious protection to survive into the future. Good protective management with an increase in budget and personnel is needed. A true ranger training school with instructors from the National Parks department, Border Patrol Police, Special Forces, Navy Seals and an NGO like Freeland should be established somewhere in the central provinces away from any national park and all its distractions of over-visitation.

Also, it will provide easy access and distribution for new recruits who graduate as permanent rangers. Temporary rangers can also come and train, and then also become permanently employed. The day this happens will be a step in the right direction for wildlife conservation in the Kingdom.

Comments Off on Sambar: Thailand’s largest Cervidae

Green Peafowl: Thailand’s most spectacular bird

Sunday, December 26, 2010 posted by Bruce 9:48 PM


Beautiful avian fauna thriving in a few protected areas

Green peafowl taking-off in Huai Kha Khaeng

It is a dark misty cold morning along Huai Kha Khaeng, an important waterway in central-western Thailand. The month is November at the beginning of the winter season and the temperature is hovering around 10 degrees Celsius. I’m sitting in my boat-blind with a silent electric trolling motor waiting for the sun to come up, and I’m after wild water buffalo and green peafowl hoping for some good photographs of these two rare species.

At dawn, a green peafowl calls out from its roost reverberating through the valley. The resounding braying can be heard repeatedly many kilometers away. It is nature at its finest that has gone on for thousands of years. I motor the boat closer and find a flock of peafowl pecking the ground by the river and looking for anything edible.

Green peafowl flock by Huai Kha Khaeng in late afternoon

As light begins to fill the river valley, I move in closer to the peafowl on a large sandbank. A male takes-off and lands close to the flock immediately opening up its tail in a shimmering fan display. The females and younger birds are busy pecking the ground.

During the breeding season, the male peafowl’s iridescent tail called a train, are long and graceful. He struts along the riverbank showing off to the females hoping to impress the flock. Several other males are nearby also flaunting their tail spreads to incite the other gender.

Green peafowl male by the Huai Kha Khaeng in early morning

The blue and yellow facial skin, plus the emerald green and metallic blue of its feathers with cinnamon colored wing primaries contrasting with brownish-black secondaries is a sight to see, especially during the soft early morning light and again in the evening glow at sunset. They are the most spectacular of all Thai birds thriving fairly well in this wildlife sanctuary, a World Heritage Site. The species can also be found in a few other protected areas around Thailand.

Green peafowl male by the river in Huai Kha Khaeng

Birds evolved from dinosaurs: there is no doubt about that. The evolution of birds probably began about 150 million years ago. The earliest known bird was Archaeopteryx, which was the size of a modern crow and lived in the Late Jurassic. Fossil evidence found in Germany indicated it had feathers arranged over its body and its wings; and though not as agile as a modern bird, could probably fly well. It also had a dinosaur’s jaws with teeth, claws on its hands, and a long reptilian tail.

Throughout the succeeding Cretaceous period all kinds of dinosaur-bird hybrid animals existed, but their exact relationships to one another are not really known. In the 1980s and 1990s fossils of these animals began to be discovered in South America, Spain, and particularly in China. However, there have been no discoveries of these bird-like creatures in Thailand, but more than 15 species of dinosaur have been uncovered here.

Green peafowl male flaunting its tail spread

Green peafowl probably evolved from red jungle fowl, the ancestor of all wild and domestic fowl. Jungle fowl is believed to have come to being some 800,000 years ago. It is not exactly sure when peafowl came about but it is thought to be sometime around 500,000 years ago.

Red jungle fowl in Huai Kha Khaeng – western species

Red jungle fowl in Khao Ang Rue Nai – eastern species

King Rama V wrote about seeing green peafowl at Muang Sing in Sai Yok district of Kanchanburi province during a Royal visit there. Rock paintings discovered in Lampang province in the North about 3,500 to 5,000 years old show a peafowl with long tail-feathers on a cliff-face. These majestic birds have been featured in many stories and legends throughout the history of the Kingdom.

Rock painting showing green peafowl 3,500-5,000 years old in Lampang

The green peafowl, also called Javan peafowl, Pavo muticus is a large galliform bird found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. It is the closest relative to the Indian peafowl or blue peafowl Pavo cristatus, which is mostly found on the Indian subcontinent. Peafowl are smaller than the American turkey.

In the past, the distribution and habitat of the green peafowl was widely scattered, from eastern and northeast India, northern and southern Myanmar, and southern China extending through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Peninsular Malaysia and the island of Java. These ranges have been drastically reduced through habitat destruction and hunting.

Green peafowl male and flock at Huai Hong Krai Royal Project in Chiang Mai

According to J.H. Riley with the Smithsonian Institute who published ‘Birds from Siam and the Malay Peninsula’ in 1938 reported green peafowl could be found in most forested areas and alluvial rivers in Thailand. There are two sub-species: the Pavo muticus muticus south of the Isthmus of Kra, and P. m. imperator to the north. Unfortunately, they have vanished from the Northeast and the South, and from Malaysia. The Burmese P. m. spicifer is a more drably colored bird.

One person who has researched green peafowl in depth is Professor Wina Meckvichai with the Department of Biology at the Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. She has studied populations and behavior of the peafowl, and other gallopheasants like red jungle fowl in the country.

Young male peafowl by Huai Mae Dee in Huai Kha Khaeng

Presently, there are about 2,000 wild green peafowl left in the country and most are in the western forest complex mainly in Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries, and Sri Nakarin National Park. They may also be found in other protected areas in the west but these would be small isolated populations.

Peafowl can also be found in the Northern provinces of Nan, Phayao and Chiang Mai. A few may survive in the Salaween Wildlife Sanctuary along the river and border with Burma, but there are not many reports whether the species exists west of here.

Juvenile peafowl late in the afternoon in Huai Kha Khaeng

The overall population of peafowl in the north is decreasing due to human disturbance but is slightly increasing in the west. However, at Huai Hong Krai Royal Project at Doi Saket district in Chiang Mai province, peafowl are also on the increase due to special protection provided by the project.

About 25 years ago, I saw a male green peafowl with long tail feathers during the breeding season in Sai Yok National Park, Kanchanaburi province by a tributary of the ‘Noi’ River deep in the interior. However, they have not been seen or heard here for years now.

Female peafowl in Huai Kha Kha Khaeng

Hunters have poached the birds for their meat and tail feathers, and wiped them out in many areas throughout the country due to increased access into the protected areas by local villagers and ethnic tribes people. Encroachment on forestlands has also been heavily responsible for the disappearance of this beautiful bird.

During most of the year, when the males have no visible trains, both male and female green peafowl are quite similar in appearance, and are difficult to distinguish between the two. Both sexes have tall pointed crests, and are long-legged, heavy-winged and long-tailed in silhouette. The long train formed by elongated upper tail coverts, spread in an enormous fan during display. These molt and drop out in April and May during the hot season.

Huai Mae Dee – green peafowl habitat in Huai Kha Khaeng

The peafowl’s peculiar flight has been described, as a true flapping flight with little gliding that is usually associated with other Galliform birds. With a wingspan of 1.2 meters across, peafowl are capable of sustained flight.


According to ‘A guide to the Birds in Thailand’ by the late Dr Boonsong Lekagul and the eminent ornithologist Philip D. Round, peafowl are found in several different habitats including mixed deciduous woodland, secondary growth and clearings usually close to shallow streams or rivers with exposed sand bars, plus foothills and plains, but occasionally higher plateau areas. At the time of publication in 1991, peafowl were considered a rare resident much reduced by human persecution. Peafowl adapted to a changed habitat in Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai flooded by the Sri Nakarin Dam and reservoir in the west.

Green peafowl spend most of their time on or near the ground in tall grasses or sedges. They forage for food in open areas and along riverbanks. Family units roost in trees about 10-15 meters off the ground. The Green Peafowl is a forest bird that nests on the ground laying three to six eggs.

Their diet consists of fruits, invertebrates, reptiles and other small animals. Adult birds hunt for ticks, termites, flower petals, bud leaves and berries, and are also known to take poisonous snakes from time to time. Frogs and other aquatic small animals probably make up the bulk of the diet of growing birds.

Although rare compared with historic numbers, improved survey methodology and increased effort has led to an increase in the reporting rate and thus the population estimate has been revised upwards to reflect this improved knowledge. Nevertheless this remains a coarse estimate and it warrants refinement.

Continue research into its range, status, habitat requirements and interactions with people to inform management within the protected areas should be carried out. Peafowl require strict enforcement of regulations relating to hunting and pesticide used within the parks supporting populations in Indochina. A total ban should be encouraged on the international trade in live birds and tail feathers in all range countries.

Because of its attractive appearance, the green peafowl faces the threat of hunting or as pets. Its feathers are considered to be valuable art objects and are also popularly used in household crafts and decorations. It is listed on Appendix II of CITES, and before 2009, it was evaluated as ‘vulnerable’. The bird is now listed as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The world population has declined rapidly and the species no longer occurs in many areas of its past distribution.

As with all other wild birds and animals living in the protected areas, the green peafowl in Thailand is in a serious predicament. More and more people forage in the forest and along with this, poaching is a never-ending saga. Protection and enforcement is the number one priority for the government but recent protection budget cuts have been tabled which in the event go through, will seriously affect all wildlife and their ecosystems.

It is also said that many temporary rangers will be lose their job if these budget cuts go through, and to compensate them, a scheme has also been tabled where the rangers join forces in their respective villages, put in a bid to look after the forest similar to the community forest program, and then wait for the wheels of doing business here. This is the beginning of the end.

Corruption will certainly come into play and these jobless rangers who already know the forest, will slip into areas they know well and, poach and gather. There will be no unity within the ranks to properly maintain a good protection program. With big money, continued and expanding wildlife trading, and other dark political forces at work, plus an ever-expanding human population, it will be a rough road ahead.

It is unfortunate but the future of the green peafowl is in the balance, and if management, funding, protection and enforcement are not increased and improved, these spectacular birds will slowly and eventually go the way of the dodo in New Zealand and the carrier pigeon in the United States. The government of Thailand should do much more in taking care of the Kingdom’s great wild heritage.

Comments Off on Green Peafowl: Thailand’s most spectacular bird

Thailand’s Miniature World – Part Two

Friday, December 10, 2010 posted by Bruce 1:00 PM

Photographing Mother Nature’s little creatures

Close-up and macro photography: Additional photographs

After more than 15 years of taking wildlife close-ups and macro shots, the following photographs are a collection assembled for this post. Some are from my old film archives and others are recent digital captures. It is hoped these images will instill upon others the positive aspect of photographing nature; whether its the little critters all the way up to the majestic elephant.

However, the message is the same: wildlife photographs are a way of expressing the need to protect and save Mother Nature’s wonderful creations through exposure, education and conservation awareness at all levels of society. The more people learn about the Kingdom’s natural heritage, the better its chances of survival into the future!

Birdwing butterfly in Lampang province

Orb spider at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Changeable lizard in Chiang Mai province

Blue crested lizard in Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary

Oakleaf butterfly in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

Lantern bug in Chiang Mai province

Short-horned grasshopper in Chiang Mai

Bombay locust in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary

Foilage spider in Lamphun province

Skipper butterfly in Chiang Mai province

Lime butterfly in Thap Lan National Park

Bird-eating spider in Phu Khieo

Carpenter ants in Thung Yai

Common rose and blue tiger butterflies in Thung Yai

Cruiser butterfly in Sai Yok

Damselfly in Salak Phra

Dragonfly in Thung Yai

Dragonfly in Suphan Buri province

Hawk moths mating in Huai Kha Khaeng

Rhinoceros beetle in Salak Phra

Green-bellied pit viper in Kaeng Krachan

Wild hibiscus flower in Huai Kha Khaeng

Comments Off on Thailand’s Miniature World – Part Two

Thailand’s Miniature World – Part One

Monday, December 6, 2010 posted by Bruce 10:51 AM

Photographing Mother Nature’s little creatures

Close-up and macro photography: Intricate elements and gear

Yellow-bellied pit viper and carpenter ant in Kaeng Krachan

It is the rainy season and the day is cloudy like most during this time of the year. The rains have stopped temporarily, and the sun peeks through the clouds. Insects, spiders and other creatures such as reptiles and amphibians are extremely active in the forest when precipitation is at its highest.

While walking down a streambed in Kaeng Krachan National Park, southwest Thailand, a yellow-bellied pit viper found on a tree branch is perfect for some serious close-up photography. However, pit vipers can be deadly and extremely quick to strike.

Yellow-bellied pit viper slithering up a tree branch

I keep my distance as the serpent hangs motionless in a coiled position ready to sink its fangs into any victim. I quickly set-up my tripod and my favorite close-up rig at the time, a Minolta D7 digital camera and 200mm f 2.8 lens with a 1.4 tele-converter for an overall length of 280mm.

The most appealing feature of this lens is it can be used further away from the subject than a shorter lens, while flattening the perspective by bringing the foreground and background together. When a wide aperture is used, it will isolate the subject against a blurred background. The 280mm was also handy in the field.

Green-bellied pit viper on forest leaf litter in Kaeng Krachan

I was able to photograph the dangerous reptile from a safe distance. It was a two-day walk to the road and if bitten, I might not make it to the nearest hospital in time. Vipers are not aggressive unless provoked.

While photographing the snake, a one-inch long carpenter ant moved into the frame while I snapped a series of images. It was surely exciting, and two species in one photograph is always a neat experience. In the forest nearby, a green-bellied pit viper in fallen leaves hunting for prey is found. Pit vipers are very common in Kaeng Krachan.

Giant tree frog in a stream in Kaeng Krachan

Along this same stream a day later, we bumped into a rare green tree frog, the largest of this genus. It stayed in place long enough for some good shots but eventually jumped away. A couple days later, I also photographed a river toad further down stream.

River toad in a stream in Kaeng Krachan

While setting-up camera-traps at a mineral lick just off this same stream, a king cobra showed up. Now that was a heart stopper as the big snake rose up. I softly told everyone to stay absolutely still. It then lowered itself and slid back the way it had come. Everyone in the team had the jitters. I had absolutely no time to get any photos and was relieved the ‘king’ was gone. We decided to name this place the ‘King Cobra’ mineral lick.

King cobra hunting by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

However, I once photographed a king cobra near the headwaters of the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan, and managed a few off-hand close-up shots with my Minolta before it disappeared into the forest in a split-second. Some photographs are just not worth the risk but this happened so quickly that I snapped away oblivious to the danger. The undisputed ‘king of the forest’ is definitely not a recommended subject for close-up photography.

King cobra just before disappearing into the forest

When I began shooting wildlife with a camera, close-up or sometimes called ‘macro photography’ grabbed my attention. It seemed like the perfect solution to spend time when the large mammals and birds were scarce or while around camp. I reckoned Thailand’s miniature wild world was just as important as the big flora and fauna. Now, it is one of my favorite pass times. Sometimes, chasing the little creatures is not that easy and many variables come into play.

Forest crested lizard in Kaeng Krachan

My first macro lens was a Nikon 60mm that was great for flowers and stationary subjects but not very good for lively butterflies and such. I quickly up-graded to a Nikon 80-200 f 2.8 zoom with a close-up lens attachment which screws on the front of the lens. I also used extension tubes between the camera and lens. This allowed closer focusing throughout the entire zoom range. I photographed many small bugs, spiders, and other subjects of interest including flowers and natural abstracts using this combo.

Tortoise beetle in Kaeng Krachan

Since my early beginnings, I have purchased many cameras and lenses over the years. For close-ups and macro shots, I now carry my trusty Nikon D700 camera (full-frame sensor) and two lenses: a fixed Nikon 105mm f 2.8 VR (vibration reduction) and an older fixed Nikon Micro 200mm f 4. I also use a Nikon D5000 camera (1.5X sensor) with a Sigma 70-300mm Macro lens (effectively a 105-450mm) for more reach, and because it is much lighter than the D700 camera in some situations.

Champange mushrooms in Kaeng Krachan

My favorite lens now is the Nikon 200mm that I find perfect for just about everything and the focal length yields a good working distance. It allows close work on distant subjects that are skittish like butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. Bees, hornets and wasps are best photographed from a distance for obvious reasons, as are snakes that are poisonous mentioned earlier. If the subject is stationary like beetles, dew-laden insects and spiders, flowers and abstracts, I prefer the Nikon 105mm lens.

Little map butterflies mating in Kaeng Krachan

Whenever I travel and stop by the highway for a rest or nature’s call, or when at base camp in the forest, I always have my camera and close-up lenses with me. You never know when you might bump into a good photo opportunity. This rig is also set-up with a bracket and an off-camera flash with a sync cable that is needed for certain situations. I shoot this off-hand and the flash allows stop-action and sharp images.

Thairus butterfly in a stream in Kaeng Krachan

The difference between close-up and macro photography needs to be clarified to get an understanding of the two terms. ‘Close-up’ photography is usually applied to any situation where the subject is around one-tenth of life size or greater on the image sensor or film frame. The pit viper at the beginning is classified as a close-up.

Shield-backed bug in Lamphun province

Macro’ photography on the other hand, is when the subject is reproduced at a magnification of life size (1:1 ratio) or greater with an appropriate camera and lens. Up to four or five times (4:1 – 5:1 ratio) is possible with modern SLR (film) and DSLR (digital) cameras and some lenses, or a combination of lenses and accessories can capture very small subjects.

Stag beetle in Doi Inthanon National Park

Anything smaller than that is possible by using a camera attached to a microscope and is classified as ‘micro’ photography. For example: a photograph of an ant’s eye, a pinhead or smaller. However, this technique is beyond the scope of this story.

Scarab beetle at the top of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain

To better understand reproduction ratios, the following is a simple formula to get an indication of magnification: If a 25mm-long subject is focused so that it fits on a 25mm sensor, the reproduction ratio is 1:1 or 1x; that is, it is reproduced on the sensor at life-size. If a 50mm-long subject is focused so that it fits on a 25mm sensor, then it is reproduced at half-life size, or a ratio of 1:2 or ½x. And finally, if a 12.5mm subject is focused on a 25mm sensor, then it will be reproduced as a magnification of twice life-size, or a ratio of 2:1, or 2x, and so on. A bit technical but it gives an understanding of magnification in close-up and macro photography.

Carpenter bee landing on a perch in Sai Yok National Park

Depth of field, lighting and shutter speed is the three most important elements of close-up/macro photography. Depth of field is the zone in front and behind the point of focus that is sharp. Controlling depth of field is one of the most crucial rudiments in photography and can be checked by using a depth-of-field preview button available on some SLR and DSLR cameras. The use of the lens aperture (f-stop) and the amount of light using the ISO setting to determine shutter speed at the time the photograph is taken is important for sharp and properly exposed images.

Carpenter bee on its favorite perch in Sai Yok

There are many books and magazine stories on the subject of close-up/macro photography available from some bookstores, and these should be sought out to get a better idea what techniques and equipment is needed. Considered the ‘bible’ by many of this form of photography is a book entitled ‘Closeups in Nature’ by John Shaw, and even though this tome was written during the film era, it still teaches all the basics needed to get great shots of the small critters and their environment, and the equipment needed.

Carpenter bee in Tak province

Cameras may include some of the newer digital compact ‘point-and-shoot’ types that have close-up capabilities, and are probably the most reasonable option for beginners. The next step-up is the bridge cameras or SLR-style digital compacts. With the right accessories, close-up and macro photography is possible while the cost is still below the standard single-lens-reflex cameras that can be expensive at the pro-level.

Wood-boring beetle in Sai Yok

But the number one choice for serious amateurs and professional photographers who shoot the miniature world use a SLR or DSLR mentioned previously. There are many models and it all boils down to budget, plus the will to get the best images as the number one priority on the purchase of a camera body. Weight and bulk is also a factor. Most of the newer digital cameras are offering 12 megapixels or more.

Coppery-bordered ground beetle in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

If you are a beginner, there are many brands and models to choose from. It is best to check them out at your local camera store and make a choice based on your own criteria. Talk to fellow photographers for advice and read as much as possible to get an idea what you need.

Wasp spider in Thung Yai

If you are shooting a SLR-type camera, the lens and technique is very important for crisp images. Brand names lenses are expensive whereas aftermarket ones can work just as well. Again, shopping for close-up/macro equipment is a matter of choice.

Wasp spider in Chiang Mai province

Lenses for this field exist almost exclusively as fixed focal length. On image quality, they are superior to a standard zoom lens. A high-quality close-up or macro lens can be a companion for life. The focal length you choose depends solely on the type of images you want. The Nikon 105 AF-S VR previously mentioned stands out in its class, because it is the first lens to offer an image stabilizer in the macro range. Other manufactures also offer high-tech bells and whistles, and its up to the photographer to choose.

Tunnel spider in Sai Yok

Extension tubes and some tele-converters that fit between the camera and lens can increase subject size. These can be found easily in most camera shops. Another option that I like is to install a close-up lens in the filter threads of a prime lens. These are not very expensive and add very little weight. However, they are not that readily available but a few specialty firms offer them through the Internet. I use a Nikon 6T close-up lens that is no longer manufactured for both my 105mm and 200mm that have a 62mm filter size.

Tunnel spider in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

Another way to get into the macro range with a standard lens, say like a 50mm, is to install a reversing ring. Another option is to stack lenses such as a manual 200mm with a 50mm reversed using a stacking ring and this can really get down into the 2:1 to 3:1 life sizes.

Jumping spider in Khao Ang Rue Nai

Other options are a bellows unit with a lens installed either normally or reversed. Depending on the extension and type of lens used, bellows devices allow for magnification ratios up to 6:1. But this is better suited for a studio set-up.

Robber fly with prey in Khao Ang Rue Nai

A sturdy tripod and ball head is very important along with an electronic shutter release for sharp images. But they are not always practical where a tripod leg can knock foliage and disturb the subject that will fly or jump away. A monopod will control up and down movement and is easier to set in place but should be used in conjunction with a diffused flash. It is my favorite set-up when I go afield looking for miniature subjects.

Robber fly with prey in Tak province

Natural light is the best choice for close-up/macro photography but not always possible and hence, a flash comes into play. Most flashes today have TTL (through the lens) metering that allows precise flash output. Many new cameras have a pop-up flash that can also be used as long as it can be adjusted for output, and are all right for most applications but should be used with some sort of diffuser like tissue paper in several layers taped over the flash lens to avoid harsh light.

Skipper butterfly in Chiang Mai province

An off-camera flash with a slip-on diffuser plus a bracket and sync cord is tops for close-up photography. It can be adjusted for distance to subject, shot off-hand, and is quick to use. A ring flash is another option for shadow-less lighting and off-hand work.

Lemon pansi on a wild cat scat in Thung Yai

As we pass the first decade of the 21st Century, more and more people are taking up photography as a hobby or profession. The camera and lens manufacturers are constantly bringing out newer and better makes and models, and it is confusing at times.

Water drops on a plant in Eastern Thailand

However, it is an excellent pass time and the world of close-up and macro photography is only limited by one’s own imagination. Get out with camera in hand, even if it is your own back yard, and give it a try. It could become a passion and one that I am thoroughly hooked on. I hope to capture as much wildlife on digital as possible, so that others can also appreciate the wonderful world of nature in miniature.

Comments Off on Thailand’s Miniature World – Part One

The ‘Big Five’ in five days – Part One

Monday, November 15, 2010 posted by Bruce 8:21 PM

Africa’s great wildlife adventure

A photographic team from Thailand goes on safari to Kenya

Leopard in Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya

When I was young, the dream to go to Africa was always on my mind. I collected many books and magazines on the subject and learned about the ‘Dark Continent’ with all its amazing wild animals. But it has always been just a dream until this year.

Male lion portrait in Maasai Mara

Once in while, the chance of a lifetime comes along and the opportunity to visit Kenya, Africa to photograph wildlife became a reality. This place is certainly the ‘Holy Grail’ for photographers and naturalists, and is one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world.

Female elephant in the Maasai Mara

The Masai Mara plains in the southwest section of the country adjoining the Great Serengeti Plains in Tanzania, plus a few other protected areas in Kenya are the ultimate safari experience. The Kenyan people are proud of their heritage.

Cape buffalo and oxpecker in Maasai Mara

White rhinoceros in Lake Nakuru National Park

Buffalo and oxpeckers

Elephant herd on the savanna

The planning and scheduling for the safari was arranged through the Thai Embassy in Nairobi who recommended ‘Transworld Safaris’ as one of the best operators in Kenya. The company certainly lived up to their commitment as a very professionally well-run operation with excellent staff and services.

Lion cubs – part of a large pride

On September 5th of this year, nine people from different walks of life met-up at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok late at night for the eight-hour flight to Nairobi. A group of Thai nationals and myself made up the rest of the group. One thing in common with all of us was the desire to see and photograph wildlife.

Lion cub playing with its mother

We left Thailand on Kenya Airways just after midnight. The airline allowed 40 kilograms of baggage that permitted lot’s of heavy photographic gear. With a couple of tripods, camera-traps, clothes and other stuff, my bags were close to the limit.

Cheetah on a termite mound in the Maasai Mara

The next morning we arrived in Nairobi at 5am and quickly went through immigration and customs. Transworld Safaris manager Sati Lota and two very capable and friendly drivers, Patrick Njoroge and George Ndungu, plus two safari vans were waiting for us at the airport. We were quickly on the road for the five-hour trip to Maasai Mara National Reserve and the first lodge in the bush.

Black-backed jackal in the Maasai Mara

A quick stop at a supermarket was made to buy some foodstuffs and a load of green peas for the ‘bean bags’ needed for camera and lens support on top of the van while photographing wildlife. In Kenya, it is absolutely forbidden to exit the vehicle anywhere while out on safari.

Wildebeest on the run in the savanna

The traffic out of Nairobi was a bit hectic but we eventually arrived at the half waypoint above the ‘Great Rift Valley’ for a quick cup of coffee, and to enjoy the view and buy a few trinkets from the tourist shop. The road then got tougher as we crossed the valley into the Maasai Mara reserve. As we got closer, we began to see antelopes and zebras.

Wildebeest crossing the Mara River

We arrived at the Mara Simba Lodge just after noon and checked in. After depositing our bags in the room, it was straight to the buffet lunch set-up overlooking the Talek River. As we got there, a pod of hippos showed up for a sunbathing session on a sandbar. Egyptian geese were also by the river.

Hippos by the Talek River in the Maasai Mara

As I had my medium camera and lens with me, I made quick work of the situation. The hippo’s size filled the frame and I got some flying shots of the geese. After a quick bite, I took a stroll near an electric fence surrounding the lodge and bumped into a pack of banded mongoose. Three species in less than an hour of arriving; things were certainly looking up.

Hippo pod in the river

At 3.30pm, we had some tea and readied ourselves for our first afternoon ‘game drive’ as they are called. As we left the lodge, we began to see wildlife right away. After a short while, we bumped into a pride of mature female lions and their cubs enjoying the late afternoon sun, and setting out on a hunt. It was exciting to say the least.

Banded mongoose by the Talek River

About 5.30pm, we saw a large group of safari vehicles surrounding a tree out in the savannah and George our driver said it was probably a leopard. We quickly motored to the spot and found the mystical cat sleeping up in the tree. George was very skilled at getting us into a good position.

Egyptian goose taking-off from the Talek River

I managed to get some very close facial shots of the big cat (lead photo). I was using a Nikon D3s and a 400mm f2.8 lens but the catch-lights in the eyes of my leopard were provided by a Canon flash used by my companion next to me. Strange how things work out sometimes but I was elated to say the least.

Leopard coming down from the tree

If you get a leopard, it is said you will get the ‘Big Five’ and that is exactly what we were able to accomplish over the next five days. We also managed to get some very good African buffalo and elephant shots the first day.

Leopard posing for my camera

On day-two, a mature male lion was sleeping off a heavy meal on a grassy knoll. When we arrived, there were about ten-safari cars gathered in a semi-circle around the lazy lion. After a while, most people became impatient and departed for other areas but I insisted we stay put and be patient.

Sleepy male lion in the Maasai Mara

About 6pm, the old boy got up and gave us the classic lion yawn flashing his big teeth. Now that really got the blood flowing and I snapped a long series of close-up shots of the magnificent cat.

The classic African shot – a male lion yawning

On day three we moved to the Mara Serena Lodge in the western section of the reserve. We had ringside seats at two different animal crossings where wildebeest and zebra were struggling in mass to get across the Mara River back into the Serengeti Plains.

Black-maned lion hunting wildebeest

A large pride of lions including a ‘black maned male’ were hunting the ungulates as they came to the river. While the pride attacked, it was pantomime as the antelopes struggled to get away from the lions to the safety of the big herd.

Nile crocodile alongside a wildebeest carcass

Amazingly, the crocs seemed full and we did not see any attacks but did find some very lazy reptiles sunbathing near some wildebeest carcasses. It is certainly an amazing wildlife spectacle and many animals do not make the other side drowning or being taken by the crocs. The vultures were everywhere taking in their fill. A black-backed jackal was scavenging on a wildebeest carcass and posing for us.

Zebra and wildebeest at a river crossing

On the forth day, giraffe, topi, impala, cheetah, hyena, buffalo, vulture provided lots of photographic action. We finally ran out of time and had to return to the hotel. On the way back, we bumped into a female ground hornbill in the beautiful evening glow of the setting sun.

African ground hornbill in the Maasai Mara

After four days of game-driving the Maasai Mara, we headed to our next location. Lake Nakuru National Park further north where the flamingos, and the rare Rothschild giraffe plus white and black rhino live. It was a tough five hours on the road but we arrived at the Savora Lion Hill Lodge just in time for lunch and a bit of a rest.

White rhino mother and calves in Lake Nakuru

At exactly 4pm, we left the lodge and motored close to the lake where the flamingos are. On the way, we bumped into a white rhino mother and calf munching on the lush grass. A herd of bachelor buffalo bulls was also grazing close to the waters’ edge.

Flamingos thrive in the thousands at Lake Nakuru

Greater and lesser flamingos are here in the thousands and it was absolutely a photographer’s delight. The ‘big five’ in five days was in the bag so to speak after the rhino shots.

Group photo at Lake Nakuru with the flamingos in the background

After two days around Lake Nakuru, we were on the road again, this time to a higher elevation. On the way, we stopped off at the famous Thompson Falls for a rest, coffee and some scenic picture taking. The falls were in full flow and the weather was cool at 2,360 meters above sea level.

The famous Thompson Falls at 2,360 meters

Additional photographs obtained while in the Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru

Zebra abstract on the savanna – Maasai Mara

A warthog in mid-day – Maasai Mara

Vultures playing ‘king of the hill’ – Maasai Mara

Secretary bird on the savanna – Maasai Mara

A lone hyena in a dry stream bed – Maasai Mara

Topi on a termite mound – Maasai Mara

Zebras on the savanna – Maasai Mara

Wildebeest after crossing the Mara River – Maasai Mara

Wildebeest on the savanna – Maasai Mara

no images were found

Impala and baboon – Maasai Mara

Griffon vulture – Maasai Mara

Hamerkop building a nest by the Talek River – Maasai Mara

Baboon eating a guineafowl chick – Lake Nakuru

Saddle-billed stork and flamingos – Lake Nakuru

Cape buffalo bull – Lake Nakuru

The very rare Rothschild giraffe – Lake Nakuru

An impala male – Lake Nakuru

Comments Off on The ‘Big Five’ in five days – Part One

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 using ‘active infrared’ to control the cameras followed by 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 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 and 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 ‘’ 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.

Comments Off on Wildlife Candid Camera-Update: Photographing rare creatures with modern digital wizardry

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.

Comments Off on Asian wild dog and Asiatic jackal

The Asian Tapir – Living fossil and bizarre mammal

Wednesday, September 1, 2010 posted by Bruce 1:35 PM

Odd-toed ungulate and strictly vegetarian

The Asian tapir still thrive in Thailand’s dense evergreen forests in the West and South

It was an amazing day in March 2005 near the headwaters of the Phetchaburi River deep in Kaeng Krachan National Park situated along the border with Burma in southwest Thailand. One morning, a buffy fish-owl found stuck in a fishnet was going into shock from hypothermia. I luckily saved this creature from certain death.

Asian tapir posing in the Phetchaburi River

The campfire was going well and I used it to warm up the bird of prey. When it could stand by itself, I placed it on a tree branch and then played wildlife photographer for a short while. I then left the confused animal in peace and it eventually flew across the river and disappeared into the forest. I felt good saving the owl. Under other circumstances, it might not have fared too well.

Buffy fish-owl saved from certain death

Later in the day as we were up-river and just about ready to turn back, a huge king cobra showed-up hunting for prey along the riverbank. I was able to catch a few photographs of the largest venomous snake in the world before it U-turned and disappeared into the forest.

King cobra hunting by the Phetchaburi River

That definitely got the blood flowing as I checked out my shots on my brand new Minolta D7 D-SLR digital camera, the first with anti-shake technology in the camera body. I shot off-hand and was getting some acceptable digital captures. When the smoke cleared, I had only two shots left on the card and decided not to delete any poor exposures as I felt nothing would show after the big snake.

Asian tapir swimming in the Phetchaburi River

It was about 4pm and the light was nice and warm as we headed back to camp more than an hour away. Just then, an Asian tapir bounced out of the forest and dived into the river. It submerged for a short time probably trying to evade a swarm of biting forest flies before surfacing and swimming towards us. I took a shot waiting for the ungulate to get closer. It stopped in the water about twenty meters away.

The tapir has very poor vision and it took a few seconds before the unusual creature saw five humans standing out in the open. Just as I snapped my last shot shown in the lead photo, it swam away and jumped back into the forest it had come from. Seeing one of nature’s remarkable animals, even though briefly, is the ultimate thrill for me.

I know I missed quite a few shots because of old age forgetfulness (not having spare memory cards), but then again, the two shots I captured were more than enough. I was thrilled to capture the world’s largest tapir in broad daylight offhand. If I used a tripod that day, I might have missed it. These creatures are mainly nocturnal and rarely seen during the day. This event was truly the beginning of a new dream and this tapir made the front cover of my third book Wild Rivers. It certainly was special for me, and is etched in memory.

In Thailand, photographing three separate species in one day is surely a rare occurrence as most animals are now tough to see and photograph, especially the tapir. It must have been something about saving the owl earlier in the day and the ‘spirits of the forest’ made up these magical sightings. I will never know. It had been a dream of mine to photograph a tapir in the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park after seeing a painting in a book produced by the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) about the park.

My first tapir from a tree-blind in Huai Kha Khaeng

Years ago when I made regular trips to Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand, one visit stands out as a lucky tapir sighting. There is a hot spring deep in the interior that attracts all sorts of large mammals including the tiger, leopard, elephant, gaur, banteng, and the tapir among others. This mineral deposit is part of a complex natural seep several hundred meters long. I was sitting at the bottom-end in a tree blind about eight meters up and waited throughout the day until about 5pm. A few sambar stags came for a drink followed by a doe. A barking deer nervously stepped in but somehow was spooked by something on my right and departed.

My first tapir moving in the forest under the tree-blind

A few minutes later, a black and white creature plowed through the brush and popped out into the clearing. I quickly snapped off a bunch of frames with my Nikon camera and 600mm lens as the tapir took a long drink filling the frame with the large mammal. The tapir then moved under the tree I was in and I managed a couple of shots with a smaller lens as the tapir disappeared into the forest behind me. In those days I was shooting film and was not sure my photos were good until I processed the film back in Bangkok. Shooting black and white mammals is fraught with exposure problems but most of the shots were OK. It was my first lucky sighting of an animal known for its secrecy and nocturnal habits.

Tapir and gaur photographed at a hot-spring in Huai Kha Khaeng

Another memorable tapir sighting was not by me but my close friends, Samak Khodkaew, Amonsak Sirwichai, Sarawut Sawkhamkhet and Ajarn Prapakorn Tarachai. These gentlemen are nature photographers and have helped me in the past with my book projects. I set the four of them up in a permanent photographic blind about noontime at the top-end of the hot spring mentioned above. I then waited for them back at the truck.

Just as darkness arrived, a bull gaur and a tapir arrived almost together. I have never seen a bunch of excited photographers like this group when they finally came out. Two species in one photo is also quite an achievement. I was happy and glad the ‘spirits of the forest’ had smiled on them.

Asian tapir camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan

When I began a photographic and camera-trap program in 2005 along the Phechaburi River in Kaeng Krachan, it was not long before I caught a mature tapir at a mineral deposit late one night. They are thriving there as are other large mammals like tiger, leopard, sun bear, wild dogs, elephant, gaur and sambar.

Asian tapir mother and calf camera trapped in Khlong Saeng

In early 2009, I started a new program in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Surat Thani province down South. I now have quite a few camera trapped tapir photos where the species is proliferating. The flooded forest of Cheiw Larn reservoir habitat is now unnatural for them but they have adapted to the changed landscape. These amazing herbivores are surviving quite well in the mountains of Khlong Saeng-Khao Sok Forest Complex.

Tapir calf camera trapped in Khlong Saeng

However, tapir numbers have decreased in recent years, and today, like all of the species, is in danger of extinction. Because of their size, tapirs have few natural predators, and even reports of killings by tigers are scarce.

Young ear-bitten tapir camera trapped in Khlong Saeng

The main threat to the Asian tapir is human activity, including hunting for meat, deforestation for agricultural purposes, flooding caused by the damming of rivers for hydroelectric projects, and illegal trade. Protected status in Thailand, which seeks to curb deliberate killing of tapirs but does not address the issue of habitat loss, has had limited effect in reviving or maintaining the population.

In closing, this remarkable wild animal is just another cog in the wheel of Mother Nature’s wonderful array of species adapted to living in the evergreen forests of western and southern Thailand. Their survival depends on one thing: protection and enforcement of the protected areas where they live. Over the long run, it is up to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Department of National Parks to insure that the tapir and all the other beautiful creatures get the best possible safeguards for the future. It is hoped the powers to be will take action to prevent further destruction of the Kingdom’s natural resources.

Tapir up-close

Tapir are considered living fossils as the genus has been traced back as far as Early Oligocene times. These remarkable mammals have been on the planet for about 40 million years. The first tapirs are named Miotapirus judging from fossil evidence found in North America. Tapiridae, a sub-family belong to the Order Perissodactyls, or odd-toed ungulates that goes back to the Late Paleocene 55 million years ago including rhinoceros-like creatures evolving in North America and eastern Asia from small animals similar to the first horses.

The Asian tapir Tapirus indicus, also called the Malayan tapir, is the only one native to Southeast Asia. It has an unmistakable black and white two-tone pattern distinguishing it from the other three tapir species of Central and South America. The Asian species is the largest, and is the only ‘Old World’ tapir with the females slightly larger than the males. They live in the rainforests of Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Sumatra.

The general appearance and characteristics of the Asian tapir is easily identified by its markings, most notably the white “saddle” which extends from its shoulders to its rump. The rest of its hair is black, except for the tips of its ears, which, as with other tapirs, are rimmed with white. This pattern is for camouflage as the disrupted coloration makes it more difficult to recognize it as a tapir at night, or in the dark jungle during the daytime that they prefer. They are mainly nocturnal but do show sometimes in the late afternoon at the river or mineral deposit. Other animals like tiger may mistake it for a large rock rather than a form of prey when it is lying down to sleep.

The Asian tapir grow to between 1.8 to 2.4 m in length, stand 90 to 107 cm tall, and typically weigh 250 to 320 kg, although they can weigh up to 500 kg. The females are usually larger than the males. Like the other types of tapir, they have small stubby tails and long, flexible proboscises. They have four toes on each front foot and three toes on the back feet.

The tapir has very poor eyesight, and making them rely greatly on their excellent sense of smell and hearing to go about their everyday lives. The tapir has small, beady eyes with brown irises on either side of their face. Their eyes are often covered in a blue haze, which is corneal cloudiness thought to be caused by repetitive exposure to light. Corneal cloudiness is when the cornea starts to lose its transparency.

The gestation period of the Asian Tapir is approximately 390-395 days, after which a single offspring, weighing around 6.8 kg, is born. Young tapirs of all species have brown hair with white stripes and spots, a pattern that enables them to hide effectively in the dappled light of the forest. This baby coat fades into adult coloration between four and seven months after birth. Weaning occurs between six and eight months of age, at which time the babies are nearly full-grown, and the animals reach sexual maturity around age three. Breeding typically occurs in April to June, and females generally produce one calf every two years. Asian Tapirs can live up to 30 years, both in the wild and in captivity.

Tapir are primarily solitary creatures, marking out large tracts of land as their territory, though these areas usually overlap with those of other individuals. Tapir mark out their territories by spraying urine on plants, and they often follow distinct paths that they have bulldozed through the undergrowth.

Exclusively vegetarian, the animal forages for the tender shoots and leaves of more than one hundred species of plants (around 30 are particularly preferred), moving slowly through the forest and pausing often to eat and note the scents left behind by other tapirs in the area. They tend to eat soon after sunset or before sunrise, and they will often nap in the middle of the night.

However, when threatened or frightened, the tapir can run quickly despite its considerable bulk. They can also defend themselves with their strong jaws and sharp teeth, and have thick hides protecting them from predator attack. They communicate with high-pitched squeaks and whistles. They usually prefer to live near water and often bathe and swim, and they are also able to climb steep slopes.

Comments Off on The Asian Tapir – Living fossil and bizarre mammal

Photographing three wild species in one day

Sunday, August 1, 2010 posted by Bruce 10:41 AM

The beginning of my 3rd book project entitled Wild Rivers

Three species on one lucky day in March of 2005

Like most of my mornings in the forest, getting out of the hammock before dawn is a routine affair for me. Sleeping by the pristine Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park in southwest Thailand is a peaceful and soothing experience with the sound of rushing water flowing down to the lowlands. The night creatures fade into their abodes and daytime is greeted by singing birds and insects. As the sun comes up, gibbons call and hornbills honk from the treetops. It is nature at its very best.

Buffy fish owl by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park

I adhere to an old saying; “an early bird get’s the worm” to sometimes work wonders. This was the case one particular morning in March 2005. After a quick cup of coffee, I got my cameras ready for the days’ shoot. I was about to embark on my third book project capturing some extremely lucky wildlife photographs of three different species in one day.

The mighty Phetchaburi River during the dry winter season

About 6am, one of the Karen porters went upstream and found a buffy fish-owl stuck in his fishnets. I was upset at them to say the least but had to think quickly. The bird was going into shock as hypothermia took control over the owl. It was on the verge of dying and only quick thinking saved this creature from certain death. The campfire was going well so I placed the bird close to warm it up and get its blood flowing. I’m sure the creature had no idea what was going on but the bird was calm and collective as I assured it everything would be OK.

Buffy fish owl just after being saved from certain death

The owl began to perk up and I knew then it would survive. I placed it on a tree branch by the river and it locked its talons into the bark. The bird of prey just sat there while I played wildlife photographer. After shooting almost an entire memory card and without further ado, I left the owl in peace.

As I sat down to eat breakfast, it left its temporary perch and flew across the river disappearing into the dense forest. The bird was not seen again. I felt pleased at having saved this beautiful creature’s life. I had just switched to a Minolta digital SLR camera and was able to double-check all my shots for exposure, color and focus. Everything looked good and I was excited at having photographed this owl during the day as they are nocturnal.

King cobra hunting along the Phetchaburi River

After breakfast, we packed up our gear for a day trip headed upriver. In March, the water level is low, and the riverine habitat easy to transverse. The team and I crossed the river several times till about 4pm when I decided to turn back to camp. Just then, my research companion Detchart “Top” Saengsen sighted a large snake and called out. I reached for my camera with a 280mm lens and found a slithering black reptile in the underbrush. Its head appeared and I started shooting, not thinking about the danger. The king cobra – the world’s largest venomous snake – moved into an overhang so I flipped up the flash and took a few more shots. The reptile did a u-turn and was gone in a split second.

The big snake just before it made a u-turn and disappeared in a split second

The rest of the team had already retreated, leaving the crazy photographer to his own devices. It certainly was an exciting experience. I was elated that I had just photographed the true king of the forest. It is said large mammals like elephants, gaur and tigers stay out of the king cobra’s way. I checked my camera and had two shots left on my card. I decided not to delete any poor images until later as I felt nothing would show itself after the big snake.

Asian tapir swimming in the Phetchaburi River

The team and I were in good spirits as we headed back to camp. Suddenly, an Asian tapir bounced out of the thick forest on the opposite bank about a hundred meters away. It dove into the river and started swimming towards us, now fifty meters off. Tapir have fair eyesight but this black and white creature did not notice five humans standing out in the open up on a sandbank. I took one shot of the swimming tapir then waited, knowing very well I only had one frame left. The creature got closer and then stopped in the water about 20 meters away. I centered the focusing ring on the eye and took the shot. Then we watched this elegant animal go back the way it had come.

Asian tapir posing for me in the late afternoon sun

I know I missed quite a few shots because of old age, forgetfulness (not having spare memory cards), but then again, the two shots I had were more than enough. I was thrilled to photograph the world’s largest tapir in daylight. These creatures are mainly nocturnal and rarely seen. That day was truly the beginning of a new dream and my last shot of this tapir made the front cover of my third book Wild Rivers now published and available at bookstores in Thailand and the region. It certainly was a special day for me and one that is etched in memory.

I am now working on book four which will be a collection of stories published over a two year period in the Bangkok Post, Thailand’s number one English daily. Chapters about the top protected areas in Thailand and ‘wild species reports’ on the animals thriving in the remaining forests including mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other categories. Hopefully, this book project will create conservation awareness among the present generation. My dream to produce wildlife books continues, but that is another story.

Comments Off on Photographing three wild species in one day