Archive for the ‘The West’ Category

Indochinese tiger sequence

Monday, September 17, 2012 posted by Bruce 8:32 PM

The following images are my best of an Indochinese tiger caught in late afternoon in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, Uthai Thani province, Western Thailand on December 11, 2009. This male moved through the waterhole and did not stay. I had just enough time to get 20 lucky shots of the big cat. A rare sighting of an elusive carnivore..!

Tiger moving into waterhole at 5 pm

Tiger takes a quick drink.

Tiger takes a first look at my location.

Tiger stops and take a second look.

Tiger moves on.

Tiger takes one last look.

The highlight of my wildlife photographic career and a dream come true….!

Photos taken with a Nikon D700 and a 400mm f 2.8 lens on a Gitzo tripod. Exposure: 1/60 sec;   f/2.8;   ISO 800

 

 

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Keang Krachan: Rare creatures surviving in the park

Wednesday, July 6, 2011 posted by Bruce 10:38 PM

A collection of photographs taken from 2001 to 2008

of some rare Asian animals still thriving in this amazing forest

Fea’s muntjac camera-trapped at Kilometer 33 on Phanern Thung mountain

Male muntjac also known as common barking deer at a mineral lick

Male muntjac feeding on leaves

Gaur cow at a mineral lick in the interior

Small gaur herd at another mineral lick

Gaur bull and cow footprint compared to my hand

Asian tapir swimming in the Phetchaburi River

Tapir camera-trapped near the Phetchaburi River

Serow camera-trapped on old logging road

Tusker camera-trapped at a mineral deposit at kilometre 12

Tuskless bull elephant in ‘musth’ camera-trapped on an old logging road

Tiger camera-trapped at a mineral lick in the interior

Indochinese tiger camera-trapped by the Phetchaburi River

Asian leopard camera-trapped on a nature trail

Indian civet caught near Ban Krang campground in the park

Banded linsang camera-trapped on a dry streambed

Banded palm civet camera-trapped by a stream deep in the interior

A king cobra hunting for prey by the Phetchaburi River

A green pit-viper and carpenter ant on a small tree

A green pit-viper swallowing a skink

Reticulated python on the road in Kaeng Krachan

Horny tree frog in a stream deep in the park

Giant tree frog further upstream

Great hornbill flying out of a fruit tree

Oriental Pied hornbill feeding its chicks at the nest

Wreathed hornbill at a nest

Oriental dwarf kingfisher near it nest

Pied kingfishers with a fish on a tree branch

Blue-bearded bee-eater with a beetle for its chicks

Red-bearded bee-eater close to its nest in a sandbank

Black-and-red broadbill with a bamboo leaf

Black-and-red broadbill building a nest

Javan Frogmouth by the Phetchaburi River

Lesser fish-eagle chick exercising its wings high up a very tall tree

Lesser fish-eagle mother and chick on the nest above the Phetchaburi River

Lessor fish-eagle on a tree branch behind my blind over the Phetchaburi River

River carp in the Phetchaburi River

Gibbon hanging from a bamboo on Phanern Thung mountaintop

Dusky langur near the Phanern Thung ranger station

Stumped-tailed macaque by the river

Rainbow over the Phetchaburi River

Kaeng Krachan National Park is an amazing place but is fraught with poor management and protection. There are many other animals and ecosystems not shown here but this place is truly one of Thailand’s greatest protected areas.

It takes lots of hard work to get down to the river and collect photographs of the creatures thriving there. But diligence, determination, the right equipment, money and with good guides, is also within the reach of serious amateur photographers or naturalists who just want to look.

The opportunities are endless. It is hoped these photographs will create awareness and help this place survive into the future, so that generations to come can also enjoy the beauty of nature in Thailand’s largest national park.

My next post will be a collection of photographs from Huai Kha Khaeng like this of that amazing World Heritage Site, and hopefully sometime before I travel to Africa for a safari to Kenya in mid-August.

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Laem Phak Bia Royal Project in Phetchaburi

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 posted by Bruce 10:09 PM

Bird sanctuary and haven for many species of avian fauna

Laem Phak Bia Environmental Research and Development Project

Pied kingfishers landing in Phetchaburi province

Birds are among nature’s most fascinating creatures. They are the direct descendants of dinosaurs as shown by their detailed anatomy. Archaeopteryx, a 125 myo fossil from a slate quarry in Germany, is the best-known intermediate between toothed dinosaurs and modern birds, but a rich fossil of feathered dinosaurs has since been uncovered by Chinese researchers. The ancestors of modern birds were adaptable enough to survive the great extinction 65 million years ago that wiped out the rest of the dinosaur assemblage.

Indian skimmer in salt pans next to Laem Phak Bia

At last count, c. 1000 birds had been recorded in the Kingdom of Thailand. Although some, such as the Giant Ibis and Sarus Crane, have been lost due to hunting and habitat destruction, the continued richness and accessibility of Thailand’s birds and birdwatching sites makes the country a magnet for birders and photographers from around the world.

Indian pond-heron in Laem Phak Bia

One of the best-known birdwatching areas lies in Ban Laem district of Phetchaburi, on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. It includes the Laem Phak Bia Environmental Research and Development Project, established in 1991, and fully operational by 1995.

Painted stork in Laem Phak Bia

H. M. King Bhumipol Adulyadej initiated the project to treat both wastewater and solid waste through environmentally and ecologically sustainable methods. From a pumping station in Phetchaburi city 18.5 km away, wastewater is fed to Laem Phak Bia through a pipeline. This has created a 1 sq. km freshwater oasis among the surrounding expanse of brackish saltpans. The nutrient input makes this a rich feeding area for water birds and insectivorous land birds, including many that are migrants from northern Asia, together with some other animals such as monitor lizard.

Grey heron in Laem Phak Bia

Laem Pha Bia takes its name from a 3 km ‘sand-spit’ that juts into the gulf. This landform is a meeting point for birds, mammals, reptiles and fish from both sheltered mudflats and mangrove habitat of the Inner Gulf and those inhabiting the exposed sand-beaches of the southern Thai peninsula. The project area includes extensive secondary, regenerating, low stature mangrove forest along its coastal margin.

Little egret and mud-skipper in Phetchaburi

The freshwater lagoons, salt and brackish water expanses, mudflats, sand beaches, marsh grasses, and mangroves, plus the garden and tree plantations around the offices at Laem Phak Bia together constitute an unparalleled diversity of habitats in a small area. In turn, this attracts the highest diversity of birds of any place on the gulf shoreline.

Black-capped night-heron in Laem Phak Bia

From 1999 onwards Philip D. Round, Thailand’s most experienced ornithologist, and others have studied the life-cycles and populations of birds in the project. Such dedication by both professional and amateur birders has made Laem Phak Bia a de facto “bird observatory”, like those in Australia, N Europe and N America. A book, ‘Birds of Laem Phak Bia’, published with support from the Chaipattana Foundation in August 2009, is available from bookshops and at the Royal Project for those interested in learning more about the biodiversity of the site.

Great egret breeding nearby at Ban Laem town

Among the 242 species of bird recorded from the project and surrounding areas one of the most outstanding was an Indian Skimmer that arrived to delight bird watchers and photographers in April 2004. Another scarce visitor was an Indian Pond Heron that showed up on the freshwater ponds in 2006. I was fortunate to photograph both these birds during their short stays.

Brown seagulls in a freshwater pond in Laem Phak Bia

In March 2006 a rare and virtually unknown vagrant bird, the Large-billed Reed Warbler, was also netted and banded inside the project area before being photographed and released. At the time the only previous record in the whole world for this species was from the Sutlej Valley, Northwest India back in 1867. Such an amazing discovery shows both the significance of the project, and the continued conservation importance of the Thai Gulf.

Sunset at Laem Phak Bia

Without doubt, the highly successful Laem Phak Bia Environmental Research and Development Project has not only helped the people of Phetchaburi province by reducing pollution, but also provided nature lovers, bird watchers and photographers a chance to get close to some of Thailand’s remarkable endangered birds and eco-systems. This, of course, is a plus for wildlife conservation, and an example how protection and the safety of wild creatures is enhanced by a Royal Project.

Water monitor or locally known as the ‘Water Dragon’

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Notes on Laem Phak Bia by Phillip D. Round

I was immediately struck by the potential of Laem Phak Bia for studying a huge diversity of both resident and migratory birds when first introduced to the site in March 1999. I also fell in love with the tranquility and remoteness of the nearby coastline. Since that time I have spent as many weekends as I can manage there. In collaboration with the Wildlife Research Division of the Department of National Parks, and with the full support and encouragement of the Environmental Research and Development Project director and staff, I my students, and Bird Conservation Society of Thailand helpers, erect mist-nets in order to catch wild birds. These are then marked with a numbered metal band provided by the department; carefully examined, photographed and released.

Collared kingfisher with a bird band by P.D. Round

The long-legged and highly migratory shorebirds are additionally marked with coloured leg-flags that enables their country of marking to be recognized  by an observer using binoculars or telescope. Birds marked at Laem Phak Bia have been found as far afield as Australia and NE China.

Black-winged stilt in Laem Phak Bia

But even the resident (non-migratory) birds are of enormous interest.  Any bird that bears a numbered metal band is effectively carrying an individual identity card throughout its life — essential for detailed ecological study. Who would have guessed that our longest-lived bird was a diminutive (less than 8 g weight) nok krachip (Common Tailorbird) banded as long ago as 2001!  Not only have we learnt much about the life-histories, movements and annual cycles of birds, but we have also taught students the safe bird-handling skills they need to run their own research projects elsewhere in Thailand.

Philip Round is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology, Mahidol University, and is also the region al representative of The Wetland Trust (UK).

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COMMENT: Over-development in Kaeng Krachan National Park

Since the cover story was about birds, a report on the other famous bird-watching site in Phetchaburi is called for. Kaeng Krachan National Park is one of Thailand’s most important protected areas for wildlife conservation. The dry-evergreen forest is habitat to more than 400-recorded species including the rare Ratchet-tailed treepie found only in northern Vietnam and Kaeng Krachan.

Ten-wheeled dump truck and backhoe at kilometer 18 in Kaeng Krachan

Last year, several expansion projects were introduced into the park including tree clearing, camp area expansion and construction work were undertaken at several locations including the headquarters area, plus Ban Krang and Phanern Thung ranger stations situated in the interior. Bird watchers and photographers from around the world come regularly to see and photograph the birds, animals and these forest ecosystems.

Her Majesty Queen Sirikit visited Phanern Thung and her palace is maintained past the station. Campgrounds and parking areas have now been expanded into every empty space to increase visitors. A roast chicken and ‘som tam’ restaurant is now open every day at the top.

Chicken shop at Phanern Thung ranger station

About 20 years ago when the road into the park was extended past Phanern Thung to a car park at kilometer 36, a new tourist trap was established known as the ‘Sea of Fog’. Then, some professors at Kasetsart University walked down to the Phetchaburi River along a very tough track and set-up camp for extended stay building bamboo furniture and shacks by the waterway known as ‘KU Camp’.

Now, an even more complex VIP bungalow with tables and seats plus two toilets has been erected here, and recently used by some big shots with a campfire, armrests and drink-holders to boot. The trail down to the river is now widened to accommodate rafting crews and one could almost drive down.

Backhoe digging a huge hole to build a water holding tank

And finally the worst: at kilometer 18, a 10-wheeled truck is parked and a big backhoe is digging an enormous hole, supposedly to build a water storage tank. One of the best bird sites in Kaeng Krachan constantly visited by nature lovers is now completely destroyed by heavy equipment working everyday seen in the accompanying photograph.

Also, a natural stream crosses the road past Ban Krang at three locations but are now covered over with pipes and dirt to accommodate cars and two-wheeled traffic. By the look of things, more construction projects will be on the drawing boards to expand visitation even more. It is doubtful if any feasibility studies have been carried out on the impact of all this construction and destruction of natural tranquility.

After visiting and working in Kaeng Krachan for more than a decade, and knowing how important and beautiful this forest truly is, I feel sadden by all this over-development. It is only the beginning but quickly destroying the park to the point of no return, much like Khao Yai National Park in the Northeast. It is hope someone will read this and go see for themselves what has transpired. Action should be taken by the ‘powers to be’ to ensure anymore degradation is stopped before it is too late!

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Jewel in The Kingdom – Part Three

Friday, May 28, 2010 posted by Bruce 10:41 AM

Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

The Ecology

The fauna of Thung Yai includes some 120 mammals, 400 birds, 96 reptiles, 43 amphibians and 113 freshwater fish. Unfortunately, elephant have almost disappeared from the area due to the mining road breaking up migration routes, although passing migrants have been recorded from time to time.

Stream in Thung Yai

There is still a large herd of gaur. However, these ungulates are split up into small groups that prefer to remain in deep cover or ravines during the day. They only come out on to the plains at night. Occasionally, in May and June, after the grassland fires and subsequent first rains, they can be seen during the morning or evening, feeding on the newly sprouted young grass.

Samurai spider

Sambar, common muntjac (barking deer), wild pig and serow are common here. An area in the western part of the sanctuary supports tapir. Fea’s muntjac, a rare deer species similar to barking deer is also found here. With sizeable herds of large prey animals, tiger, leopard and Asian wild dog will survive. Smaller mammals like the leopard cat, civet cat and porcupine are very common and easily seen along the road at night. The bamboo rat is often heard gnawing away underground in bamboo clumps but is seldom seen. Unfortunately, these large rodents are poached by the ethnic tribes people for their meat and are thought to be dwindling in numbers.

There are a quite a few mineral licks in Thung Yai visited by gaur, sambar and barking deer plus many species of birds including the mountain imperial pigeon, pin-tailed pigeon and blue magpie, all of which come to take in minerals. The magpie is often seen perched on the herbivores eating bothersome ticks.

Oakleaf butterfly

Many other bird species live here, including the very rare white-winged duck spotted at a few remote forest lakes. The crested kingfisher and the Oriental darter, also rare, have been seen along a few waterways.

One of the oldest plant species in Thailand, the cycad, can be found in Thung Yai. These beautiful plants were around during the time of the dinosaur and may be seen from the road. Many types of orchid flower here during February and March. One of the most notable is the elephant orchid, which can be found in the interior. Beautiful wild ginger is also found in the grasslands.

The flora and fauna of the sanctuary intermingled includes Sundaic, Indo-Burmese, Indo-Chinese and Sino-Himalayan species, with many not found elsewhere. It is a researcher’s heaven, and some of the Kingdom’s last untamed riverine habitats.

Tokay lizard at Song Tai ranger station

The topography is generally mountainous with a network of many permanent rivers and streams dividing the area into valleys. The principal vegetation types are hill evergreen, dry evergreen, mixed deciduous, dry dipterocarp, savannah forest and grasslands. Red-brown earths and red-yellow podzolic are the predominant soils. A physical feature that is important for wildlife is the presence of mineral deposits or licks. These occur throughout the sanctuary, either wet or dry, and most appear to be located on or around granite intrusions in areas with red-yellow podzolic soil. They may be associated with the massive faults or lines in the intensely folded geology of this area. Small lakes, ponds and swampy areas occur, some seasonable while others are perennial; these are important wildlife habitats. Limestone sinkholes are found; most are about 20 meters across, but some are two kilometers long, 250 meters wide and drop as much as 30 meters in depth.

Wild ginger in the savanna

Caves, just south of Thung Yai, are well-known sites of early hominid occupation, dating back thousands of years. Paleolithic, Mesolithic and neolithic stone tools have been found in the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai valleys. Burial sites from a much later period have also been found here, and in Huai Kha Khaeng to the east. The only Thai presence known in history was sometime between 1590 and 1605 when King Naresuan based his army in Thung Yai to wage war against the Burmese invaders.

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Jewel in The Kingdom – Part Two

Friday, May 28, 2010 posted by Bruce 9:59 AM

Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary:
Thailand’s largest protected area and World Heritage Site
A look at present-day Thung Yai

When construction of hydroelectric dams was in vogue back in the early 1980s, the Mae Nam Choan dam project was put on the drawing board. If completed, it would have devastated about a thousand square kilometers of absolutely pristine habitat in Thung Yai including parts of the grassland. Many beautiful creatures would have perished or been pushed into the steep terrain by the rising floodwaters.

Mae Nam Choan

Logistics was a nightmare due to the rough terrain where the dam site was planned but the designers persisted. The Electrical Generating Authority Thailand (EGAT) cut a road through virgin forest in the sanctuary to the Mae Nam Choan River and a large supply camp was built.

Female muntjac in Song Tai ranger station

Conservationists organized a protest against construction of the dam. Grassroots people, NGOs, movie stars, pop stars and religious groups all joined the fracas and stayed until 1988, when the project was officially scrapped. This long-lasting protest was the first big success for wildlife conservationists in Thailand, and an instance in which the government was forced to yield to public opinion. The river still runs wild today. A legacy of preserving the natural world was set in place. Further outcries against mega-schemes in other parts of the country were brought to the forefront.

Large Indian civet at night in Song Tai

Nonetheless, the threat of large-scale destruction of natural habitat through the building of dams remains today, both within Thailand, and on key rivers in adjacent countries. Power producers, irrigation officials and others with political influence, want to build dams, sometimes just for the money. But with other alternate sources of power, building a dam purely to generate electricity is not credible.

China, Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia all have dam projects on the drawing board, recently completed or are under construction. The future of many rivers and wilderness areas in Southeast Asia is grim as modernization continues to wreck havoc on the natural world.

Forest monitor on a tree close to the Choan River

In 1996, I began visiting this wonderful place photographing its wildlife and forest. On my first trip into the interior, I miscalculated the distance to the headquarters at Song Tai and almost run out of fuel for my old ‘Series 1 Land Rover’. The chief at the time, Manop Chumpoochun gladly helped with enough gas to get back out to the nearest pump. Manop (now retired from the government) and I have been friend’s ever-since and we get together from time to time. He was a big help in finding wildlife subjects to photograph.

In those days, the road was tough especially after a rain but was still negotiable in most places. However, off-road groups from Bangkok would sometimes enter in large groups of 25 or more vehicles tearing up the road in certain areas making deep ruts where water naturally seeps from the ground creating havoc. Detour roads were then cut where possible further destroying the forest and making the road extremely rough on standard 4X4 trucks used by the rangers.

Siamese cat snake after eating a bird from a nest

Years later, the department set-up a new rule allowing only three off-road trucks at a time, which was suppose to cut down on the amount of vehicles that entered. However, the trick then used by these off-road groups was to mass outside the sanctuary and enter in groups of three gathering in the forest later where big parties were held. Racing at breakneck speed and testing their automobiles, tires and suspension systems was the program without any thought for the rangers or the forest and wildlife.

Due to political pressure and leverage, it seems some of these off-road groups continue to enter Thung Yai when permission is granted. Evidence of their passage is found every few kilometres or so. It is without doubt – Thung Yai is the toughest challenge for these thrill seekers in Thailand. It certainly needs attention and a proper mandate set-up by the DNP. These off-road groups should be scrutinized before allowing entry to minimize further destruction.

Asian barred owlet in the morning at Song Tai

Due to the state of the road, patrolling has always been kept to a minimum. It is also very difficult with just a few vehicles, a small staff, and a restricted budget that continues to cripple the protected area. Both Thung Yai west and east have similar problems relating to encroachment and poaching.

Another damaging aspect is the amount of regular traffic on the road through the middle of the sanctuary to the Karen village of Jagae. There is almost daily travel to and from the village, either people walking through or as motorized transport, especially during the dry season. Also, Buddhist monks enter for spiritual reasons or are in transit, possibly in the hundreds during the dry season. A taxi service of off-road vehicles runs from the mining town of Klity to Jagae and back, and the flow of people are basically unrestricted.

Taxi service in Thung Yai – Excessive traffic through the sanctuary

and a drain on the environment

Recent settlements are either Hmong or Karen, and there are about 15 villages situated within the boundaries of the protected area. The villagers claim they have been here for more than 150 years. The big question is: where will these people expand? They seem most likely to take over more fertile areas, displacing the wildlife, and turning it into agricultural farmland, or for grazing livestock.

In 1996 the village of Jagae had about a 100 households compared to just a dozen when the sanctuary was gazetted in 1974. Now there are more than 300 homes plus a school with possibly a thousand children. A large contingent of Border Patrol Police exists here too. It would be near impossible to move the mine and or the village, which has become completely entrenched.

My Ford Ranger entering a deep hole

To protect the grassland interior, a substitute route should be built from Jagae, going west into the town of Sangklaburi. Several bridges would need to be constructed to make the road suitable for all-weather use. So far, that remains just an idea. Hopefully some day, the government will address this problem and do something about these concerns to help preserve Thung Yai for the future.

As it stands, more and more people will continue to use the road, year in, year out, polluting it with trash. Poaching and forest gathering still remains a serious problem. Several years ago, a research team found two headless gaur carcasses side by side at an important mineral lick, indicating the beasts were killed with a large caliber rifle. Only the trophy and some meat were taken. All the protected areas in the ‘Western Forest Complex’ is plagued by the same problems related to gathering, poaching and encroachment.

Thung Yai’s tough road and my poor truck

It is vitally important to preserve Thung Yai Naresuan and Huai Kha Khaeng plus Umphang wildlife sanctuaries as one continuous conservation area – to maintain the integrity of habitats, the diversity of the flora and fauna, and complexity of all their ecosystems. Not enough is being done to restrain the relentless tide of humanity. Quick and decisive action is the only recourse, before it is too late.

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Jewel in The Kingdom – Part One

Friday, May 14, 2010 posted by Bruce 8:30 AM

Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary:

Thailand’s largest protected area and World Heritage Site: A look at present-day Thung Yai

Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary established in 1974 is the single largest protected area in Thailand encompassing 3,647 square kilometers. Named after King Naresuan the Great who repelled Burmese invaders back in the 16th century gaining independence for the Thai nation. The sanctuary is not only historically famous but one of the Kingdom’s greatest natural wonders.

Sunset over the grassland in Thung Yai

Due to its size, the sanctuary is divided into two separate administrative blocks – east and west for easier management, and each with its own superintendant. The most important part of this great place is the grassland or savannah in the middle of the western section. The sanctuary gained this status due to the biodiversity of its flora and fauna, and the absolute need to save this vast area from further human destruction.

Cycad on the savannah

Thung Yai is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (established in 1991) along with Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary to the east. Adjoining Thung Yai in the south is the Sri Nakharin, Khao Laem and Lam Klong Ngu national parks, and Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary to the north. This cluster is part of the Western Forest Complex that comprises of 18 protected areas under the responsibility of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP).

Bamboo by the road in Thung Yai

After many months of planning, a trip with my team to Thung Yai (west) situated in Kanchanaburi province on Thailand’s western border with Myanmar was undertaken. We entered the sanctuary on May 1st at Ti Nuay, the present day headquarters area. I was interested to see how this important wildlife sanctuary was coping in the present day, and to observe the impact of humans on its fragile ecosystems. Unfortunately the protected area has a history of ill-fated exploits.

On May 1, 1973 a military helicopter coming from Thung Yai crashed in Nakhon Pathom rice fields northwest of Bangkok. The son of the pilot was killed on impact. Trophy heads, antlers and elephant ivory including weapons were splayed all over the crash site. It made big news and led to the fall of Field Marshal’s Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphas Charusathien’s regime.

The implications of this scandal were serious. In the group were high-ranking government officials, army and police plus movie stars and big business men. Personnel and equipment were provided by the army including a helicopter, GMC trucks, jeeps and local guides hired out by the organizers. It was suppose to be a ‘safari’ for the rich on Thailand’s largest savannah after large wild trophy animals.

Gaur bull camera trapped in a mineral lick

One story floated out that gaur and elephants had been slaughtered in the grassland using the door guns on the Huey helicopter. Other stories like nightly spotlighting and large mammals left to rot in the forest while wild deer meat was served during parties that went on into the night. All the officials on board the disastrous crash were transferred to in-active posts. It certainly made a dent on wildlife conservation and the long-term plight of the sanctuary. However, this prompted the Royal Forest Department (RFD) to gazette Thung Yai as a protected area the following year.

Prior to the crash, mining companies in Bangkok gained mineral concessions in several areas around Thung Yai to mine lead-zinc and other associated minerals like silver, palladium and antimony to name a few. The concessionaires cut a road right through the heart of Thung Yai from the town of Klity northeast of Thong Pha Phum. The dirt and rocky road snakes all the way to the Burmese border and then carries on into Burma for about 10 kilometres before looping back into Thailand. The thoroughfare then continues on to the town of Sangklaburi (Three Pagoda Pass) and is used by local villagers. In the past, big 10-wheel mining trucks with straight exhaust pipes screamed through Thung Yai during the dry season causing extreme noise pollution and disturbing the wildlife.

Gaur cow camera trapped at a mineral lick

A group of mines situated along the sanctuary’s border include Phu Jue, Phu Mong and Kao Lee mines. On the southern side are the Klity, Bo Ngam, and KEMCO (or Song Thor) mines plus a number of other small-scale operations, all with lead separation plants.

These lead mines are killing ethnic communities and contaminating water sources here. Several Karen villagers particularly at Lower Klity village have already died from lead contamination while many dozens of people particularly women and children are suffering from acute lead poisoning by drinking, fishing and washing in the Klity stream near the village.

More than 100 cattle have died and the villagers cannot drink from the waterway because it makes them ill. Some forest rangers in Thung Yai believe that wildlife is also suffering as they have seen deer and other animals dying in the same way as the cattle.

Red-whiskered bulbul

The Pollution Control Department investigated the area and found the amount of lead in sediment in Klity stream below the mine is 165,720 to 552,380 ppm (parts per million). Thailand’s safety standard is 200 ppm. A subsequent investigation by the department revealed the mine failed to treat its wastewater and illegally dumped it into the stream.

The mines have been operating for more than 40 years by influential people with connections to local officials and a political party. Although the lead mines are located just outside Thung Yai Naresuan Sanctuary, the effects of contamination from toxic discharge is spreading far beyond the mine concession areas.

In July 2006, the Natural Resource and Environment Minister Youngyuth Tiyapairat said the RFD reported that the permit for the mining firm to use the land in the forest was about expire (2007) while the Director General Damrong Pidej of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department would not allow the company to go into the forest either. Damrong also said operations at the mine, which is located in a 70,000-rai forest just past the Karen village of Jagae, has been stopped for almost a decade but the mining company now wants to re-open it and is fighting with the court to resume operations.

Mr Damrong said he would use environment-related laws to bar mining of all kinds of minerals in the wildlife sanctuary especially since it is a World Heritage Site. He called on other agencies concerned, including the RFD and the Department of Minerals to stop granting mining concessions in forested areas.

Mr Yongyuth also ordered forest officials to tightly guard the area to prevent the transport of mining equipment in or out of Thung Yai. He also pushed legislation through parliament to help the rangers improve their standard and grade, and today, more than 50 percent of the DNP’s staff is now permanent hire, a big improvement over the old days when 90 percent were temporary hire.

Mae Nam Choan river

The sanctuary has many rivers and streams. These include the Mae Khlong (Upper Khwae Yai), Suriya, Dongwee, Songthai, Tsesawoh and Maekasa, plus other smaller tributaries. The Mae Khlong River begins its long journey in Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary in the western part of Tak province near the border with Burma. The Mae Chan River, another major tributary, merges with the Mae Khlong in Thung Yai. From there, this waterway, known as Mae Nam Choan or the Upper Khwae Yai River, is steep, swift and rocky. It eventually flows into the Sri Nakharin reservoir which inundated 418 square kilometers to the south of the Thung Yai. The Sri Nakharin Dam in Kanchanaburi was built to harness this powerful river and provide power and water to people on the lowlands.

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Wild Water Buffalo – Part Two

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 posted by Bruce 11:42 AM

WILD SPECIES REPORT: The last wild herd in Thailand

Massive beasts with a mean temperament

Wild water buffalo calf by the river

Probably, the most significant species in Huai Kha Khaeng is the wild water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). Due to a very small population with only about 50-60 individuals surviving, the future of these remarkable creatures in Thailand is uncertain. Many perils threaten them, such as foot and mouth disease, which could easily be passed on by domesticated buffalo living just outside the southern boundary of the sanctuary. Poaching and encroachment are also serious concerns.

Mother buffalo fully alert to any danger

I once photographed a female (with a rope through her nose) and a few of her calves mingling with a wild herd in the sanctuary not far from the southern boundary. I made a report to the authorities, and these domestic buffalo were separated from the wild herd and quickly chased out by the rangers.

Domestic buffalo mingling with the wild herd

It is a fact though; some local villagers have deliberately mingled their buffalo with the wild buffalo so the offspring would be sturdy. This is a very dangerous situation, which if not checked, may lead to the total demise of all the ungulates like deer, pigs and wild cattle in Huai Kha Khaeng. It may sound drastic, but that could happen one day. Cattle disease has no boundaries.

The southern border at Krueng Krai ranger station still remains a gateway for danger and must be protected at all costs. However, enforcement is difficult due to low budgets and just a few rangers to look after a very large area. This needs a serious revamp. The Department of National Parks (DNP) has increased security here but some locals seem intent on slipping through.

Wild water buffalo herd

Stricter laws are needed as a deterrent, and increased budgets and personnel implemented so this wonderful place is properly looked after. Anyone caught in the interior with firearms and evidence of poaching should do a long prison term. Unfortunately, with the present laws and possibility of corruption, law-breakers usually get off light and become repeat offenders.

Over the years, I have seen these magnificent buffalo on numerous occasions. During the late 1990s’ while I was still shooting film and working in Huai Kha Khaeng at the southern area, I managed to get some good shots of a herd wallowing in the river. But it was not the first or the last time I would bump into wild water buffalo.

Wild water buffalo herd

In 2006 armed with a new Konica-Minolta D7 digital camera and 600mm lens, I bumped into two bulls right across from Krueng Krai ranger station. One was a very old bull with a huge set of horns, and the other a younger bull posed for the camera over the course of several days. I was using a boat-blind but had no power except a paddle, and getting around was a bit difficult. However, it was still very gratifying seeing these rare beasts and photographing them.

Late last year, I had a unique experience photographing a young male calf and its mother. Green peafowl and otters are plentiful but my main objective is always the same, photographing the buffalo. My last encounter was in March of this year. I again motored up-stream and bumped into two large bulls cooling off in the river. They were very shy and took off as soon as they saw me but not before I got a couple of good shots. Judging from their horns, these two were very mature bulls.

Very old wild water buffalo bull

At the beginning of the dry season, the river is very low but still deep enough to navigate up-stream using a new camouflaged kayak with pontoons on either side, and a silent trolling motor hooked up to a 12v truck battery for power and maximum maneuverability. Controlling the boat-blind is easy as I motor along using the electric motor and I can easily steer the craft with a rudder made of aluminum attached to the stern. I use three anchors (one fore and two aft) when I need to be steady in the water.

A Nikon 400mm f 2.8 lens and camera is firmly attached to the hull using aluminum tubing and braces plus a gimbal-styled tripod head suitable for a large telephoto. I sit comfortably behind the camera ready to shoot at a moments notice. This boat actually is very stable and has allowed some close encounters with large mammals. Camouflage material is draped over everything to blend in with the background.

Wild water buffalo herd

Over the years, quite a lot of research has been carried out on the buffalo in Huai Kha Khaeng. One of the first was Napparat Naksathit, the former chief of Khao Nang Ram Research station. He did an ecology and distribution survey of buffalo in 1984. Then Tanya Chan-art in 1986 and Wichan Ucharoensak in 1992, did consensus surveys to determine numbers. Dr Rattanawat Chaiyarat from Mahidol University did his thesis on the buffalo. Dr Terrapat Prayurasiddh, now the deputy director general of the Royal Forest Department, did an aerial survey using a helicopter, also to establish numbers. Around that time, the deputy chief of Huai Kha Khaeng, the late Pongsakorn Pattapong researched and photographed the buffalo. He was an avid photographer but passed away from too much exposure to chemicals while developing his own film. And finally, Manoch Yindee is currently working on wild buffalo genetics in the sanctuary, and domestic buffalo throughout the Kingdom.

A mature buffalo bull can weigh up to a ton with hooves more than 20cm (8 inches) across. They leave deep tracks in the sandy soil by the river. These magnificent bovids are much larger and more aggressive than their domestic counterparts. Wild buffalo have a distinct forehead with horn bases closer together than domestic buffalo, whose boss is wider apart.

Wild buffalo have a fierce temperament and if provoked, can be very dangerous to man. A herd will group together to face a predator like a tiger or Asian wild dog. Male solitary bulls charge without hesitation. Many a hunter has had a close call or been killed by these massive low-slung beasts. A bull will gore and then toss the intruder before stomping on the victim with its huge hooves. They are extremely determined and will sometimes continue to attack until the enemy perishes.

The author in an old boat-blind

Buffalo live in herds with one mature bull looking after the females. During the breeding season in October-November, the herd bull will fight other solitary bulls. Females have one calf, and gestation is about 10 months. A buffalo’s daily ritual is a visit to the river to drink and cool off. They will wallow to coat their hides with mud protecting it from biting insects.

This is the last wild herd in Thailand and, in Southeast Asia for that matter. India and Nepal have some large herds, and Cambodia may have a few individuals but they could be feral. Centuries ago, wild water buffalo were found in alluvial lowland plains and rivers throughout the Kingdom. As most waterways have been overcome by humanity, domestication of the wild buffalo was only a matter of time. It is said wild buffalo were domesticated before 2000 BC. Fossil evidence of buffalo from the Pleistocene Epoch has been uncovered in many sand deposits along the Chao Phraya River.

Antlers of a Schomburgk’s stag

The DNP is responsible for Huai Kha Khaeng and its management, and they should make protection and enforcement around the southern area a top priority. With only one location for wild water buffalo left in the Kingdom, total security is required so these magnificent creatures will be around for future generations to appreciate. It is hoped they will not end up like so many other animals that have gone extinct such as the Schomburgk’s deer and the Kouprey, and that would be a sad day indeed.

Trophy horns of a Kouprey bull

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Wild Water Buffalo – Part One

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 posted by Bruce 8:53 AM

WILD SPECIES REPORT: The last wild herd in Thailand

Massive beasts with a mean temperament

Young buffalo bull locked onto my boat-blind

Coincidence, according to the dictionary, is the occurrence of two events at the same time. I guess the following story would be seen by most as just that. However, I personally believe that good things come our way after we have made merit.

Such was the case when I showed up with a bag of rice at Huai Mae Dee, a ranger station in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in March of 2007. My longtime friend and chief of the station at the time, Khun Fern, accepted the rice, saying we would cook it in the morning and make an offering to some monks. I agreed and retired for the evening in my comfortable hammock. The weather was cool and I slept well after the long drive from Bangkok.

Up at six, the food was prepared and we both eagerly waited. After a short while, the holy man arrived with some of his followers. We filled their alms bowls with rice and curry. I gave a Thai version of my second book Thailand’s Natural Heritage to the abbot of the temple, hoping it would help the local people around to understand more about Mother Nature. Feeling good at having made merit, I packed up and headed south to where the wild water buffalo live.

Old buffalo bull by the river

After more then three hours of grueling off-road driving, a forest ranger and I set-up camp by the lower Huai Kha Khaeng about mid-day. We had lunch and put my boat-blind together. I then motored upriver for several hours. On the way, I observed some smooth-coated otters hunting along the shoreline but these carnivores quickly disappeared after seeing the boat.

About 4pm as I rounded a bend, a small group of wild water buffalo cooling off in the river actually surprised me and I hesitated for a few seconds locked-on to the herd. About the same moment, I heard a national parks helicopter in the distance out on patrol and it was headed my way so I quickly gunned the electric trolling motor to get closer to the herbivores not thinking there was any danger.

When I was about 50 meters away, I started shooting my camera knowing the helicopter would certainly spook the buffalo. Nonetheless, I noticed a young bull in the herd staring directly at me. He moved up the shoreline followed by a larger cow and the rest of the herd galloping towards the boat-blind. I just kept firing away until my heart shuddered – as I finally realized I was being charged. I suddenly made a gut-wrenching effort to motor the boat out of harm’s way, just as the noisy helicopter hovered overhead. After a few seconds, I looked back and the buffalo were gone.

Buffalo cow charging my boat-blind

Had I been saved by the arrival of the mechanical flying bird – or was it the spirits of the forest that caused such a coincidence and protected me? I will never know how close I came to an attack by the aggressive buffalo, but these photographs are some of the most exciting I have taken as a wildlife photographer. A month later, I photographed a herd of wild elephants in the river not far from the same site. There were a few tense moments with baby elephants in the family unit. My camouflaged boat-blind has definitely paid for itself.

The most gratifying thing was seeing these rare beasts and catching them on digital. There are only 50 individuals surviving in the sanctuary and they can be tough to see and photograph. But it was not the first or the last time I would bump into wild water buffalo. During the late 1990s’ while I was still shooting film and working in Huai Kha Khaeng at the southern area, I managed to get some good shots of a herd wallowing in the river.

Buffalo bull, a purple heron and several pond herons

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The Indochinese Tiger: Lord of the Jungle

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 posted by Bruce 8:31 AM

Wild Species Report

Thailand’s mystical cat – A rare striped carnivore and awesome natural predator

Falling leaves signals the dry season has arrived and the forest floor is carpeted with a mosaic of green, yellow, brown, red and orange. A large predator walks the trails seeking its next meal. A barking deer sensing danger barks a warning. The whole community of wild animals is on alert as squirrels and monkeys cry out from the trees above. A striped carnivore stalks a herd of wild pigs. The nervous omnivores squeal and panic, running through the underbrush to escape. But the big cat is quick as lightning – it catches a young pig with sharp claws. The struggle is over in seconds as fangs penetrate to the spine.

Indochinese tiger Panthera tigris corbetti  in Huai Kha Khaeng

A tiger has just made a kill. It lifts the lifeless pig into deep cover and devours the carcass. After feeding, the big cat will seek water for a thirst quenching drink. It will lie down and rest until the desire to eat or drink begins again. Tigers sometimes move great distances in search of food. But where there is an abundance of prey, tigers continue to live in balance with nature. The average kill ratio is about twenty unsuccessful attempts to one kill. At a certain time of year, the male tiger will seek out a female in estrus to carry on his legacy.

Some two million years ago, the tiger evolved in Northern China and Siberia, and spread to many parts of Asia all the way to the Caspian Sea and eastern Turkey in the west. The Himalayas stood as a serious barrier to their migrating into India. Some reached Korea and Manchuria, and also advanced south through China then into Indochina, and down to the islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali. Tigers are good swimmers and made it across narrow sea channels. About 10,000 years ago, the big cat moved west through Burma and Bangladesh on to India. At one time, there were probably more than a hundred thousand of them throughout the tiger’s world range.

Tiger on the prowl in late afternoon

A century ago, Thailand was an absolute haven for this carnivore. They could be found in every forest within the Kingdom. But as humanity expanded, the species quickly declined because of human predation, and loss of habitat and prey animals. The pelt is sought after by hunters and its bones wanted by Asian medicine practitioners. Many considered this predator a pest and as modern weapons became available, and humans expanded into the forest, these magnificent beasts really began to vanish. Realistically, it is estimated there might be about 200 to 300 tigers left in Thai forests, which unfortunately, is barely sustainable over the long run in some areas. However, a very few protected areas if properly taken care of, could sustain a population of tigers. Thailand still retains some of the best-protected tiger habitat left in Southeast Asia. Wildlife corridors between protected areas are one of the most important keys to sustainability.

Feral cats caught by camera traps on a wall behind my home

When I began wildlife photography, the burning desire to photograph a tiger in the wild was one of my great wishes. These cats are extremely difficult to see let along photograph. My real first encounter with a tiger was in Sai Yok National Park in western Thailand back in 1996. I was sitting in a tree-blind when one jumped across the stream behind me and I caught a very brief glimpse of the sleek cat as it moved downstream hunting for prey. From that day on I photographed many other wild creatures including the leopard, but never a tiger. I was beginning to doubt whether I would ever photograph one.

My first camera trapped tiger in Sai Yok National Park

Several years later coming back to Sai Yok, I began a camera trap program not far from the headquarters. This was in mid-October 2003. Six traps were set-up in the forest at waterholes and game-trails. As we were breaking camp, the cook asked me for a lucky number. I just lifted my camp chair that left two impressions in the dirt like the numeral 11, and so I called out 11.

My second camera trapped tiger in Sai Yok

A month later, the film and batteries were collected and after processing, I saw two tigers on film. The first was an old male caught at a waterhole on the 11th day of the 11th month that was recorded on the frame. Three days later, a younger male tiger passed another camera up on a 600 meter ridgeline on the 15th at 16.11 pm also imprinted in the frame. Some may say it was just a coincidence to have the number 11 in both photos, but I like to think the ‘spirits of the forest’ had finally answered my prayers.

Tiger camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan National Park

Further south along the Tenasserim Range in Kaeng Krachan National Park at the beginning in January 2001, I began another camera trap program in conjunction with World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Department of National Parks (DNP) at two locations in the park. The first was along an old logging road not too far from the main gate at Sam Yot. During a four-month period, many animals were captured on film including an amazing six photographs of one mature male tiger. He actually came right up to the camera trap for a facial portrait, and then walked away. That was the beginning of a very successful ‘presence/absence’ program carried out (2001-2004) to determine if tigers and other large mammals were still surviving here.

Tiger male hunting on an old logging road in Kaeng Krachan

The second area was along the Phetchaburi River that flows crystal clear through this magnificent forest. Many tigers walk the elephant trails hunting for prey. My very close friend Sutat Sapphu (a forest ranger with incredible knowledge of this ecosystem) and I began a monthly program setting up more than 20 cameras along the river. One particular individual tiger named ‘four-spots’ due to a marking on its left flank was caught down near a crocodile pond where he actually tried too bite a camera trap and we got a shot of his mouth and whiskers. Over the next few months, ‘4-spots’ was captured up and down the river, and then way up Phanern Thung Mountain at 900 meters by the road into the park at kilometer 28.

Tiger camera trapped on old logging road in Kaeng Krachan

When the road was closed in Kaeng Krachan due to heavy storms and landslides in October 2003, four-spots was consistently camera trapped at kilometers 33, 34 and 35, and down at the infamous ‘KU’ camp by the river. The distance was calculated to be about 22 kilometers apart. Several other male and female tigers were recorded over the three-year program and are a testament to the remarkable biodiversity of Kaeng Krachan. Many other creatures were also caught including tapir, leopard, wild dog, fishing cat, sun bear, the rare Fea’s muntjac, elephant, gaur and serow among others. Returning in November 2008, and now using a digital camera trap, I got a tiger in November at a mineral lick just 12 kilometers from the front gate.

Tiger up-close in Kaeng Krachan

Good things sometimes come our way and I was about to get a reward to coincide with ‘2010-The Year of the Tiger’. The absolute chronology of being at the right place, the right time with the right equipment and the right technique was played out before my eyes. On the 11th of December 2009 (my lucky number again), the tiger in the lead photo and I crossed paths. I was lucky to have been sitting down with my hands on my lap right in front of my camera. If I had been standing, or made just the slightest noise, I would have never seen this old male.

Indochinese tiger on the prowl at night

The trail through dry dipterocarp forest takes about a 40 minute walk to a photographic blind set above a mineral deposit deep in the interior of Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, Thailand’s top protected area and World Heritage Site situated in western Thailand. The flimsy structure made of bamboo sits about two meters off the ground and is attached to a tree. Black mesh closes off the cubicle on all four sides that was erected by the park rangers. An opening large enough for a big lens allows a clear view of the waterhole some 50 meters downhill to a saucer shaped depression.

Tiger at night by the Phetchaburi River

This waterhole attracts many creatures such as elephant, gaur, banteng and other ungulates like sambar and wild pig. Tiger, leopard and Asian wild dog also come looking for prey. It is truly a magical place and a tribute to Thailand’s natural biodiversity. Arriving about 12pm, I immediately set-up my cameras and then waited. Feeling dozy, I strung my hammock for a bit of a snooze after the long haul from Bangkok. The afternoon passed-by slowly and about five got up and began a vigil of the mineral lick. A few minutes later decided to actually sit behind my 400mm lens and camera, and do some adjustments to compensate for the fading light. Took a few test shots to make sure the exposure was correct and then waited. Two minutes later, the dream of a lifetime unfolded before me.

Same tiger a month later during the day at the above location

A striped carnivore magically and silently appeared from the forest on my right. The tiger walked straight down to a little stream for a quick drink. The mature male did not linger and continued on his way. However, he did pause briefly to stare up at my position three different times before disappearing into the forest on my left. Total time spent by the cat at the waterhole was less than a minute. I was extremely fortunate to snap 20 frames as the magnificent creature carried on its way. I banged my head against my camera in disbelief to make sure I was not dreaming. After 15 years of wildlife photography, my aspiration to photograph a tiger through the lens has finally come true.

A female tiger in early morning at the same location

The present status of the tiger in Thailand is balancing on the beam of nature. As a World Heritage Site, Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries is the core area and absolutely the last great tiger haven in the Kingdom, and Southeast Asia for that matter due to its size (6,427 square kilometers), and its biodiversity. In Huai Kha Khaeng, the Department of National Parks has really improved the situation with better patrolling, increased help for the rangers, a demarcation fence along the eastern buffer zone in Uthai Thani, constant vigilance by many people and NGOs’ plus improved management, wildlife research and better awareness education. With these measures in place, prey species have come back and are now abundant. Tigers are thriving. There are about a hundred in the Huai Kha Khaeng-Thung Yai block.

Male tiger posing for my camera

Research on the tiger has been carried out by the Wildlife Research Division under the direction of Dr Saksit Simcharoen and his staff in conjunction with several other people and organizations including Dr Ullas Karanth (from India) and Dr Dave Smith from the University of Minnesota.

A waterhole with mineral deposits in Huai Kha Khaeng

Dr Saksit and others has published a paper in the science journal Oryx (How many tigers Panthera tigris in Huai Kha Khaeng: An estimate using photographic capture-recapture samplings) to establish a number. According to Dr Saksit, the home range of the Indochinese subspecies is about 240 square kilometers. Dr Peter Cutter with WWF-Thailand, and also a student with the University of Minnesota, has done his doctorate thesis on ‘tiger’s occupancy monitoring’ using transect and trail sign data gathered in Huai Kha Khaeng.

Tiger entering waterhole

Camera trapping is still by far the best and safest way to establish a home range of a tiger due to its individuality. No two tiger’s striped pattern is alike. It is imperative to use opposing camera traps to get a picture of both sides to identify individuals. Footprint and scat analysis are also very good techniques.

Tiger drinking from shallow stream

In my opinion, collaring a tiger is extremely dangerous as the capture process could possibly injure or impair the animal. As rare as they are, it does not justify losing even one of these magnificent creatures to a possible botched captures and release. Some researchers may not agree but eight tigers in Huai Kha Khaeng have already been collared and ranges determined. You can only get so much data. Loads of tiger home range information has also come from India and elsewhere. I’m all for good passive scientific research (wild animals are not handled at all) carried out to save the tiger.

Tiger looking back at my position

The Western Forest Complex includes 17 protected areas encompassing more than 18,000 square kilometers and has the potential to accommodate 700 tigers. Even though this estimate is high, with good protection and patrolling in all the protected areas in the complex to keep poachers out and encroachment to zero, and to protect the prey species or food chain for the tiger, it is feasible in the future this number could be a reality. However, due to serious fragmentation with roads, dams and reservoirs plus humanity and agriculture, it will be a difficult road ahead unless the present boundaries of the large protected areas stay intact and unharmed, and more corridors set-up through national forests. The World Heritage Site of Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai must be the number one priority of the DNP as a conservation area.

 

Tiger on the move

For the long run, forest protection and wildlife awareness education to all levels of society is the key to saving the Kingdom’s natural heritage. The government should always strive to use all its resources to keep the forest and wildlife free from the damaging effects of human intervention. The private sector and the government need to be aware of all the problems regarding the forest rangers and try to improve their lives. The forest can be a deadly place to work and these men need incentive, as they put their lives on the line.

Tiger’s final look before disappearing into the forest

Projects to provide food and clothing to help these men are being carried out in a few protected areas by a few individuals, companies and organizations. Without dedicated ranger patrolling, tigers will surely slip away. It is up to the present generation to take proactive measures to make sure Thailand’s wild flora and fauna stays intact for future generations to see, enjoy and cherish.

Ecology and behavior of the Tiger:

To understand how the tiger evolved, we must go back to the beginning of these wild creatures. Nimravidae were the first cats to evolve in the Early Oligocene epoch, about 35 million years ago. They lasted till the Late Miocene, some eight million years ago, when huge grasslands had developed around the world. The large saber-toothed cats were the first of the family Felidae. These long-fanged felines evolved alongside huge herds of grazing mammals like antelope and cattle. There were several different species of saber-tooth, but they all became extinct about two or three million years ago.

Modern cats belong to the family Felidae which includes: tiger, lion, leopard, cheetah, and domestic cats. Ultimate carnivores, they feed almost exclusively on vertebrate prey and sit at the top of the food chain. Wild cats have few predators apart from man. The tiger belongs to the genus Panthera or roaring cats that also includes the lion, leopard and jaguar.

Tiger camera trapped abstract

The Indochinese tiger Panthera tigris corbetti was named after Jim Corbett, the famous conservationist and hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards in India during the 1930s’. This subspecies is found in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, eastern Burma and southeastern China. According to Chatchawan Pisdamkham, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Division of the DNP, there are approximately 250-300 tigers left in the wild of Thailand.

The following protected areas still harbor these magnificent felids: Huai Kha Khaeng, Thung Yai Naresuan, Umphang and Salak Phra wildlife sanctuaries plus Mae Wong, Sai Yok, Sir Nakarin, Erawan, Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri national parks in the west; Khao Yai, Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks, and Phu Khieo wildlife sanctuary in the Northeast, and Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in the deep south.

Tiger camera trap abstract

It is doubtful if any tigers survive in the protected areas of the north or Khlong Saeng-Khao Sok forest complex in the south as no reports have come from these areas for many years. Eastern Thailand has no tigers on record. A couple of years back, the newspapers reported on tiger tracks found not far from the road around several national parks in Chiang Mai and Lampang but were fake put down by a prankster to stir-up media frenzy. This was supposedly to help villagers who had lost cattle to a predator, more likely feral dogs.

Tigers are essentially solitary but come together when a female is in estrus. The resident male will copulate with a female many times over several days. Gestation ranges from 93-114 days. Litters can be from one to seven but usually only two to three cubs survive. Tigresses rarely accompany more than three cubs in the wild and abundant prey is required for a growing family with a small home range about 60 square kilometers.

Indochinese tiger tracks in Kaeng Krachan

It has highly developed vision about six-times more powerful than man and an extreme sense of hearing. These attributes are essential in locating prey. The feed almost exclusively on herbivores and are at the top of the food chain.

Indochinese tiger habitat in Kaeng Krachan

The tiger’s ultimate advantage in stalking prey is its striped pattern that is natural camouflage and this cat is a very efficient killer. It has awesome strength and unmatched armament of retractable claws, long fangs and dagger-like canines. It can sometime dispatch animals as large as gaur, wild water buffalo and small elephants. Tigers have no predators other than humans.

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Asian Elephants: Thailand’s Mega Fauna

Monday, January 4, 2010 posted by Bruce 8:48 AM

Wild Species Report
A flagship species and cultural symbol
Thailand’s largest terrestrial animal on the brink of extinction

Wild elephant family unit in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Santuary

In 1927, a film was made depicting wild Thailand, and shown to audiences around the world. Entitled ‘Chang – A Drama of the Wilderness’, this epic documentary was produced by two American filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and released by Famous Players-Lasky, a division of Paramount Pictures.

‘Chang’ (Thai for elephant) is a melodrama and silent film about a man, the jungle, and wild animals as its cast. The main character is Kru, a poor farmer depicted in the film that battles tigers, leopards, bears and even rampaging elephants, all of which pose a constant threat to his livelihood. The saga was depicted in the northern province of Nan where thousands of wild elephants survived in vast herds at the time. The footage of elephants in the hundreds is remarkable.

Young tusker at a mineral lick in Huai Kha Khaeng

The film also shows tigers and leopards caught in pit-falls and dispatched with a muzzleloader from the top. It was an amazing piece of celluloid production where logistics must have been really tough. Chang was nominated for an Oscar for Unique and Artistic Production at the first Academy Awards in 1929. Cooper and Schoedsack went on to make the classic blockbuster movie King Kong.

Tusker in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

The Asian and African elephants are the only two surviving species of a once diverse and widespread group called proboscids (order Proboscidea), or animals with a trunk. They are characterized particularly by developments of their teeth and adaptation of their limbs for supporting their increasing mass. All total there is fossil evidence of some 350 species of ancestral proboscideans, mastodons, mammoths and modern elephants.

The first ancestor of elephants lived approximately 50 million years ago during the Late Eocene and Early Oligocene Epochs. It was named Moeritherium after the place where it was discovered, the Moeris Lake in Egypt. Though its form and appearance were completely different from the elephant, scientists base Moeritherium’s ancestry of the elephant on its skull and teeth. The skull had air holes, just like the elephant, and four small incisors grew from the upper and lower jaw that the growth of tusks had begun. At least three divergent groups of proboscideans evolved there from Moeritherium or close relatives.

Mature tusker camera trapped at a waterhole in Khao Ang Rue Nai

The next beast of elephantine build and bulk was the Deinotherium that was still not a true elephant. They became common in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe during the Miocene Epoch. They were very large at 4 meters high with down curving tusks from the lower jaw. Surviving for 20 million years well into the Pleistocene Epoch, Deinotherium was clearly a very successful animal. About the same time Paleomastodon and Phiomia began to evolve and show the closet beginnings of a trunk allowing the species to feed higher off the ground.

Very old tuskless bull in Huai Kha Khaeng

At the beginning of the Miocene epoch about 24 million years ago, the ancestral Gomphotheres was the real commencement of Proboscidean diversity. There were literally hundreds of species at one point including mastodons and mammoths. Elephantidae is the family to which the modern elephant belongs and the first species was Elephas antiquus from the middle to late Pleistocene Epoch. However, by the beginning of the Holocene Epoch around 10,000 years ago, only two species remained: African elephants Loxodonta africana and Asian elephants Elephas maximus.

Tusker in Khao Ang Rue Nai

The main differences between the two species are anatomical. The African elephant are larger and has a more elongated skull, a trunk with deep rings, larger ears, a flat forehead and, in general, holds its head at a 45 – degree angel to the ground. Asian elephants are smaller and have a double – bulged forehead, a trunk with fewer rings, smaller ears and a skull with a 90 – degree orientation.

There are three Asian sub-species: the Sri Lankan elephant Elephas maximus maximus, the mainland elephant Elephas maximus indicus, and the Sumatran elephant Elephas maximus sumatranus, and two African sub-species: the bush elephant Loxodonta africana africana, and the forest elephant Loxodonta africana cyclotis.

Young tusker camera trapped at a waterhole in Huai Kah Khaeng

Prehistoric fossil evidence of proboscideans has been discovered in the north, the northeast, the central plains, and the south of Thailand. The first find in 1948 was fossil bones of Stegodon insignis (mastodon) during the construction of the bridge across the river just south of Nakorn Sawan provincial city.  Following this, discoveries were made in lignite deposits in Lamphun, Lampang and Phayao provinces. Fossil teeth of a Deinotherium at Ban Sop Khan in Phayao have been uncovered. Another find new to science is the earliest known species Stegolophodon praelatidens fossils from the Early Miocene discovered in Lamphun and Lampang by Pascal Tassy (from France) and others.

Many extraordinary ancient proboscidean fossils have been unearthed in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) province at the Tha Chang and Chang Thong sand pits along the Mun River in Chaloem Prakiat district going back to the middle Miocene about 16 million years ago. Eight different genera of proboscideans have been discovered here and is a testimony to the Kingdom’s fossil record.

Family unit in Huai Kha Khaeng

About 150 years ago, wild elephants were surviving around Bangkok along the Chao Phraya River, and in the districts of Rangsit, Bang Sue, Bang Kapi and Bang Na. The ‘City of Angles’ was a real jungle back then. It seems difficult to believe but in those days, Thailand was almost completely covered by forest cover – more than 90 percent. Today, only 30 percent remains. Due to the immense destruction, elephants have been at the forefront of a disappearing habitat.

The best current estimates say there are no more than 2,500-3,000 elephants surviving in the wild of Thailand today. There are 60 protected areas that have less than a hundred elephants, and another eight protected areas that have over one hundred individuals as follows: Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary – 280-300; Khao Yai National Park – 200; Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary – 230; Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary – 175-200; Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary – 100; Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary – 135; Kui Buri National Park – 150 and Kaeng Krachan National Park – 115. Surely, an up-to-date consensus of the wild elephant population should be undertaken by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) in all the forests throughout the Kingdom, and a report published as soon as possible. As it stands, many of these quotes are mere guesstimates.

Young tusker on the road in Khao Yai National Park

Elephants have been persecuted for a long time. The following scenario has been chosen for this column and has been carried out for decades in Thailand’s forests, and unfortunately is the dark side of nature that carries on to this day. 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 humans have just disrupted the herd permanently. 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 and 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.

Such atrocities are still practiced by some unscrupulous people intent on killing the mother solely to capture the baby. Many other animals are also hunted down in much the same way like gibbons and monkeys. Middleman and end-use buyers perpetuate this market and seem to evade the law. Wildlife black-market trading is fueled by a few shady individuals and is on-going. Great strides have been achieved by a few wildlife enforcement agencies and many arrests have been made in recent years exposing these law-breaking individuals. However, the so-called ‘big fish’ continue to do business as usual. It is a never-ending battle!

 

Mature tusker on the road in Khao Yai

In another scenario, a mature bull elephant with a large set of tusks tramples and gores a man deep in a protected forest many days walk from the nearest village. News travels fast but is subdued by the authorities due to the sensitive nature of the incident. The man was with a group of poachers hunting the tusker and he was armed with a crude muzzleloader. He was separated from the group and came upon the huge herbivore firing a shot, which only enticed the old bull to charge. It was all over in seconds and when the man was found critically injured the group rushed him to the nearest medical facility but it was too late. The villagers cried fowl and hunted the old bull down eventually taking his tusks and selling them to a middleman for pennies compared to what they would fetch from a rich end-user or agent. This has been going on for ages to feed the illegal ivory trade.

Human settlement, agriculture and roads have taken over much of the elephant’s habitat. Villages spring up in old elephant terrain, 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. Thailand is not alone to crop-raiding elephants. Other countries in Asia and Africa have experienced the same outcome when humans have taken over elephant land.

Very young tusker about five years old in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary

Most of the conservation areas where wild elephants live are just small isolated pieces, and agricultural areas or towns surround these forests, a major obstruction to natural breeding. Elephants in each forest are caught on islands and cannot walk back and forth between these areas. Thus, inbreeding among close relatives is inevitable, which leads to an inferior population and causes genetic diseases, and ultimately, to extinction. Belinda Stewart-Cox with Elephant Conservation Network has campaigned relentlessly for the establishment of a corridor between Salakpra and Srinakarin protected areas in order to prevent the total isolation of Salakpra’s elephants. Other corridors in other parts of Thailand are on the drawing boards.

 

The young tusker a month earlier

Elephants have been maimed and killed by poisoning, pungee stakes and pit-falls, gunshots, and electrocution. They have been chased out of rice paddies, mango orchards, and pineapple and tapioca fields. The use of fireworks, bright lights and gunshots scare them away temporarily, but the elephants are intelligent enough to lose their fear of such ruses. Elephants grow bolder and go on the rampage, sometimes killing people, tearing up villages and damaging DNP facilities usually during the dry season when water is scarce.

Nick-named ‘Nong Saeng’ after the sanctuary

This year, a herd of wild elephants in a western national park raided a village and broke into a shack with fertilizer. A young calf gorged itself and died shortly thereafter. On the other side of the spectrum, an old tuskless bull killed a ranger in western Thailand, and a tusker gored a villager in the East. Wild elephants have also died or been injured accidently by vehicles speeding on roads in some protected areas. Most of the accidents occur at night when the elephants are difficult to see. Some conservation organizations have erected new signs in some areas warning drivers the danger of elephants on the road at night.

Mature tuskless bull in Kaeng Krachan National Park

These noble beasts have featured prominently in almost every important historical event in the Kingdom. They are national, royal, and religious icons of Thailand. The ‘white elephant’ was on the flag of Siam. They are a national symbol of pride and joy. The Thai elephant’s survival lies in the hands of those responsible for these vanishing Asian giants. Proactive conservation awareness is a top priority for the government and existing outdated laws (some a hundred years old) need to be reviewed and changed for the elephant’s future. Strict penalties and fines for poaching and encroachment need to be enforced to insure the survival of nature’s largest terrestrial mammal in Thailand before it is too late.

Ecology and behavior of elephants:

“Tractors of the forest” is what the late Mark Graham called wild elephants in his excellent book entitled ‘Thailand’s Vanishing Flora and Fauna’ co-authored by Philip Round, the eminent bird ornithologist. Graham went on to say “in all parts of Khao Yai National Park there are trails which have been used by herds of elephants for, in all probability, thousands of years”. This trait is evident throughout continental Thailand where these creatures roamed.

Tusker about 25 years old in Kaeng Krachan

Asian elephants consume 75-150 kilograms of food and about 80-160 liters of water per day. A variety of grass species including bamboo is consumed, as well as tender twigs, barks, leaves and fruit. Natural mineral deposits are also very important to these herbivores supplementing their diet. An adult mainland Asian elephant may reach a height of 3.5 meters and weigh 5,000 kilograms. Elephants form family units but lone bulls are common. Male elephants have tusks but tuskless bulls are now quite common and can be very bad tempered, especially if the bull is in a state known as ‘musth’ where fluid leaks from the temporal gland.

Mature tusker at a waterhole in Khao Ang Rue Nai

Reproduction of the Asian elephant is the same as the other sub-species. The young are born after a gestation period of 18-22 months. Elephants usually give birth to a single offspring, rarely twins, and more rarely triplets. A female elephant can give birth every 4-6 years, and has the potential of giving birth to seven offspring in her life. Life expectancy for elephants is 60-70 years.

Elephants in domestication:

Elephants are extremely intelligent creatures. For centuries, humans have taken elephants from the wild and turned them into many different uses such as war elephants, working elephants at logging sites, as pets, tourist attractions and street beggers.

Elephant on the highway in Ayuttaya province

My very close friend Richard Lair who works for the Forest Industry Organization at the Conservation Center in Lampang has worked with elephants for many years. He was the first to get elephants to paint in Thailand, and the first in the world to establish a musical band made up entirely of elephants. He has produced several CD’s of this accomplishment.

 

Begging elephant near the 700 year stadium in Chiang Mai

Probably the most appalling fate for a domesticated elephant is to become a ‘street walker’. These magnificent creatures are forced to saunter 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. At one time, a trip at night around Bangkok and other cities in the Kingdom one was greeted by a huge gray beast with a red light and a flashing CD attached to its tail. Continuous calls for change went unnoticed by mahouts and the owners of these elephants who sneaked them into cities and tourist sites. Legislation concerning domesticated elephants remains old and out-dated, and law enforcement has also been very poor.

Domesticated elephants being trucked into Chiang Mai

In late-2010, I saw an elephant on the streets of Chiang Mai at night. I took a few photographs but just watched as the mahout and elephant went about their business of begging for money. However, the situation has improved and there are several new sanctuaries dedicated to helping both mahout and elephant. It seems that most of the elephants have left Bangkok but they are still found in the out-lying areas. Hopefully, one day, the street-walker will be a thing of the past and these magnificent creatures will be treated with the respect, love and admiration they deserve.

Elephant with handlers on the streets of Chiang Mai – An abstract

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