Archive for the ‘Journal Entries’ Category
While I was on safari in April 2016, I was lucky to get some nice vulture shots on a carcass at Corbett Tiger Reserve and then at a cliff-face in Panna Tiger Reserve.
Himalayan Griffon , Red headed and Cinereous vultures plus a crow on a carcass in the Dikhala grassland in Corbett Tiger Reserve…!
A Himalayan Griffon vulture flying into a spotted deer carcass…!
Long-billed vultures an a cliff-face in Panna Tiger Reserve…!
A vulture on the wing in mid-morning in Panna Tiger Reserve…!
Africa’s Big Five…!
The ‘Big Five’ was coined by colonialists in East Africa by the big-game hunters sometime in the 1850s, and was trophies collected from large dangerous mammals taken with a gun. Photography was in its infant stage and very few photographs of wild animals in their natural habitat were around other than pictures of downed animals on the ground with the trophy hunter and gun bearers standing by its side.
Bull elephant in Tsavo West National Park, Kenya, during the late afternoon. This huge bull came real close to the car but passed by without incident. This was the largest tusker I had ever seen on my four safaries through 11 protected areas. Truly, a ‘wildlife icon’ of Kenya’s natural heritage. Taken with a Nikon D7000 and a 70-300 VRII lens @ 116mm. Offhand through the window.
Many rich and famous people went on safari to the ‘Dark Continent’ as it was called back then including Theodore Roosevelt, President of America and Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, plus many Hollywood movies stars like Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Stewart Granger. Going on safari was big business just after the turn of the 20th century, and usually only the ‘well-to-do’ could afford such a journey. They came from all around the world to hunt the large animals that were thriving in great numbers on the savannas and in the bush.
The ‘Big Five’ list consisted of the elephant, rhino (black and white), Cape buffalo, lion and leopard. Most hunters used large caliber rifles to bring down these mighty beasts as trophies to be hung on a wall, or a rug on the floor in the office or home. Other parts of some creatures ended up as trash cans, ashtrays, lampshades and jewelry to name just a few. This was way before cameras came into vogue to capture these animals on film and eventually digital.
White rhino mother and calves in Lake Nakuru National Park not far from Mount Kenya in the central region. This species is identified by their wide mouth and were reintroduced from South Africa as Kenya had lost most of its rhinos to legal hunting and illegal poaching for the horn. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 400mm ƒ2.8 on a beanbag.
Black rhino mother and calf in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. Part of the city of Nairobi is in the background and there are about 60 black rhinos trans-located from South Africa to this park. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 200-400mm @ 650mm on a monopod…!
Cape buffalo in Tsavo East National Park, Southern Kenya. Note reddish color of this very mature bull due to red clay found in the area. Buffalo found in other areas of Kenya are mostly black. Taken with a Nikon D7000 and a Nikon 70-300mm VR II lens @ 220mm on a beanbag.
A black-maned lion in Taita Wildlife Sanctuary near Tsavo West National Park. This big cat was caught in the grassland just before the park closed for the day around 5:50pm. It was a lucky encounter. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 200-400 VR II lens and a 2X teleconverter for 800mm on a bean-bag.
Leopard in the Masai Mara National Reserve in western Kenya. This big cat was seen and photographed on my very first day while on safari in this protected area. This was a real good start to capture the ‘Big Five’ of Africa as the leopard is the hardest to photograph in the group. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 400mm ƒ2.8 lens on a beanbag.
Thailand’s Big Six…!
For the last twenty years, I have photographed all of Thailand’s large mammals including elephant, gaur, banteng, wild water buffalo plus tiger and leopard. It has been an excellent journey and experience for me, and I feel fortunate to have been at the right time and right place to capture these wild animals with my camera.
A tusker by the river in Sai Yok National Park in the Western Forest Complex. This shot was taken while he was fanning himself more than a decade ago and it is doubtful this big elephant is still surviving. Poachers chase after these elephants for their ivory just like everywhere else jumbos live. Taken with a Nikon F5 and a Nikon 500 P manual lens using Fuji Provia 100 slide film.
A small herd of gaur in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Surat Thani province down in Southern Thailand. These herbivores thrive quite well here in this protected area along the shoreline of Khlong Saeng reservoir. This was taken with Nikon D3 and a Nikon 400 ƒ2.8 lens on a tripod setup in a boat.
Very mature banteng bull and cow at a mineral deposit in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Forest Complex. These herbivores thrive very well in this protected area and there are estimated that more than 350 are found here. Taken with a Konica Minolta Dynax 7D and a Minolta 600mm lens from a photo blind across the river.
A wild water buffalo cow charging me by the river in Huai Kha Khaeng in the Western Forest Complex of Western Thailand. This female was part of a small herd wallowing in the waterway. Taken with a Nikon D2x and Nikon 400mm ƒ2.8 lens on a tripod mount from a boat-blind.
An Indochinese tiger at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Forest Complex of Thailand. There are about 200-250 tigers left in the forests in the East and West and some in the South. They are highly sought after by poachers for tiger body parts, bones and pelt. This male tiger was caught by Nikon D700 and Nikon 400mm ƒ2.8 lens from an elevated blind.
An Asian leopard crossing a fallen log in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Forest Complex of Thailand. This male cat was captured using a Nikon D700 trail camera with a Nikon 35mm lens and two Nikon flashes. These big cats are fairly common in this protected area and both color phases (black and yellow) can be found here.
A black leopard walking in the afternoon sun catching its spots at a hot spring in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Forest Complex. This mature cat stayed for more than an hour waiting on prey. This was taken with a Nikon N90s with a 500mm ƒ4 lens using Fuji Provia 100 slide film.
Africa’s Big Six…!
Then in 2010, 2011 and 2012, I made four trips to Kenya in Africa and collected images from ten protected areas including the Masai Mara National Reserve that was first on the list, followed by Lake Nakuru, Samburu, Amboseli, Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks, Taita and Shimba Hills wildlife sanctuaries, Sweetwaters private reserve and finally, Nairobi National Park capturing the ‘The Big Six’ which includes the elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard and hippo while on safari. The hippo is included in this list because they take a serious toll on humans that get in their way and are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Kenya has done a great job in preserving its wildlife heritage and hopefully one day I will return.
Elephant in Taita Wildlife Sanctuary in Southern Kenya between Tasvo East and West national parks. The large mammals in this area are mainly red colored due to the red clay found here. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 600mm ƒ4 lens on a bean-bag.
Black rhino male in Nairobi National Park just outside Nairobi city in Kenya. These odd-toed ungulates were introduced from South Africa and now there are about 60 of them found here. Taken with a Nikon D700 and Nikon 200-400mm lens on a bean-bag.
White rhino in Nairobi National Park close to the Nairobi city in the background. These herbivores are now found in good numbers and were also introduced from South Africa. Taken with a Nikon D3s and Nikon 400mm ƒ2.8 lens on a bean-bag.
A Cape buffalo down in Shimba Hills Wildlife Sanctuary near Mombassa, Kenya. Due to the moist evergreen forest with loads of rain found here, the large mammals like buffalo and elephants are dark in color compared to their cousin further north that take on a red hue. Taken with a Nikon D7000 and a Nikon 70-300mm lens on a bean-bag.
A lion cub close to the road at dusk in Tsavo West National Park. These carnivores are found in good numbers here as the prey base is also good. Taken with a Nikon D3s and Nikon 600mm ƒ4 lens on a bean-bag.
A mother leopard in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Western Kenya. These carnivores thrive as prey species is very good in this protected area. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 400mm ƒ2.8 lens on a bean-bag.
A male hippo in Tsavo West National Park in Southern Kenya. These huge herbivores live around large waterholes found in the park. They are dangerous mammals and more people die from hippo attacks then all the other big animals put together. Taken with Nikon D3s and a Nikon 600mm ƒ4 lens on a bean-bag.
India’s Big Six…!
India was next on my radar and my first trip happened in April 2013, then again in November 2014 and two trips last year (Feb-Mar & November, 2015). So far, I have visited the most famous protected areas in India consisting of Kaziranga, Ranthambore, Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Tadoba, Kanha, Pench and Satpura national parks and tiger reserves. The ‘Big Six’ list includes elephant, Indian rhino, wild water buffalo, gaur, tiger and the leopard were photographed.
Hunting back in the old days was carried out primarily by the British and India’s Royal Maharajahs, which almost wiped out many species especially the tiger. However, the country has done an amazing job of saving this species from the brink of extinction for people from around the world to see and enjoy. The balance of nature is still fairly intact and these creatures still thrive on the sub-continent in good numbers.
Bull elephant at a waterhole in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve in Assam State, Northeastern India. There are some 1,000 of these herbivores found in the park. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 200-400mm lens on a mono-pod.
A male Indian one-horned rhino in Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve. There are roughly 2,400 rhinos now and is one of the greatest conservation success stories in the world. Some 80 years ago, there were a mere 12 remaining and the Assamese government established a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy for any poachers found in the park. Taken with a Nikon D3s and Nikon 200-400mm lens on a mono-pod.
A wild water buffalo in a waterhole in the park with huge horns. These herbivores have the largest horns in the world. There are some 1,300 buffalo found here and is one of the largest herds in the world. Taken with Nikon D3s and a Nikon 200-400mm lens on a mono-pod.
A bull gaur in Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve, Central India. These even-toed ungulates are the largest bovine in the world standing 1.7 meters at the shoulder. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 200-400mm lens on a mono-pod.
A male tiger named ‘Wagdoh’ (one-eye) in Tadoba Anhari Wildlife Sanctuary in Central India. There are about 2,400 tigers in India’s protected areas and is the largest population in the world. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 200-400mm lens on a mono-pod.
A female leopard in late morning in Tadoba Anhari National Park, Central India. For the most part, leopards are tough to spot in the forests of India. However, luck does come and this beautiful girl posed for my camera on my first morning safari in March 2015. Taken with a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 200-400mm lens on a mono-pod.
In 1995, I began what will be my last profession in life when I picked up a camera some two decades ago. Photographing wildlife is the greatest thing I have ever accomplished in my 70-odd years on the planet. It has been a journey of discovery and rediscovery, and sometimes I wish I could have started wildlife photography when I first came to Thailand in 1964. The jungles and teak forests were absolutely teaming with wild creatures from Asian elephants down to tree shrews. Birds, reptiles, amphibians plus insects and spiders were also found in great numbers.
Conclusion: It is my opinion and utmost worry that some of these ecosystems and large mammals found in Thailand, Kenya and India are in jeopardy from human influences. Certain species have gone into serious decline or have even become locally extinct due to the human population explosion, and expansion into these wild places. Therefore, more is needed to protect and save the natural wonders of ‘Planet Earth’ from annihilation by the human element before it is too late. A thousand percent increase in preservation, forest management, more personnel and rangers on the ground plus more funds is the only answer. But with so many obstacles in the mix, I remain optimistic about wildlife in many forests of the future. As the natural biospheres undergo serious threats and changes to their integrity by humans, the road to extinction is at hand for many.
However, saving wildlife and the protected areas where they live with good security and enforcement must be implemented and is the key to the animal’s future survival in places like Kaziranga National Park in Assam, northeast India. Here, most guards are armed with a .303 service rifle and extreme measures are upheld to the letter; poachers are dealt with swiftly and in a deadly manner in some cases. Because of the stringent rules and protection, there are 2,400 Great Indian rhino, 1,300 wild water buffalo, 1,000 elephant and one of the highest tiger densities in the world with over 100 big cats living in a smallish (840 sq. kilometers) park. Kaziranga is the true role-model for real wildlife conservation around the world in desperate times. As more and more creatures disappear from the wild, tougher rules and regulations is the only way to guarantee their future survival…!
THE TRIP: STATE BY STATE…!
In August, I decided to do a road trip in the USA. I arrived in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas on October 18 and spent a few days with my family in Grand Prairie (between D-FW) before heading out. Got a Nissan ‘Altima’ from Hertz with unlimited mileage and got some 35 miles to the gallon. The car was very comfortable and handled well. Also, bought a Garmin Nuvi 2597 GPS and boy, did that ever come in handy. I could have bought two GPSs if I had rented one from Hertz at $12.99 plus tax a day….ouch…! Over the entire trip, it (she) took me to everyone’s front door; simply amazing.
On October 21st, I left Grand Prairie, Texas to Oklahoma (one night), then up to Nebraska (three nights), Wisconsin (one night) Minnesota (one night), Michigan (three nights), Pennsylvania (one night) and New York (for a 5 day rest). It was back on the road again down to New Jersey and back up to Pennsylvania (one night). Then it was down to Tennessee (two nights), Georgia (two nights), Florida (two nights), Alabama (one night) Louisiana (five nights) and back to Dallas. The odometer at the end of the trip was 6,240 miles. The main objective for this mega-trip was to visit my friends on Camtrapper.com forum in the the Mid-West and East.
Unfortunately, I missed Fireman Jim in Dechard, TN (he was at work) and Ron Davis in Jacksonville, FL (out hunting in Georgia)…but I did talk with both of them on the phone at length…!
I also did a wildlife presentation for the Biology Club at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This group are serious students of wildlife conservation…!
Another objective was to meet-up with Beak, an old friend I knew more than 45 years ago in Thailand…..We visited the Okefenokee Swamp together in southern Georgia with the main objective of photographing the American alligator. It was fun and I got my gator…also met a lovely Cajun girl who was our naturalist/guide/boat operator; she was sweet and knew her stuff about the swamp…!
List of Camera Trap guys that I met on this trip:
1) ghoot – Gary Kohout at Snapshotsniper – Duncan, OK
2) TRLcam – Jeff Dale – Walton, NE
3) jjkscf – Joe Kahl – St Croix Falls, WI
4) willy – Sean Hall – Cloquet, MN
5) wolvenkinde – Lon Ludach – Ironwood, MI
6) IroquoisArcher – Jon LeVan – Erie, PA
8) johnnydeerhunter – John Lockburner – Boonton, NJ
9) Buckhunter1 – Bruce Kisner- Wyalusing, PA
Other people I visited along the way as follows:
10) Wayne (Beak) Sivaslian from Schenectady, NY (My dear friend and buddy for more that 45 years).
11) Dr Robert Orr in Knoxville, TN (retired professor at the University).
12) Brad Preston and Chris Lytle, in New Orleans, LA (business associates).
13) Bryan Marlborough in Baton Rouge LA (my webmaster).
And finally, stopped by my 5 acres of timberland outside of De Ridder, LA…as I was leaving my property, a bobcat bounded across the front of a pickup coming towards me. I will camera trap this thicket one day knowing that many animals pass through…!
Politics in Thailand have just had another negative downturn and I might have to set-up some sort of a fall-back in the US. I’m thinking I could homestead my land if Thailand went into serious civil unrest….I’m just prepping for what might come…!!
I enjoyed my trip in the States and look forward to another one in the future. I would like to thank all of you who extended your kind hospitality and friendship. and look forward to doing it again…!
The odometer back in Texas. 6,240 miles total..!
The route and guys I met on the trip. I will post (Part Two) more photos ASAP.
A family unit in Khao Yai National Park.
Increasingly dangerous environment for wild elephants: An indicator species of a pristine forest
Of all the mammals in Thailand, the wild elephant is probably the most important indicator species of a disappearing wilderness. A century ago, there were more than a hundred thousand elephants found in the country when 75 percent of the Kingdom was still covered by forest. Just north and east of Bangkok, these huge mammals thrived in the marshlands and forests near the city.
But as time passed and humanity expanded creating cities and towns, roads and highways, railways, agriculture farmlands, golf courses and resorts, the home of the wild elephant began to disappear leaving many forests fragmentized and degraded. Populations of wild elephants went into serious decline. Humans are directly responsible for this loss with encroachment and poaching at the forefront. Forests and wildlife continue to disappear as we move into the 21st Century.
When Khao Yai, the first national park in Thailand was established in 1962, the Royal Forest Department (RFD) was in charge of protecting the forest. Prior to that, they controlled logging concessions and huge swathes of forest were felled in the timber business. Finally, the government stopped all logging in 1989. However, illegal tree felling is still going on to this day but on a smaller scale.
Tusker camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, eastern Thailand.
Then in 1992, the Department of National Parks (DNP) was established to look after the national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, non-hunting areas and marine national parks. There are now over two hundred protected areas nation-wide.
Since then, it has taken many, many years for the department to establish some form of protection and enforcement. Patrolling of the forests has been minimal due to many factors. Unfortunately, things have been difficult for them to look after these biospheres because of low budgets and not enough personnel. Laws are seriously outdated especially when it comes to elephants.
Elephants in the Huai Kha Khaeng river blowing water.
The history of man and elephants in Asia has been intertwined for several thousand years. These majestic creatures taken from the wild have been part of human culture and beliefs. Elephants played a major role in the wars with Burma of the past. Until recently, the elephant was not only used for logging but for transport and baggage. More recently, they are used to attract tourists at camps and in cities where people use them for begging. The domestic elephant has been abused, and very badly in some cases.
Begging elephant in Chiang Mai – Abstract.
Probably the most appalling fate for a domesticated elephant is to become a streetwalker. These magnificent creatures are forced to walk hot, dusty and polluted streets of Thai cities ‘begging’ for food and money. Stories about elephants hit by cars and falling into drainage ditches, plus other accidents have been documented.
Ten years ago, it was guesstimated that 2,000 wild and 3,000 domestic elephants were thriving in the country. Due to an increased DNP and NGO interaction in the parks and sanctuaries, wild elephants have made a bit of a comeback in some protected areas. There are now (still guesstimated) to be about 3,000 wild elephants and more than 4,000 domesticated animals. Population density surveys have been carried out in some parks but exact numbers of the wild population are still uncertain.
Elephants on a truck bound for Chiang Mai.
The biggest threat to wild elephants is still the same. Poaching males for their ivory and females for their babies. Recent kills in Kaeng Krachan National Park in the Southwest have gone on for quite sometime due to poor protection and enforcement, and numbers of elephants have dropped.
Elephants in the savanna of Kui Buri National Park.
It is quite possible that they have migrated to Kui Buri National Park further south along a thin corridor along the Burmese border. Numbers in Kui Buri have increased 100 percent in the last five to ten years, and evidence of elephants in Prak Tha Kor Reserve Forest between the two parks has been documented. This area needs to be established as a protected area.
Elephant herd in Kui Buri National Park.
The following is a typical scenario of baby elephant snatching. Gunshots reverberate explosively through the forest, panicking and scattering a herd of wild elephants. The huge beasts instinctively flee as fast as they can through heavy foliage away from the cacophony. In minutes, the forest returns to normal. But the sad fact is that humans have just disrupted the herd permanently.
A large herd in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary.
A baby elephant mills aimlessly around its mother lying dead on the ground. The confused calf has no sense of danger as poachers move in to capture it to be sold on the illegal black market. The calf will likely be forced to wander city streets or work in tourist camps.
A small herd including a calf in the Huai Kha Khaeng river.
Such atrocities are still practiced by unscrupulous people intent on killing the mother solely to capture the baby. Many other animals are also hunted down in much the same way. Middleman, the ‘big-fish’ and end-use buyers perpetuate this market and seem to evade the law. When will this horror story ever stop?
A tusker and tourists in Khao Yai.
In another real-life scenario, a young tusker is killed on the road that transects the northern part of the elephant’s range in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Thailand. It is home to about 170 wild elephants. The road had been widened and resurfaced to enable faster speed.
Tuskless bull in Huai Kha Khaeng.
During late-evening one day in May 2002, a man and woman in a pickup truck barreling through the sanctuary at high speed did not see the elephants on the road until it was too late. The truck crashed head-on into a 5-year-old tusker. The truck’s driver was killed on impact but the woman survived. The young elephant died shortly after.
Tusker on the road in Khao Yai NP.
This young tusker was not the first and definitely will not be the last elephant to be killed by reckless driving on this road. Eventually, the local government ordered the road closed through Khao Ang Rue Nai from 9pm to 5am. The elephants come out of the forest usually only at night and can now roam safely in their own habitat. Accidents and road-kill have dropped drastically. Definitely a role model for other protected areas with elephant-human conflicts.
Another tusker on the road in Khao Yai N.P.
Such accidents are a terrible blow to the conservation of Thai elephants, because tuskers are particularly vulnerable, being subject to hunting for their ivory. Asian ivory is finer-grained than African ivory and prized for carving into trinkets and Japanese hanko (signature seals).
Herd in Kui Buri N.P.
Much of their habitat has been taken over, mainly by pineapple, sugarcane and cassava. Villages spring up in old elephant habitat, and the trespassers expect the giants to simply fade away into the forest. But elephants can develop a taste for crops grown by farmers, and they often take what they want. Countless conflicts have arisen between villagers and the real owners of the land, whose ancestors have lived there for many thousands of years.
Herd in the Huai Kha Khaeng river.
Elephants have been maimed and killed by poisoning waterholes, pungee stakes, gunshots, and electrocution. They have been chased out of rice paddies, mango orchards and farmlands. People use fireworks, bright lights and guns to scare them away temporarily, but the elephants are intelligent enough to lose their fear of such ruses.
Elephant on the highway north of Bangkok.
These giants grow bolder and go on the rampage, sometimes killing people, tearing up villages and damaging RFD and DNP facilities. Some conservation organizations have erected new signs warning of the danger of elephants in the area.
Elephant and handler begging near ‘700 Years’ Stadium in Chiang Mai.
A trip at night around some cities, one can still be greeted by a huge gray beast with a red light attached to its tail. Continuous calls for change go unnoticed by mahouts and the owners of these elephants who sneak them into tourist sites. Legislation concerning domesticated elephants remains old and out-dated, and law enforcement has also been very poor. On the positive side of things, the authorities have finally moved them out of Bangkok, but they still roam on the outskirts in some places.
Elephant in a mineral deposit in Kaeng Krachan N.P.
It is hoped that the RFD, DNP and other government organizations will draw attention to the dire situation of Thai elephants, both wild and domestic. These noble beasts have featured prominently in almost every important historical event in the Kingdom. They are a national symbol of pride and joy. The Thai elephants’ future survival lies in the hands of the government who are responsible for these amazing giants….!
I would like to thank Andy Merk, German wildlife photographer for the lead photograph. He has been hanging around Khao Yai for the last 20 some years and has a huge collection of elephant photos from the park. He is doing a survey of trying to get a estimate of the population by identifying individual elephants by their ears, specially the male tuskers and mature females.
An extraordinary sighting in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
A black leopard resting at the hot spring.
Sometimes things happen in succession that boggles the mind. On May 6th I posted a tale about a ‘black leopard’ plus other Asian wild animals caught by my Sony S600 cam on a trail into a hot spring in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, western Thailand where I’m currently running a camera trap program.
Entering the hot spring.
I also mentioned in the story that I photographed a ‘black leopard’ from a tree blind some 15 years ago just up the trail a bit. The ‘leopard spots’ image is one of my all-time favorite wildlife photographs ever. http://brucekekule.com/camera_trapping/a-black-leopard-passes-my-camera-trap/
Leaving the hot spring.
On May 7th, I was back at the hot springs to set camera traps, and to sit at the base of the old tree for some through-the-lens work. Who knows what might show-up.
I was with my friend Sarawut Sawkhamkhet, a Thai wildlife photographer. We arrived and set-up a temporary blind about 3pm. The weather was warm and balmy with nice clear-blue skies.
A full-frame shot.
At 5:45pm, the unthinkable happened! A ‘black leopard’ appeared out of the forest near the springs and walked over for a drink, and then disappeared for a short while. Then the magnificent creature came back and flopped down on all fours twitching its tail looking straight at us staying for about 10 minutes before going back in the forest where it had come from.
Kabook Kabieng hot springs deep in the interior.
I would venture to say, this is the same cat I camera trapped back in February and it could also be an offspring of my original leopard back in 1998. Who knows? I was elated to say the least.
To see and photograph a black leopard once again at this same location after all these years is something out of the extraordinary. When time permitted, I set one of my trusty Sony S600 cams at the hot spring and will go back in a couple of weeks to see what has visited the waterhole.
Then I intend to set a DSLR Nikon or Canon camera trap with several flashes for improved images. This place is truly worth the effort, time and difficulty to get here. I look forward to more incredible images from this wildlife haven.
Creating wildlife conservation awareness through photography
Asiatic jackal by the side of the road in Huai Kha Khaeng
Thailand’s wildlife and forests has evolved over millions of years into some of the most beautiful and interesting in the world. Photographing these ecosystems and rare animals such as the Siamese crocodile, tiger, leopard, gaur, banteng, wild water buffalo, elephant and tapir, plus a multitude of other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, spiders and insects in their natural habitats is a daunting task to say the least. A multitude of different aspects contribute to the difficult and sometimes dangerous pastime of wildlife photography.
Gibbon calling during the morning in Huai Kha Khaeng
Probably the most prominent is the ever-increasing human population and social ills like poaching, gathering and encroachment in the protected areas. This alone has taken its toll and the country’s wild flora and fauna, from under the sea to the highest mountains, are in serious jeopardy with a slim chance of recovery to the magnificent ecosystems of the past. However, not all is lost and the present generation should take a positive interest in preserving what remains of the Kingdom’s natural treasures before it is too late.
Nature photography is one of the best ways to record and promote wildlife conservation awareness. Wildlife photographs create a mental image that can improve one’s love and understanding of the wonderful world of nature. Many people in the cities have a misconception that Thailand’s wildlife and forests has diminished to the point of no return, or has disappeared into the depths of extinction. This is unfortunate and needs constant education and media projection to uplift the people’s knowledge that many species do in fact, still survive.
Sambar with a blue magpie feeding on ticks in Huai Kha Khaeng
Low densities at many sites depleted over the years by poaching and encroachment before any form of protection was implemented is probably one of the main reasons. Human pressure and the Asian traditional medicine trade are directly responsible for the disappearing wild species. The black market trade in wildlife seems to be on the increase and the authorities are continually working to eradicate this destructive illegal business.
Before World War Two, 75 percent of the nation was still covered in pristine forests. Barely 30 percent survives today and most of these are seriously degraded. Wildlife has become scarce and extremely elusive and hence, difficult to photograph. With no subjects, it can be a tough assignment to capture wild creatures that were once quite common. Knowing where to go with the right equipment is just part of the process. Many other aspects are also important and I will try to pass on some of my experiences to those who desire to try their hand at nature/wildlife photography.
Sambar doe on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng
A few protected areas still remain fairly intact with good densities of flora and fauna. Prey species are abundant and carnivores thrive. These havens for wildlife include time honored Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries, Thailand’s top nature reserve and a World Heritage Site. Due to its size (more than 6,000 square kilometers) and biodiversity, this site is absolutely the best tiger habitat left in the Kingdom. It must be saved at all costs for present and future generations.
Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri national parks further south along the western border with Burma still have very good ecosystems with an abundance of flora and fauna. Other protected areas include: Khao Yai, Thap Lan, Pang Sida national parks in the northeast; Khao Ang Rue Nai and Khao Soi Dow wildlife sanctuaries in the east; Sai Yok, Erawan, Sri Nakarin national parks and Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary in the west; Khao Sok National Park, and Khlong Saeng and Khlong Nakha wildlife sanctuaries in the south; and finally, Tarutao National Park and Hala Bala and Budo wildlife sanctuaries in the deep south all have wildlife and make good photographic destinations. However, the security is not too good at the moment and maybe it would be better to wait until things improve for these southern nature reserves.
Gaur herd at a mineral deposit in Huai Kha Khaeng
Wildlife photography is a difficult hobby or profession to become proficient. Years of trial and error, lost shots, bad exposure, out of focus, no wildlife subjects, equipment failure, expense and many other intricate problems make things difficult for the wildlife photographer. Travel plans and permission to enter some of the sensitive protected areas is a hurdle that must be crossed before any photographs can be taken. But where there is a will, there is a way and the difficult can be overcome.
Cameras and lenses in the professional range are expensive but amateur equipment can also provide satisfactory results. Modern technology like the Digital Single Lens Reflex (D-SLR) is now the ultimate and both Nikon and Canon remain the most popular brands for variety (beginner to professional both in lenses and cameras). Other makes like Sony, Pentax, Olympus and Sigma also offer very good equipment. Aftermarket lenses from Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina cost less than the top brands but produce satisfactory to very good photographs.
Spangled drongo in Doi Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary
Another form of wildlife photography is the use of infrared camera traps that allows one to capture illusive and rare animals, plus new digital cameras show results in real time. Readymade camera traps are available and a quick search on the Internet will show dozens of makes and models.
Female tiger camera trapped in Huai Kha Khaeng
The use of a photo-blind is very important as is self-control and patience, which comes with practice and a desire to get a photograph of nature’s creatures. Long stints in the blind and hot weather are something that comes with practice. Wildlife encounters are usually brief and one must always be ready with camera in hand ready to shoot on a moments’ notice.
Black orb spider along a trail in Huai Kha Khaeng
No two days are alike in the natural world and opportunities must be taken then and there if one is to be a successful wildlife photographer. Finally, share your photographs with as many people as possible in order to send a message to all that nature is truly worth saving for the future.
Thailand’s 8-legged arthropods
Lawn wolf spider in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
It is said arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders is common among people around the world who have an inherent trepidation of these creepy crawlies. Just the thought of coming in contact with one is something most of us dread.
But there are few souls out there who love them and even keep spiders as pets. However, the vast majority of us tend to just stay out of their way. Some spiders can give a nasty bite although fatalities are rare.
Like all living things, spiders have to face life’s difficulties such as finding food and mates, producing offspring, and fending off danger. However, spiders are the ultimate predator, and have been on the planet for a very long time.
Ornamental spider female and smaller male in Lampang province
The ancestry and anatomy of spiders are different from those of insects. Spiders have eight legs not six, and their bodies are divided into two parts rather than three. Many people mistake spiders for bugs.
The family tree of spiders is as follows: Jumping spiders, the largest and most highly evolved family, with hunting spiders and web spinners making up the main group. Tarantulas and trap-door spiders and others in this group plus ‘six-eyed’ spiders make up modern-day spiders.
Spiders are an ancient group that first appeared during the Devonian period, almost 400 million years ago. By the Carboniferous period (300 mya) when insects were still relatively little developed, many highly evolved spiders already existed. These arthropods appeared about 100 million years before the first back-boned animals.
Green linx spider in Lampoon province
Scientists have identified some 43, 244 species around the world. More than 230 species have been recorded here in Thailand with many more to follow. There are just a few people researching spiders and hence, knowledge is bit limited.
Dr Patchanee Vichuitbhun and Prasit Wongprom working out of Kasetsart University in Bangkok are the country’s leading arachnologists. Some five other graduate students are also working on spiders.
Together with their eight-legged relatives, the scorpions, harestmen, mites and ticks, spiders form the class Arachinda. Spiders alone represent the order Araneae and are classified in a family tree that numbers three suborders and 111 families.
Bird-eating spider in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary
Spiders are found virtually everywhere: in the house, in the garden, in forests, in caves, and in most other terrestrial habitats throughout the world. A few species live under water and some even in the marine tidal zone. The only place with no spiders is Antarctica.
While the greatest diversity of species occurs in tropical rainforest, spiders are also very well represented in temperate woodland and grassland. Spiders thrive wherever there is rich vegetation and plenty of insects or other arthropods.
Thailand has plenty of big scary-looking spiders but only a few species will actually bite a human being. Luckily, deaths from spider bites are very rare-less than 3 per year across the whole world and these are generally a result of allergic reactions.
Decoy spider in Chiang Mai province
Although virtually all spiders possess venom, only a small number of species, probably fewer than a hundred in the world, have a sufficiently potent and effective bite to be of medical importance. Spiders use venom to quickly immobilize or kill their prey. It is also used in defense against animals, including man, but this is only a secondary purpose.
Thailand is home to very few spiders that are dangerous to people. However, the brown widow is the most venomous. Tarantulas and golden orb weavers attract notoriety more for their size than their bites. Monitor all spider bites carefully to avoid the development of secondary infections.
The spiders of medical importance in Asia include widow and cupboard spiders (also called brown house spiders or false widows (family Theridiidae) which venom contains neurotoxins. Though not especially venomous, a number of Asian tarantulas or bird-eating spiders can also be regarded as potentially dangerous.
Orb-web spider in Ankor Wat, Cambodia
In many countries around the world, the practice of keeping spiders as pets seems a bit on the extreme to most of us, especially if it is highly poisonous. A few years ago, a brown widow escaped from someone and it made front-page news in some newspapers here in Thailand.
A trip down to Chattuchak Market at the pet section can provide one with a spider. There are rows and rows of shops catering to anyone who wants one. Most species on display are tarantulas from South America but there are some Asian ones too.
The pet trade is alive and well here in a business as usual atmosphere. It seems most of these shops act with impunity and no matter how many raids the Department of National Parks makes, they just pop back up and carry on. It is really disheartening to see how these mafia-type groups continue to operate.
Orb-web spider in Chiang Mai province
Most people are not aware the dangers of keeping a tarantula that will flick off barbed hairs when alarmed causing imbedded hairs in the eyes and hands of the pet owner. Eye surgeons might be able to remove some hairs from an eye but many are likely to remain causing a serious medical ailment.
Something else the public needs to worry about is the brown widow, an invasive species from North America related to the very famous and notorious black widow. The brown species is now confirmed in 20 provinces in Thailand, and probably came over on ships. The bite from one of these is extremely painful but there have been no fatalities here yet. There is no anti-venom for this species.
The most remarkable thing about spiders is the silk they make. We humans have not produced anything as strong, light and elastic. Spider silk is twice as strong as other silk producing insects like the silkworm moth.
Argiope sp. spider in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary
Besides the construction of webs, spiders have many other uses for their silk such as making nests, attach trapdoors, furnish burrows, and construct egg cocoons. Other uses are to wrap up and mummify their prey. It truly is some amazing stuff.
The coupling of two predatory and often shortsighted creatures can be a hazardous affair, particularly for the smaller male. In spiders, the battle of sexes is very intense and in some species, the male ends up being eaten after mating with the female. The size difference between the male and female can be seen in the photograph of the ornamental spider.
Spiders are extremely important in the balance of nature and play a big role in the elimination of vast numbers of pest insects. These unique creatures are allies of farmers and growers. Yet even if they were not useful, spiders would still deserve our whole-hearted respect as one of the most diverse and fascinating groups in the natural world.
Argiope sp. spider in Chiang Mai
Some people may disagree but if you bump into a spider, please let it go. These ancient creatures need our love and protection.
Feared by most but revered by some: More than 217 species in the Kingdom
King cobra hunting by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park.
A magnificent serpent some five meters in length slides along the forest floor looking for another reptile to eat. Its movement is swift but steady. Senses are on high alert as a rat snake moves ahead. The big snake rears up and strikes pumping venom into the smaller one. The two wrestle for a short while but soon it is all over as the ‘King’ swallows the lifeless victim headfirst.
Such is the life of the king cobra Ophiophagus hannah, the largest venomous snake in the world. Their main objective in life is to kill other snakes, eat them, and to propagate keeping the species intact. These cobras live primarily in pristine forest far from human interference. They are rarely seen being highly elusive but chance encounters do happen.
The same cobra just before it made a U-turn into the forest.
Over the years, I have bumped into these fearsome snakes several times. My first encounter was while working in Kaeng Krachan National Park along the Phetchaburi River in the Southwest. One day while trekking up-river, my team and I were about to turn back when a large dark snake appeared some 10 meters away.
I quickly brought my camera up and shot a series of images as the creature slid by. After using the flash, it did a U-turn and disappeared into the forest. The team had already retreated leaving me to my own devices. It certainly was a heart-stopper but worth every second of the encounter collecting these photographs.
Reticulated python on the road in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary
Years later while working around the Chiew Larn reservoir in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary situated in Surat Thani province down South, I was silently motoring along in my battery powered boat-blind when a king cobra swam in front of the craft.
Immediately recognizing it, I decided to give chase but the long big snake was faster and got to the opposite shoreline first. I then steered the boat diagonally to catch up with it moving along the bank. Its head appeared over a log and it rose up with hood expanded about eight meters away scaring the life out of me.
Siamese cat-snake in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary
It surely looked mighty big through the lens and I quickly reversed the motor to escape. Being in a boat and constantly moving, all my shots were slightly out of focus. The encounter was brief and disappointing, but I was relived when the highly poisonous reptile slipped away into the dense foliage.
The next day with my team in a bigger boat, another king cobra crossed in front of us. This snake was busy hunting and gave us no heed. We hung back as I fired off a whole bunch of photos through my camera and 500mm long lens. Then the young snake climbed up a tree and eventually disappeared. This particular king cobra had ticks attached to its head. These reptiles are excellent swimmers but also climb very well while hunting, and contrary to popular belief they only stay on the ground.
King cobra hunting in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary
Thailand has approximately 217 snake species recorded so far (as of early 2012). There are eleven families and many sub-families and genus. A third are highly poisonous, another third mildly venomous and the remaining third are non-poisonous. It is safe to say that snakes – arboreal, aquatic or fossorial (borrowing) can be encountered in every possible habitat, from paddy fields all the way up to montane forest plus urban sprawl, mangroves and the sea.
The same cobra climbing. Note the big tick on its neck.
At the last species count, there are four cobras, 16 vipers, three pythons, three kraits, nine cat snakes, four whip snakes, four rat snakes, 20 keelbacks, 29 sea snakes, 11 blind snakes, 14 water snakes and 13 wolf snakes. There is also a sunbeam snake, a pipe snake, a file snake and four slug snakes. These range from a few centimeters to giants that can exceed 10 meters like a mature reticulated python.
Biologist will argue over snake classification for a long time to come as new species are discovered all the time. Doing research on snakes has been carried out at many universities and institutes in the Kingdom.
Green-bellied pit viper in Kaeng Krachan
Probably some of the best research was undertaken by the late Dr Jarujin Naghitabhata (1950-2008) who was instrumental in establishing the National Science Museum and the Museum of Natural History in Khlong Luang north of Bangkok.
He was a walking dictionary, not only on snakes but all the other reptiles and amphibians plus birds, insects, terrestrial mammals and bats. Jarujin published many books, journals and papers on all the above. He was a kind man and his passing is a great loss for the country.
Yellow bellied pit viper and carpenter ant in Kaeng Krachan
I certainly will miss our friendship as he helped me identify many species for my book projects. However, his work continues today with all his students and protégés at the museum. It is definitely worth the trip out there especially for the kids to see all the amazing things that can be found in the natural world.
It is a fact that most people fear and dislike snakes, and that perpetuates widespread misunderstanding about these cold-blooded creatures. Once the fear of snakes can be overcome, their beauty and grace will become apparent and appreciated.
A mock viper in Doi Inthanon National Park
Snakes rarely attack unless seriously provoked. Tongue flickering of many reptiles is not aggression but simply transmitting signals to their organs of smell. Cobras spread their hood demonstrating an aggressive posture when threatened. Vipers coil-up ready to strike hanging motionless from a tree branch or on the ground. Pythons kill by restricting their prey before devouring headfirst.
Unfortunately, many snakes are caught and eaten. Others are killed outright and left to rot. Snakes are very important creatures for pest control and should be treated with respect. They keep rats and mice in check. Fatal bites do occur but with modern snake antivenins ready availability in hospitals, fatalities are few and far between.
A pit viper on the forest floor in Kaeng Krachan
I know a man who jumped off a boat on Phi Phi Island in the Andaman Sea with just flip-flops and got bitten by a pit viper. After stepping on the little snake, it struck three times injecting its venom into his foot. His was lucky as the Thai Navy flew him by helicopter to a hospital in Phuket and then on to Bangkok where doctors managed to save his foot and life. I also know of a hunter in the Eastern forests who was attacked by a king cobra – he was found three days later black from the torso up – obviously he did not survive.
Occasionally, a large mature python will take a human, mostly is areas adjoining the forest where these monsters live. I know of a tree in the Western Forest Complex that was famous for taking out sitting poachers until the locals finally got wise and stopped. The men just disappeared leaving their guns and stuff on the platform.
A cave-dwelling snake in Sai Yok National Park
Over the years, snakes were captured and exported for the pet trade, and many species went into decline. Fortunately, the Thai government stopped exporting snakes and possibly some species have made a slight comeback. However, illegal operators still manage to break the law shipping reptiles to other Asian countries for local consumption.
All the pythons, the king cobra and a few rat snakes are now protected by law, but most are not including the other cobras and vipers. The future of snakes depend on large-scale public awareness programs for the need to educate the public, spare any found and make sure that illegal wildlife traders are apprehended and put away. This of course will be a tough nut to crack as these people seem to carry-on with impunity, and the markets are ever expanding.
A whip snake in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
If certain steps are taken by the authorities to counter habitat loss and combat wildlife traders, only then can we say the limbless reptile will continue to survive in good numbers. These amazing creatures certainly need our help.
Thailand’s workforce of the National Parks and Royal Forest departments
Forest rangers going on patrol in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
Nit packed his bag and said goodbye to his wife and two daughters. It would be the last time he saw his family. He jumped on his new motorcycle and left the village heading to the national park headquarters, some 30 kilometers away. On the way, he made a quick stop at the market to buy some rice and foodstuffs for a weeks’ trip into the forest. His salary was about 150 U.S. dollars a month, and he wondered how the family was going to make ends meet.
Arriving at the headquarters, Nit greeted the rest of the forest rangers scheduled to go on patrol. He checked in and pulled a shotgun from the armory. Jumping in the back of a pick-up, the team headed out for a long ride into the forest. As he bounced around the back of the truck, his thoughts wandered back home to his wife and daughters. After awhile, they arrived at the drop-off point. From there, it was a four-hour walk along a leech-infested trail to the first camp. The long day was near its end, and everyone pitched in with camp chores.
Rangers praying to the ‘Spirits of the Forest’ before leaving on patrol
Setting up camp was quick and easy. A simple lightweight hammock and a flysheet were set between two trees. Dinner was cooked and everyone slept well that night. Early the next morning after breakfast, the team hiked in further. Along the way, fresh human footprints were detected. The team went into danger mode. Poachers were nearby, but it was not certain how many were in the group. As the team got closer, Nit spotted the poacher’s camp. Just then, shots were fired from the trees and a bullet hit Nit in the chest. He died instantly.
In another real-life near tragedy, a ranger working in a wildlife sanctuary in the East trips a trap gun meant for deer. He is hit by shrapnel in the stomach and rushed to the nearest hospital. Luckily, he survived. These scenarios have happened in the past and will surely happen in the future – a sad reality.
Dangerous poachers in a protected area photographed by the author
Half of the ranger force is temporarily hired, low paid, and have very few benefits like medical and life insurance. Most often they have to pay for their own uniforms, boots, sleeping gear and equipment, even their own food while on patrol. It gives them very little incentive to go out into a dangerous environment like the forest where poachers shoot to kill. Unfortunately, many senior and lower-ranking rangers have left the force due to the poor situation concerning these men.
If the protected areas are to be managed and protected for the future, grass-root needs like helping the rangers must be addressed. They need to be taken care of by the government and the public. Even though things have improved slightly, it still is not good enough.
There are many so-called conservation NGOs who care only about what data and other benefits they get from their work. Supposedly, some are helping the rangers but only a very few of them really care about these true protectors of the forest. The rangers who put their lives on the line for Thailand’s magnificent natural heritage need to be compensated.
Indochinese tiger known as ‘4-spots’ camera trapped by the Phetchaburi River in 2004. This cat was caught at many locations identified by the row of four spots on its left flank.
An example of none or very little ranger patrolling: From 2001 to 2006 and then again in 2008, I conducted presence/absence surveys in conjunction with the Department of National Parks and World Wide Fund (WWF Thailand) catching many tigers (more than 10 individuals) in Kaeng Krachan National Park along the Phetchaburi River, on the road past Phanern Thung (closed for two years in 2004-2006 due to landslides), and the road and mineral licks around kilometer 12 inside the park.
These beautiful cats were recorded on film walking the trails and hunting at all times of the day and night on almost every set. Leopards were also present. I was able to capture/recapture many individual tigers over a large area and it was determined that the protected area was intact with carnivores and prey species in abundance. After four camera traps were stolen, I decided to suspend my program.
In late-2011 and early-2012, DNP research personnel and wildlife NGO conducted a large survey in Kaeng Krachan using some 40-camera traps in many areas previously known for tigers over a four-month period. They did not catch a single tiger in the program!
Rangers setting a camera trap in Huai Khas Khaeng
It seems the Indochinese tiger and other species have already been wiped out or almost so. Some tiger tracks were discovered during the study and a few survivors might still exist. However, this is serious news which means extinction is looming for the big cat in Kaeng Krachan!
It is common knowledge there has been very little patrolling done here due to poor protective management, no planning and very little funding. The consequences are now clear after a serious influx of wildlife and plant poachers plus jungle encroachers.
Too much emphasis has been placed on excessive tourism and expanding the facilities to over capacity, and this has also been extremely detrimental to the natural ecology. Construction with heavy equipment has been carried out at several locations disturbing the animals that are now seen less and less.
One of the biggest problems is absolutely no control by the park rangers on who enters the park and from where. This is difficult to control under the present system and I have seen many large back-packing groups being taken to the end of the road at kilometer 36, left off, and their vehicles returned back down the mountain by a driver. Who knows what and where these groups have gone (usually with Karen guides accompanying them).
It is probably all ready too late for Kaeng Krachan that is a shame to allow this magnificent park to become devoid of tigers. Sounds like a repeat of Khao Yai National Park where tigers have not been seen for more than five years and it is confirmed they are now gone. Nearby Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks have some tigers, but for how long?
Without intense patrolling, unscrupulous people will slip through the cracks using simple tools of wildlife poaching: rope or wire snares and poison where a deer or pig is caught and the carcass poisoned. Tiger bones are in big demand. Guns are not carried `much anymore judging from recent camera trap photos of these poachers.
The only way to look after the forests anymore is constantly revolving patrols. Say out of one ranger station, three to four teams of five men each would be out with one resting at the station. With a constant presence in known haunts, law-breakers would find it hard to slip in. These rangers would all be permanent hire so that they would be paid every month with good benefits and longevity. They would be well trained, well armed and have incentive.
Another critical aspect is to monitor all trails frequented by illegal intruders using modern camera traps in video mode, as most people will not know they are being recorded. These cameras could catch face detection so culprits are rounded up and put away. I have caught poachers in several protected areas and they usually just walk past the video camera. A special team would monitor and keep the traps going 24-7. These men would come from elite special forces training. Funding and personnel would have to be made available so they could do their work without impunity.
It is absolutely known that once an area has zero poaching or close to zero, the animals can propagate and numbers will come back as in the case of Kui Buri National Park in Prachuap Khirikan province in the Southwest.
At the end of the day, the laws and regulations concerning these rangers must change for the better to insure that Thailand’s wildlife will survive into the future. Without well taken care of and dedicated people to look after the forests with integrity and pride, how can the biospheres that took millions of years to evolve continue to exist?
It is hoped by many in wildlife conservation that those in power will open their eyes and do something about improving the lives and conditions of the patrol ranger. As it stands, these men and women continue to face hardship deprived of basic human rights like no pay for months on end.
It will be a rough road to extinction for many species and ecosystems, and there is no turning back from this as in the demise of the Gurney’s Pitta in Southern Thailand. These striking birds, a flagship species, are now pretty much gone from the Kingdom forever, a sad fact indeed. Everyone involved needs to take heed and work together to save and protect wildlife, if not for yourselves, then for your children and future generations!