Archive for the ‘Journal Entries’ Category
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!
Amazing biodiversity in jeopardy made famous by the ‘Death Railway’ in World War II
On December 8, 1941, the same day of the Pearl Harbor attack in Hawaii (Dec. 7 in the U.S.), the Japanese Army invaded Thailand with thousands of troops and settled in. Sometime in 1942, a decision was made to build a railway from Bangkok to Burma and beyond through the thick malaria and tiger infested jungles in Kanchanaburi province using allied and Asian prisoners-of-war as construction labor.
Regal crab by the Mae Nam Noi river in Sai Yok National Park
Thousands died under the harsh and sometimes brutal conditions. Remnants of this rail line remain today in Sai Yok National Park. Numerous monuments to the men who lost their lives have been erected in Kanchanaburi, and the main cemetery in town is close to the rail line and the famous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ (Khwae).
Apart from its popular waterfalls and river trips, this national park is not that well known. Situated in Kanchanaburi province, along Thailand’s western border with Myanmar, its interior is truly a magnificent wildlife paradise encompassing exactly 500 square kilometers. However, it may not remain so for long, as poaching and forest encroachment continues to be a problem for the Department of National Parks (DNP).
Kitti’s Hog-nosed bat in a limestone cave by the Mae Nam Noi
The headquarters of the protected area is at Sai Yok Yai (big Sai Yok) waterfall, about one hundred kilometers upstream from Kanchanaburi town on the Khwae Noi River. This site is visited by scores of local and foreign tourists every year that come to see the waterfall and the smaller one at Sai Yok Noi, both of which are only a short distance off Highway 323 going north. Activities on the river include swimming, rafting, boating and picnicking.
Cave-dwelling Nectar-eating bats in a limestone cave by the Mae Nam Noi
Deep inside the park, however, one of the world’s smallest mammals, Kitti’s hog-nosed bat Craseonycteris thonglongyai discovered by the late Thai zoologist Kitti Thonglongya, is found in limestone caves along the remote Mae Nam Noi and Khwae Noi rivers. Previously, it was thought to be endemic but now this creature has been found in other isolated pockets elsewhere in Kanchanaburi, and is also thought to survive in neighboring Myanmar.
Short-nosed fruit bats
This flying mammal weighs barely two grams. Aptly, it has been called the ‘bumblebee bat’ and has an average wingspan of just three inches. It uses sonar to forage for insects during short periods each night — about 30 minutes — in the evening and again for 20 minutes just before dawn. Numbers are few and is listed by IUCN as vulnerable. At one time, this remarkable little mammal was in fact one of the world’s twelve most endangered animals. Constant foraging by locals for bat dung (guano) and catching bats with mist-nets is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
Sunset over Sai Yok National Park
Also found in this same area is the regal crab or queen crab Thaiputsa sirikit discovered in 1983 and named in honor of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand. This crustacean is known locally as the ‘three-colored crab’. With their white body, purple stripe down the back, and red legs, the regal crab is truly a pretty sight.
Mae Nam Choan tributary in Sai Yok
They live like most crab, in holes, which they dig along the banks of the river. They come out at night to forage for food eating mainly composted leaves. Now few in number, this is yet another species that is seriously endangered and needs complete protection.
Olive-back sunbird female by the river
Fortunately, the locals in the area have stopped eating them since they were named after the Queen. They are now protecting the few crabs that are left. This is a case of true conservation and hopefully, the species will survive into the future.
Olive-back sunbird male close by
Elephant, gaur, tiger and leopard, plus many other species, still survive in the interior of the park, but all wild animals are dwindling. Sambar, serow, muntjac, tapir and wild pig are also found and constitute the main prey species for the big cats. Asian black bear, Malayan sun bear, clouded leopard, golden cat and marble cat plus many smaller species like civet, porcupine, gibbon and monkey live here but like all the rest, they too are threatened. Birds, reptiles, insects flourish as well as plant life.
Mae Nam Noi river in Sai Yok
Like most national parks in Thailand, Sai Yok is a target for poaching and logging which seem to go hand in hand. Most of the wildlife is hunted for trophies and meat, primarily during the dry season when there is good road access. It is sometimes common to see poachers in the park, cruising along the roads in vehicles or on motorcycles. Illegal logging has been carried out along the Khwae Noi, Mae Nam Noi and Mae Nam Lo rivers. This has seriously eroded their banks.
Mae Nam Lo river in Sai Yok
Other forms of encroachment include cattle and buffalo corrals that are set up deep in the forest where fodder is easily available. The chance of ‘foot and mouth’ disease being passed on to wild ungulates is real. Fruit orchards pop up in areas along the river inhibited by wild creatures and seem to thrive. Constant illegal activities are affecting the status of the park’s wildlife and watershed integrity.
Leopard camera trapped in the interior of Sai Yok
The forests in Sai Yok are mostly tropical broad-leaved evergreen with much bamboo and mixed deciduous woodlands in the foothills. The highest peak, Khao Khewa, at 1,327 meters above sea level, is part of the Tenasserim Range that runs through the park from north to south. The area was formerly logged so the park has many thin patches where big trees were felled. However, heavy brush continues to grow back strongly in these areas.
Elephants camera trapped by the river
During the height of the rainy season, between July and October, Sai Yok’s wildlife roam and feed fairly safely due to the rough weather and almost impenetrable terrain. The rivers and streams in the park become raging torrents that make crossing them next to impossible. About the only way in is by long-tailed motorboat, with a very skilled operator.
Mae Nam Lo river deep in the interior
Many a boats and rafts has been washed away in rapids on the Mae Nam Noi and Mae Nam Lo rivers. Occasionally, 4×4 off-road vehicles become stuck in the park after heavy rains. Some have even had to wait until the dry season to get out. Elephant just love to play football with these vehicles left behind. I know a man who left his Land Rover through the rainy season and when he returned, it had been flipped over and completely smashed.
Crab-eating macaque by the Lo River
Another very important aspect of Sai Yok is that gaur and elephant come across the border from Myanmar to feed on bamboo shoots in August and September, and then return to the safety of the other side prior to the dry season. Equally interesting, there are unofficial reports of a ‘hybrid cattle’, possibly a cross between gaur and banteng that have been seen by locals.
Young crab-eating macaque with a troop
The numbers of all animals are dwindling, however, due to increased activity in the park. Just a decade ago, green peafowl were found here but they have neither been seen nor heard from for many years. The ever-shrinking wilderness area of Sai Yok is under threat that should be addressed by the DNP if its flora and fauna are to survive intact.
Mae Nam Choan river
Sai Yok has always been special to me. I basically began my career as a wildlife photographer here after making a promise to the ‘spirits of the forest’ to begin documenting Thailand’s wildlife with a camera. Some of my first photographs are the regal crab and the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat shown in the story. I also camera trapped my first and second tiger in the interior. I recently caught a leopard by camera trap along a trail by the river seen here.
Khwae Noi River in Sai Yok
The future of Sai Yok as one of Thailand’s most beautiful and important national parks depends in great measure on the DNP and their ability to enforce the law. Reportedly, greater efforts are being made by the department to protect the park and its precious wildlife and ecosystems. Some poachers and encroachers have been arrested but such campaigns can be difficult to sustain. The long-term effects will become clear over time.
Candlebra bush flowers in the interior
It is hoped this magnificent wilderness and its wildlife will survive into the foreseeable future. In particular, the home of the world’s smallest bat needs serious attention and protection. It would be a sad day for Thailand if this prestigious mammal were to be lost to extinction.
Thailand’s rivers: The Khlong Saeng in the South, the Phetchaburi, Huai Kha Khaeng, Mae Klong, and Khwae Noi in the West, and the Mae Ping in the North
Khlong Saeng River in Surat Thani, Southern Thailand
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, during his continuing reign of more than 60 years, has always understood the vital importance of protecting and saving Thailand’s forests and watersheds. The concern for natural resources, from the highest mountains down to the deepest marine environments, is a top priority of His Majesty. Royal conservation projects initiated by King Bhumibol continue to flourish in the nation, and play an important role in the preservation of nature.
Bull gaur by the Khlong Saeng River in the late afternoon
Water is the essence of life – two thirds of the earth is covered with this resource. The oceans are the main source of water, and the forests are Mother Earth’s natural filters. Watersheds begin deep in forested mountains that evolved millions of years ago. Streams channel water down to the main rivers, and eventually the sea. Along these waterways – the lifeblood of the nation – many plants, animals and humans undertake their daily lives dependant on water.
The ‘Sea of Fog’ over the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park
Thailand’s formation began when a group of island continents including China rifted from Pangea, the supercontinent, sometime in the Cambrian-Ordovician period 543 to 443 million years ago. Drifting north on tectonic plates, two smaller continental blocks, the Shan-Thai (Sibumasu) and Indochina meshed together in the late Triassic period, some 220 million years ago. They both eventually crashed into the Eurasian plate to form part of Southeast Asia. Dinosaurs roamed this land, and reptiles flew in its skies and swam in its seas.
Wreathed hornbill not far from the Phetchaburi River
This natural heritage goes back long before dinosaurs evolved on the planet. Trilobite fossils more than 500 million years old have been discovered on islands in the Tarutao Marine National Park off southern Thailand’s Satun province. Other fossilized plants and animals from prehistoric times have also been unearthed throughout the country. Some of the oldest dinosaurs ever found in the world were endemic to northeast Thailand, including a sauropod and a theropod. A vast array of fossil fish, birds, freshwater sharks, turtles, crocodiles, and mammals such as the giant panda, rhinoceros and orangutan have been uncovered. This legacy of evolution is part of the Kingdom’s natural heritage.
The lower Huai Kha Khaeng in the early morning
Continental Thailand and its islands extend over an area of 513,115 square kilometers (198,115 square miles), and at one time, were almost completely enveloped in forest cover with rivers, valleys, plains and mountainous terrain. As the human population grew, these forests began to disappear.
Burmese striped squirrel feeding on flowers at the lower Huai Kha Khaeng
The central lowlands were predominantly deciduous forest, much of which has now been cleared and converted to agricultural land. Teak, pine and hill-evergreen forests covered the mountains of the north, while western Thailand was a mixture of deciduous, dry dipterocarp woodland and semi-evergreen forests. The southern peninsula was mostly wet evergreen, while the northeast and eastern parts of the country were a mixture of dry dipterocarp and lowland dry evergreen.
The Mae Klong River (Mae Nam Choan) in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary
At the end of World War Two, 75 percent of the country was forest teeming with wildlife, but that quickly changed as modernization began to take its toll. Barely 30 percent of that forest cover survives today. Long before the existence of roads, rivers provided Thai people with transport and communication links. Not surprisingly, riverbanks were usually the first lowland areas to be cleared.
Common muntjac on the run near the Mae Klong River
After the war, the country was wrapped up in an industrial revolution and the need for electricity was necessary. Hence, hydroelectric power was the choice made as water and forest resources were very plentiful in 1964 when the Yan Hee Dam, now known as the Bhumibol Dam, was the first to be built by the Electric Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). It was constructed on the Mae Ping River in Tak province. Since then other dams were quickly developed to keep up with the demand for electric power.
Khwae Noi River in Sai Yok National Park
However, large areas of forest were flooded changing the habitat permanently. Many species of flora and fauna were depleted as water levels rose. Some were able to adapt but it was a long hard struggle for most. With increasing human development, pristine wild riverine ecosystems are now rare.
Tusker bull elephant in Sai Yok National Park
Some fifteen years ago, I embarked on a photographic odyssey along some of the most important rivers in western, southern and northern Thailand. The creatures and ecosystems found in these backwaters have been recorded on film and digital images. Hopefully, these photographs will contribute to the conservation of the nation’s watersheds. As time passes on, these magnificent ecosystems have been degraded. This story aims to serve as a wake-up call to the importance of saving these natural treasures for present and future generations.
Wachirathan Waterfall flowing into the Mae Ping River
For this article, six rivers were chosen: the Phetchaburi, Huai Kha Khaeng, Mae Klong and Khwae Noi in the West, Khlong Saeng in the South, and the Mae Ping in the North. Information and wildlife photographs were collected over 15 years of regular forays into these waterways. The National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP), the Royal Forest Department (RFD) and the Groundwater Resources Department (GRD) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) are responsible for all these protected areas. EGAT and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) are also involved in management of water.
White-throated kingfisher by the Mae Ping River
Phetchaburi River: It flows all year round from the Tenasserim Range through Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province, some 200 kilometers southwest of Bangkok. This waterway is 170 kilometers long and flows north and then east into the Gulf of Thailand. An agricultural dam, situated at Kaeng Krachan provides the lowland people with water. In the interior, the harmony of life between animals and plants is remarkable, as it is still fairly intact. But this forest is only pristine upriver from the reservoir to the headwaters of the Phetchaburi.
Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan
The lowland areas of the river have been compromised by ethnic tribes people living in several villages within the boundaries of the national park. However, elephant, tiger, leopard, gaur, tapir, Siamese crocodile and many other interesting and rare mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and plants still survive in the interior. More than 400 bird species have been recorded in this national park. In the eyes of some naturalists, this magnificent ecosystem is truly world class.
Lightning over the Phetchaburi watershed
Khlong Saeng River: Down in southern Thailand, it flows from the Phuket Mountain Range to Thailand’s gulf at Surat Thani. Up in the highlands, many tributary streams now flow into a permanently flooded forest in the upper reaches of the Khlong Saeng. Many rainforest creatures like tapir, gaur, elephant, argus pheasant and more are still found in the thick vegetation made up of evergreen forest. Unfortunately, tiger has disappeared, but leopard, clouded leopard, golden cat and marbled cat still thrive.
Khlong Saeng flooded forest
There is a permanent lake 60 kilometers long and dammed near the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary headquarters called Chiew Larn, or the Rajaprabha Dam. Many people live on floating rafts and fishing is allowed. However, some fisherman use devious methods like electricity or explosives plus trap-lines that are very detrimental to fish stocks. Also, there are many noisy boats and loads of tourists who visit Khao Sok National Park that shares the lake, and this has an enormous impact on the wildlife and ecosystems in the Khlong Saeng valley.
Huai Kha Khaeng during the late afternoon sunset
Huai Kha Khaeng: A watercourse about 100 kilometers long, it flows south through Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, a designated World Heritage Site. The protected area is in Uthai Thani province in the central west. In Thai, ‘huai’ means stream, and ‘kha khaeng’ is strong leg. During the wet season, this stream actually becomes a raging river, but in the dry season it peters down to just a trickle in some places. The wildlife is absolutely remarkable and it is one of the greatest wilderness areas in the world.
Huai Kha Khaeng in the interior
In Southeast Asia, it is the only place where three species of Asian wild bovid occur: gaur, banteng and wild water buffalo. Occasionally, gaur and banteng mingle at mineral deposits. Other mammals include elephant, tiger, leopard, tapir, wild dog, plus many more. About 350 species of birds have been recorded here, including the rare green peafowl. Insect and plant species number in the tens of thousands and many are yet to be discovered.
Mae Nam Choan in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary
Mae Klong River: It begins its long journey along the Myanmar border from Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary. This fast and furious river flows south about 140 kilometers through steep rocky terrain through Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, also a World Heritage Site, which becomes the Choan River flowing into the Srinagarindra reservoir or upper Khwae Yai River in Kanchanaburi province. The Srinagarindra hydroelectric dam is Thailand’s largest and provides electricity to the national grid. The upper Mae Klong still runs wild today and was saved from damming by an outcry from conservationists around Thailand back in the late 1980s.
Mae Nam Lo not far from the Khwae Noi River
Khwae Noi: It is one of the Kingdom’s best-known rivers. In 1942, the Japanese Army began advancing towards Burma and built what is now known as the ‘Death Railway’ where thousands of Asian laborers and Allied soldiers died building it. The movie ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ depicted this saga that was screened worldwide. Many of the dead soldiers are buried in a memorial graveyard in Kanchanaburi town, which has a museum adjacent to the cemetery maintained by the Allied War Graves Commission.
Mae Nam Lo further upstream
Another 60 kilometers north at ‘Hell Fire Pass’ in Sai Yok above the Khwae Noi, a museum was funded by the Australian Government in honor of the troops who died there during those horrific times of war. Many wildlife and plant species can still be found along the deepest tributaries within Sai Yok, Khao Laem , Thong Pha Phum and Erawan national parks. The Khwae Noi is dammed at Thong Pha Phum district by the Vajiralongkorn Dam (formally named Khao Laem), which is hydroelectric.
Stormy weather over the Mae Ping River in Tak
Mae Ping River: It is Thailand’s second longest (after the Nan River) that flows from the northern province of Chiang Mai some 590 kilometers south to Nakhon Sawan province in the central plains. People live along most of the river except for a section within Mae Ping National Park, and Omkoi and Mae Tuen wildlife sanctuaries, plus Doi Inthanon National Park further north.
Bhumibol Dam on the Mae Ping River in Tak province
The reservoir behind Bhumibol Dam is 316 square kilometers and created a huge deep water-body due to the terrain of limestone karst the river flows through. The famous ‘Kaeng Soi’ rapids were silenced forever when the reservoir filled-up. Prior to that, many boats and people disappeared in the white water when it was flowing naturally. The lake has been fraught with illegal fishing, poaching and gathering by locals living within and outside the protected area.
Stormy weather over the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan
The national parks and wildlife sanctuaries these rivers run through need constant surveillance by the DNP. Also, MONRE should implement up-dated laws and regulations to cope with the on-going onslaught of encroachment and poaching. The importance of these rivers cannot be emphasized enough.
Fortunately for Thailand, these waterways provide the lifeblood of the nation even though it can be very destructive at times as the Kingdom is experiencing now with the worst flooding in decades. What was once a massive swamp that drained water into the sea, the Central Plains is now completely carved up and filled in which has created an immense blockage. Over development is the biggest problem with factories, housing estates, elevated highways and rural roads plus a hundred-fold population increase have contributed greatly to the calamity facing the nation at the present.
Reforestation of degraded forests should be the number one priority for the government in areas needed to bring the watersheds back from decline. As it stands now, when heavy rainfall comes naturally, water is not retained but flows full force down the mountains into the lowlands, and many villages and villagers have been washed away in the torrent. Illegal logging continues to plague the country and seems to be getting worse from recent reports that certainly will destroy the watersheds further.
Water management at the dams also needs some serious evaluation. Further, the future building of huge scale dams that destroy large swathes of natural forest are not the answer to the floods like some politicians and construction companies will have you believe. The recent hoarding and then panic release of water at the dams is a point in contention and this needs to be addressed. Cooperation and trust between government ministries and departments is still a long way from being improved and implemented.
The most important element of an intact watershed: does it have hornbills, gibbons, elephants, gaur and other animals that help with seed dispersion and regeneration of the forest? Are these animals protected from excessive poaching and habitat loss? Do they live and reproduce in safety? Can the watersheds retain and release water slowly as nature intended? These are the big questions being asked of the powers-to-be.
Protection and enforcement should be the top priority for all national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that have large rivers and watersheds in them. Unfortunately, old policies governing these will probably be with us for sometime to come. It is essential to understand that all these waterways are under threat, in one way or another.
With no forests, there would be no water, and with no water, there would be no life. Only time will tell if we can adequately protect these vital resources from damaging human encroachment. More active safeguards plus increased budgets are needed, and government regulations should be improved while stamping out corruption. Now this will be a tough nut to crack and can only be curtailed with increased vigilance by the Thai people and agencies concerned, and finally, true prosecution of law-breakers with real jail time. It is the only way forward.
Visiting the forest during Songkran: Thailand’s New Year and water festival
Huai Kha Khaeng reveals some wild endangered Asian creatures
Indochinese tiger camera-trapped in Huai Kha Khaeng
When I was 19 years old, I arrived in Bangkok at the end of March spending a week or so in the ‘City of Angels’ enjoying the sights and sounds. This was in 1964 just as the Vietnam War was getting into high gear. Pollution was mild and the klongs were not that bad.
I remember riding around in Datsun Bluebird taxis with no air-con and watching the road flash-by between my feet. The gaping hole made me nervous but the capital was an amazing experience all stored in the old memory bank.
Banteng bull and cow at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng
After the hustle and bustle of the city, Dad and I caught the train headed north to Chiang Mai. The next morning at dawn, we passed through Phrae province surrounded by misty mountains. I opened the window and the cool breeze was refreshing. I instantly fell in love with the countryside and decided that Thailand was for me.
We arrived in the northern capital just in time to celebrate Songkran water festival for the very first time. As a teenager, it was a blast. But it was still tough getting around on my motorcycle as the main object of some people especially at intersections was to kill the bike, and then completely drench the rider (me) with water and powder.
Bull gaur arrived at the same waterhole a few minutes after the banteng
Yes, downtown Chiang Mai and the surrounding countryside was a madhouse even back in ‘64’. Songkran lasted for more than seven days in the north starting a few days before April 13th and finishing up a couple of days after the 15th.
As Thailand’s northern forests and mountains provided plenty of water for the festival, there was a seemingly unlimited supply. The watersheds were still very healthy at that time. In late March – early April, the temperature was cool in the evening and warm to hot during the day.
Crested Serpent-eagle flying out of the same waterhole
Eventually I met-up with some fellow Americans and the three of them are life-long friends to this day. John C. Wilhite lll was attending classes at the newly built Chiang Mai University, and his father was a Major in the U.S. Air Force for JUSMAG (Joint US Military Advisory Group) advising Royal Thai Air Force personnel on tactics and operation of AT-28 training aircraft. Johnny and I still continue to communicate after all these years.
Wayne (Beak) Sivaslian and Ed (Mac) McDonnell with the U.S. Army were stationed in Chiang Mai. Their mission was sensitive and classified but we were close friends and still are to this day. We recently held a 40-year reunion back in the States.
Asiatic jackals at a ranger station in the interior
When Songkran rolled around, we got out the old U.S. Army deuce and a half (2 1/2 ton truck) and took off the tarp and filling the back with three or four 200-liter drums with water and ice. We then headed downtown to do battle. As we were higher up than most, we had an advantage and usually won the water fights. At the end of the day, our lips, hands and feet would turn blue and we would be shivering but boy was it fun. Finally, the police outlawed trucks with large drums of water but that did not last long.
Asiatic jackal on the run
One year, I took my family including the wife and daughter plus all the in-laws out on the town in the back of my old Series One Land Rover with no cover, doors or windows. I was the driver and had to keep my wits about me. As we were nearing Suan Dok Hospital, a drunken hooligan dipped a bucket full of dirty klong water to the brim. He then threw the entire load straight into my ribs and face with extreme force from a distance of less than a meter, and that really hurt. All he did was laugh. However, with the family in tow, I kept my cool and carried on.
Asiatic jackal on the run
That was the last time I drove an open vehicle out on the streets of Chiang Mai during the festival. I once saw a bunch of people by the Ping River with a platform and fire-fighting nozzle in a tree, and a pump down by the water’s edge (obviously from the fire department nearby). After a day, the police came around and shut them down as they had damaged several cars with the high-pressure spray.
I went running through town with the Hash House Harriers a few times but again, it was even worse with water in my ears, eyes, nose, and usually contracting a serious cold afterward. I finally decided to retire permanently from the madness.
Abstract- Asiatic jackal on the run
Some may wonder why I am talking about Songkran in this post but it is the main reason I now ‘run away to nature’ every year to enjoy peace and quiet, the birds and bees plus the refreshing coolness of the deciduous and evergreen forests I frequent. No traffic jams or crazy water-throwing people here.
This year I was granted permission to enter Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary by the Wildlife Conservation Division in the Department of National Parks (DNP) to photograph wildlife. It was a great opportunity and I made the best of it.
Jackal pair near the ranger station
Leaving Bangkok on the 11th of April, I arrived at the headquarters and met-up with the new chief Uthai Chansuk who was there to meet me. After consultations with him, I made my way into the interior with three other friends to a ranger station and settled in for a day.
A Thai friend and fellow wildlife photographer Sarawut Sawkhamkhet, has been with me on many occasions and knows this place well. He opted to sit in a permanent blind situated at a mineral lick close to the station.
Jackals chasing each other
My other two friends are Paul Thompson and Ian Edwardes, both Englishmen, and they set-up temporary blinds not far away. These two keen photographers got barking deer and a banteng bull on the very first day.
In the meantime, the rangers took me down to a platform overlooking a water hole and mineral deposit several hours walk away. We arrived at the blind about 10am and they went back to the station. I settled in for an overnight stay. I had plenty of water and food, and the weather was cool. Fortunately, my hammock fits perfectly between two trees that are part of the structure. This was April the 14th as the water festival was in full tilt.
Crested serpent-eagle taking off
The afternoon dragged on and about 2pm, a crested serpent eagle came for a drink. The raptor stayed for short while taking in copious amounts of water and then lifted off while I got a series of shots. About 5pm, as if the ‘Spirits of the Forest’ had granted my wish, a herd of banteng showed up coming straight down to the water hole for a refreshing drink. A huge bull with an enormous set of horns pushed his way through. I immediately began shooting my cameras. All of a sudden, they spooked and retreated up the hill. I thought they had scented me but this was not so.
Banteng herd at the waterhole in late afternoon
Just then, a huge mature bull gaur came down to the waterhole from the same direction as the banteng had come. Two species of large wild bovid in less than five minutes is simply amazing. This bull is very old with many rings at the base of his horns with both tips almost completely worn down. Definitely near the end of his life.
Gaur bull taking a drink at the waterhole
Dr Sompoad Srikosamatara at Mahidol University and Dr Naris Bhumpakphan at Kasetsart University estimated this solitary bull to be somewhere between 14-16 years old judging from the amount of rings. This old boy stayed at the waterhole for more than a half hour taking in his fill. He then snorted and bolted up the hill looking extremely powerful and quick on his hooves.
Lone gaur bulls will sometimes shadow a banteng or gaur herd for protection against tiger attack and poachers. They also sometimes team-up with other bulls. Simply put, more eyes, ears and noses act as security from predation.
Wild pig at the waterhole just before darkness
However, it was not my scent that had spooked the ungulates as a mature wild boar with large tusks then came for a drink just before darkness. Eventually, night set in. I had my little gas stove and boiled up some water for noodles and coffee. After eating, lightning and thunder began in the west but eventually subsided. The weather was nice and crisp, and I slept like a log.
Mineral hot spring deep in the interior of Huai Kha Khaeng
The next morning, I was up at daybreak. After a quick cup of coffee, the banteng herd from the previous day came to the waterhole again. This time they stayed for some time taking in refreshment. Funny enough, the bull had a leafy branch stuck between its left ear and horn. I of course kept shooting until they had gone. These cattle are rare in Thailand and tough to see in the wild. Banteng are a favorite wildlife subject and I felt lucky.
Sambar stag in a mineral lick in the interior
At noon the next day, the rangers and Thompson came to pick me up. Before leaving, we set camera-traps around the mineral deposit leaving them for a month. A young Indochinese tiger visited one of my cameras catching it in a broadside pose shown in the lead photo. This shot is one of my best tiger camera-trap captures ever, as it is close and in beautiful light early one morning just after Songkran.
Young sambar stag at another mineral deposit
Back at the station two Asiatic jackals that had been released by someone who had kept them in captivity were romping about. They have now made the area their home. I was able to get some exciting photographs of these two wild canids as they scavenged around the station. The pair, a male and female, once brought a deer leg from a carcass nearby and devoured it. They certainly have adapted to a life in the wild but are not afraid of humans.
Wild pig and piglets at a mineral deposit
A day later, we moved to a hot springs deep in the interior. Here, we photographed wild pig and sambar. As the rains have come early this year, insect activity is already in full swing. Thompson and I got out our macro lenses and had a great time chasing down the little creatures. We both photographed several new species for us including a lantern bug. The trip finally came to an end and we left the sanctuary with loads of new photographs showing the amazing biodiversity of this place.
Thick-billed pigeon at the hot spring
I know I have written many times about Huai Kha Khaeng in this column, but as the nation’s top wildlife sanctuary, it needs special attention and its continued survival cannot be stressed enough. More work is needed to improve protection with everything else taking a backseat like research and development. Ranger patrolling should be more consistent with revolving teams to create no loopholes for poachers and gatherers. Better budgets and personnel are the key.
Tree frogs mating in a pool on the road in the sanctuary
Thailand contains some of the most beautiful habitats and creatures in the world. The Kingdom is home to more than 70 million people, yet it supports an incredible variety of wildlife. However uncertain the future of the country’s wild flora and fauna may be, their presence today remains a spectacular, intriguing and mystical natural wonder.
Orb web spider at a ranger station deep in the interior
Lantern bugs at the same ranger station
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
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.
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.
The dangerous side of a great profession
Cartoon by Smith Sutibut
Wildlife photography is one of the best professions in the world. To see Mother Nature’s beautiful creatures through the lens and then later in photographs is both exciting and rewarding. Sharing these images with other people creates conservation awareness. Not many people take it up, but those who do know the real benefits. I consider myself lucky working in the field of wildlife photography full time.
But there is a dark side. Many things in the wilderness cut, bite, sting, maim and even kill. Little insects carry diseases that can stop you in your tracks if not diagnosed in time. Such was the case when I caught Plasmodium falciparum (cerebral malaria), which suddenly became a raging infection within a couple of hours. Only a complete blood exchange transfusion saved my life.
Wild elephant feeding on discarded fruit
At the top of the danger list are animals like elephant, gaur, banteng, wild water buffalo, tiger, leopard, bear, wild boar and even male deer. In the event poachers wound any of these animals, they can be very dangerous and can easily kill humans – be they wildlife photographers, nature trekkers, field researchers or park rangers. Some animals are very protective of their young especially elephants. The tiger will also closely guard and defend their kill or their young.
Nothing is scarier than an Asian elephant in dense jungle charging with the intent of crushing you, or the roar of a tiger. Gaur, banteng and wild water buffalo – when wounded – will patiently wait a few meters off the trail and charge as you approach. Wild bovid will hook you with their horns as they pass and many a hunter has suffered a painful death. Buffalo are even worse – they will also come back to trample the intruder. The Asiatic black bear and the Malayan sun bear are fierce and will literally tear you to shreds. People would be lucky to survive an encounter with any of the large mammals.
Carpenter ants in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary
A friend of mine in Sai Yok district, Kanchanaburi province in Western Thailand barely survived a tiger attack more than ten years ago. A young male tiger and its mother were killing cattle, taking many of the village cows and buffaloes. One day my friend went looking for the killers along a forest road. Spotting the young tiger crouching low a few meters away, he shot and mortally wounded it – but not before it pounced on him. He shoved his gun crosswise into the mouth of the roaring beast and kicked at it but he was bitten and slashed on his arms and legs. The tiger died shortly after with the gun in its mouth and my friend was rushed to the nearest hospital seriously wounded. He very luckily survived the incident but has many permanent scars. The incident made the front-page of a few Thai newspapers.
Asian wild dog in Kaeng Krachan National Park
Asian wild dog and feral dog can also be a serious menace when in large packs. A huge pack of more than 20 wild dogs in Khao Yai National Park has scared people walking on the trails. Another friend of mine who works in the park came across this pack and watched the dogs devour a sambar in one hour, bones and all. Feral dog are a nuisance on Doi Inthanon National Park, south of Chiang Mai, where a pack of some 30 dogs roam around the radar station on the peak. These dogs are killing off wildlife in the park such as deer and wild pig one at a time, and there is no telling what they might surround and eat in the future if the dog pack is not totally eliminated.
Reticulated python in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
Snakes like the king cobra have attacked during nesting time in February if unsuspecting people find themselves between a mother snake and her eggs. I knew of a man in Eastern Thailand who failed to come home after three days. Family members found him with three puncture wounds on the head and shoulders, and his upper torso had turned black from the venom of a big snake.
I know someone who jumped off a boat wearing rubber thongs and romped in the jungle on Phi Phi Island near Phuket in the south, where he was bitten on the foot by a green pit viper. Only quick action by Royal Thai Navy personnel, who rushed the man to a hospital by helicopter, managed to save him. His foot went black and swelled up to twice its normal size. He was extremely lucky – doctors at a hospital in Bangkok saved his foot and possibly his life.
Green pit viper in Kaeng Krachan
Many other poisonous snakes can kill, if they bite you. I once had a scary encounter sitting on a chair in a photographic blind in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary as I waited for gaur and other animals near a mineral lick. I happened to look down when a pit viper slid between my legs from behind. A natural instinct might have been to stomp on it, but I froze and the snake continued on its way. I was at least two days travel to the nearest hospital and, if bitten, would probably not have made it back for medical treatment in time.
Very mature pythons can and will, on occasion, take people. These snakes cannot differentiate between large mammals and humans that approach them. A friend of mine was out looking for bamboo shoots in the forest when a large python took his dog some 20 meters ahead. Within seconds, the dog had been suffocated and crushed to death. He looks back on the incident and says it could easily have been him. While looking for frogs one day in a forest stream, he was chased by a big python but managed to escape.
Forest scorpion in Huai Kha Khaeng
Little arthropods like spiders, scorpions and centipedes love dark and damp places. Boots and sleeping bags are inviting to these dangerous creatures. Many of them have venomous bites and stings that can become extremely serious if not treated quickly. Bees, wasps and hornets will attack intruders who walk into their space. I was stung on the back of the head by several wasps once while running in a mango orchard. Luckily, I was not allergic to their venom. A friend running behind me had to go to hospital. His head swelled up with welts where he had been stung, and he lost consciousness. But he survived the ordeal.
During the dry season, ticks of various sizes will latch onto just about anywhere on your body. Many of them have microbes that can make humans very sick, not unlike Rocky Mountain fever and Lyme’s disease. I once had a tick that clamped on to my upper shoulder while in Nam Nao National Park in Petchabun province, Northeast Thailand. By the time I realized the tick was there, it was too late. An infection had set in and my shoulder and head throbbed for many days afterward. The bite was very itchy and bothersome for more than six months until antibiotic cream finally killed the infection.
Leech in Thung Yai Naresuan
Leeches, found in many of Thailand’s forests, are a problem for photographers or naturalists wanting to romp around in the wet season. In some areas along the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park, there would be 20 to 30 leeches crawling up my pants at any one time while looking for the Siamese crocodile. I was wearing high-top combat boots, leech-proof socks and tucked-in nylon pants that prevented them from getting to my legs. But some of these tenacious bloodsuckers still climbed up and got in around my waist, wrists and neck. These invertebrates fortunately do not carry a disease, although bites can stay infected for months.
Ants can also be very annoying. Some are harmless but others are downright dangerous. A single ant bite can leave a serious welt, and getting bitten by hundreds of the little creatures can quickly create a disaster. They invade clothing or sleeping areas looking for food. Some species start biting on contact with humans. The large carpenter ant about an inch long can stop you in your tracks.
Poachers with sambar antlers in Huai Kha Khaeng
Spider web is also a nuisance that you can encounter just about anywhere. I once walked into to a web and ended up with both my eyes infected for several days. Fortunately, I always carry a good supply of medicines and had antibiotic eye cream that helped kill the infection. Some microbes in water and dirt are also very dangerous and can cause intestinal and skin problems.
One of the smallest but most irritating and dangerous of all insects is the mosquito. There are more than 420 species in the Kingdom but only three species of Anopheles carry the deadly malaria. Other dangerous diseases such as dengue and encephalitis transmitted also by the mosquito can also kill.
Poachers and dog camera-trapped in Sai Yok National Park
Malaria is one of the major diseases of the tropics. There is three strains found in Thailand: Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium malariae and Plasmodium falciparum. The P. vivax infection can last for three years and a relapse may occur when your body’s immunity level drops. P. malariae stays with you for your entire life and P. falciparum on the other hand, strikes once and after treatment, will not return unless re-infected. All three strains have the same symptoms when infection begins, and all three are deadly.
My bout with P. falciparum was a close call. I have had P. vivax off and on for over 30 years. But this time I misjudged the infection and delayed for four days before going in for a check-up. When a blood test was taken at Mahidol University’s Tropical Disease Department in Bangkok, I had P. falciparum and about 30 percent of my blood volume was infected.
After being moved to Vichaiyut Hospital on Rama VI road in Bangkok, the infection started proliferating very quickly and rose to 80 percent by the afternoon. I was going into shock as the microbes took control of my body. Fortunately for me, the director of Vichaiyut Hospital, Dr Sompong Punyagupta, and his assistant Dr Thanomsri Srichaikul, have saved many malaria victims in Thailand with a technique called ‘Blood Exchange Transfusion’ for patients with infections of 50 percent and above of P. falciparum.
The patient’s blood is replaced with new blood at 1.5 times the person’s total volume. A special attachment is surgically inserted into the main artery in one leg, which allows the draining of old blood and the infusion of new blood at the same time. Survival rate is about 90 percent for serious cases and I thank my lucky stars that this technique was available to me. It was a close call and one that I hope will not repeat itself.
Many people ask about preventative medicine against malaria. The best prevention is not to get bitten by malarial mosquitoes, which only come out in the evening for a couple of hours and then again in early morning. Keep well covered up, use good insect repellent and always sleep in a mosquito net. All of Thailand’s border areas are havens for these deadly insects, and thousands of people die every year from these dangerous diseases resistant to medical treatment.
Some plant species can also be very dangerous. Thorns with razor-sharp points can easily penetrate clothing and skin leaving deep scratches. Sometimes the point will break off inside and quickly cause infection. Rubbing up against some plants can give you immediate pain; and if one is allergic, can turn into serious complications. Just a small amount of sap from the Sapium tree entering the bloodstream through a scratch will easily kill a human. In the old days, hunters to bring down large animals used this sap on crossbow arrow tips.
Probably the most dangerous encounter one could have is to bump into poachers, bandits or drug runners in the forest. Many National Parks or Royal Forest Department guards plus police and army personnel have been killed or wounded in the line of duty by these ruthless people. Once I was sitting alone in a photo-blind in a wildlife sanctuary at a mineral lick waiting for photographic opportunities when six poachers walked down to the water hole. Five of them had shotguns and the sixth man a set of sambar antlers.
I snapped a couple of frames, and sat motionless hoping they would not detect my presence. The spirits of the forest looked over me on that day and the group passed by without incident. It was however, a very dangerous situation and one that I hope will not happen again.
There are a multitude of other dangers that can happen in the forest, like dead tree branches falling on you or devastating flash floods during the rainy season. One could easily fall and break a leg or arm kilometers from a hospital or medical attention.
Getting lost in the forest can also make life miserable. This happened to a good friend of mine who went out for some bird watching. She and another two people were lost for several days without food and water. They became quite ill but were saved in the nick of time. Sometimes the forest can be unforgiving.
Respect for Mother Nature is important but remember, when off the beaten track, be prepared for the worst. Always take good first-aid kits, plenty of food and water, and good shelter. Know your limitations and let someone be aware of your movements in and out of any wilderness area. If you love nature, I believe the spirits of the forest will take care of you. But you should always follow the old boy scout motto: Be prepared!
Day 7: March 10th – Conclusion: World Heritage in jeopardy
Indochinese tiger at a mineral deposit
After all the dust had settled, I can look back at the situation in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and honestly make an assessment of how and why this World Heritage Site is in jeopardy.
After hearing about three tigers (mother and her cubs) killed by poisoning, it seems poachers continue to enter this place and kill wild animals in the interior. A serious look at the ranger force and patrolling regimens, and the quality of protection is quickly needed before it is too late.
Deciduous forest abstract
For all the research going on in Huai Kha Khaeng, and the so-called smart patrols, how can poachers kill these rare cats? Other reports that wildlife snares and pipe-guns with trip wires are now found outside the headquarters area in Uthai Thani are alarming. These illegal hunters are slipping through the net so to speak due to too many loopholes in the patrolling and enforcement system.
In India several years ago, two national parks where researchers were working full-time had all their tigers exterminated in a year or so right under their noses. Good patrolling and enforcement is the only option when it comes to protected areas.
Here in Thailand, most of the forest rangers are locals and hence there are not many secrets outside the sanctuary. There are 19 ranger stations that receive money amounting to 1,200 baht cash per patrol for food from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who also run the ranger-patrolling program. It would seem that food, clothing and equipment would be better than cash that can possibly go astray.
Approximately two times a month a patrol of five or six men spend a week walking the forests on designated trails. The poachers easily stay out of their way because they know the terrain and continue to do business as usual. It is said a bag of tiger bones now fetches more than a hundred thousand baht. Seems like a great incentive to break the law.
All patrols should originate at the headquarters and nobody knows where they are going or what trail they will take until they are already in the forest to keep leaks to a minimum. Patrol groups should be in the forest 24-7 and continue to revolve so that rangers are always out in the field.
Seub Nakhasathien monument
Without a doubt, new blood in the form of properly trained and sufficiently paid rangers using special-forces techniques is seriously needed in Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan next door. Enforcement and arrests of perpetrators should increase and outdated laws up-graded with severe fines and detention, especially for repeat offenders.
Another very important issue is life and health insurance for the rangers in case someone is injured or killed while on duty, and this should be standard for everyone, whether government officer, or permanent and temporary rangers. A central fund should be established for this and in case of a tragedy or accident; the family will be taken care of.
Protection of this World Heritage Site is a number one priority for the government, and everything else should be second. Over the long run, good management, patrolling and enforcement is the only option to save Thailand’s natural heritage for the future.
Day 6: March 9th – Wild pig again, and a herd of banteng and a tuskless bull elephant pose for the camera
After breakfast, I drove a kilometer with a forest ranger in tow to look after me and parked in the forest. I thenwalked for a half hour to Huai Mae Dee, a tributary of the Huai Kha Khaeng. A permanent photo-blind is erected across from a mineral lick, also visited by all the large mammals.
After an hour and slightly down stream, a single wild pig was having a great time wallowing in the mud by the bank in the mid-day heat. After awhile, this female ungulate got closer as I continued to photograph her. It was the first time I had ever seen a female by herself. Mostly, they are in herds and only the large male boars live solitary lives.
A short time later, a fairly large herd of banteng appeared on a sandbar downstream from the blind. They were just hanging out taking in the sun’s rays and chewing their cud. The cattle then scattered as a huge tuskless bull elephant popped out on the sandbar. He was following a female, probably in heat judging from his actions. The bull did not stay long and actually came up on our side of the river disappearing into the bush, which was a bit unnerving.
At 6pm as darkness fell, our ranger came to help me carry some equipment back actually bumped into the bull elephant but it went crashing off luckily for us. At close quarters, these old cantankerous giants can be extremely dangerous to people and in fact two persons including a ranger and a villager have recently been killed by a tuskless bull in the sanctuary not far from the headquarters. It pays to stay out of their way.