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Green Peafowl: Thailand’s most spectacular bird

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

WILD SPECIES REPORT

Beautiful avian fauna thriving in a few protected areas

Green peafowl taking-off in Huai Kha Khaeng

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

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

Green peafowl flock by Huai Kha Khaeng in late afternoon

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

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

Green peafowl male by the Huai Kha Khaeng in early morning

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

Green peafowl male by the river in Huai Kha Khaeng

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

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

Green peafowl male flaunting its tail spread

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

Red jungle fowl in Huai Kha Khaeng – western species

Red jungle fowl in Khao Ang Rue Nai – eastern species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young male peafowl by Huai Mae Dee in Huai Kha Khaeng

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

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

Juvenile peafowl late in the afternoon in Huai Kha Khaeng

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

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

Female peafowl in Huai Kha Kha Khaeng

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

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

Huai Mae Dee – green peafowl habitat in Huai Kha Khaeng

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Asian wild dog and Asiatic jackal

Thursday, October 7, 2010 posted by Bruce 1:35 PM

Thailand’s forest canids
Fearless carnivores – Stealthy scavengers

It is late afternoon in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand, a World Heritage Site. A sambar doe and her fawn at the river for a thirst quenching drink are on high alert. They sense danger and stamp their feet on the ground, and bark in response to a possible threat.

Asian wild dog in Kaeng Krachan National Park

A small pack of seven wild dogs out hunting surround the two deer to confuse and separate them. The mature doe bolts across the shallow waterway making her escape and the dogs pursue the young one. It is not long before the fearless creatures catch the fawn and literally tear the small ungulate apart devouring the little deer in minutes.

Asiatic jackal in Kui Buri National Park

One animal is killed so that others can survive. After that, the dogs drink at the river’s edge. It is raw nature in the purist form and one of the oldest phenomena in the world: survival of the fittest. The female deer carries on to live and breed again as nature intended.

Asian wild dogs by the Huai Kha Khaeng in late afternoon

In another scenario, a lone jackal wanders through the open forest of Kuiburi National Park in southwest Thailand in search of a meal. Its sense of smell is acute. Slightly smaller than the wild dog, the jackal catches the smell of rotting carrion killed by a larger carnivore – probably a tiger or leopard.

Prey species: sambar doe and fawn crossing Huai Kha Khaeng in early morning

It finds a maggot infested deer carcass and feeds on the kill until full, and then seeks out a waterhole for a drink. This stealthy canid has just preformed its task in nature as a useful scavenger cleaning up the environment. It then retires to its burrow until the urge to eat or drink again.

Predation is a very important part of maintaining the ecological balance of life in the forest. The predator – prey relationship is the process of natural selection. Carnivores remove the old and young, plus the sick, the slow or less wary prey animals from the population thus keeping the breeding stock sustainable and strong. They also prevent prey from outgrowing the carry-capacity of an ecosystem thus ensuring balanced harmony.

The forests of Thailand have two species of canid: the Asian wild dog Cuon alpinus and the Asiatic jackal Canis aureus that still thrive in the top protected areas where prey animals are abundant. However, these creatures have unfortunately declined primarily due to habitat loss and destruction, plus unintentional persecution by poachers using snares and poison. Both species are most likely not hunted for their meat but the pelts are valued by some. These carnivores are also despised by many people.

Probably the most feared predator in the forest is the Asian wild dog, also known as the ‘dhole’. The word dhole has an ancient Asiatic root implying daring or recklessness. Rudyard Kipling referred to the wild dog as ‘red peril’ in his well-known tome, ‘The Jungle Book’.  He gave a very unsympathetic portrayal, reflecting the age-old prejudice against the species. Its role however, of maintaining the ecological balance and complimenting other predators like the tiger and leopard, is viewed more rationally now.

Asian wild dogs hunt in packs and are true carnivores. They sometimes can take on prey as large as gaur and banteng, and are even known to attack other carnivores like the tiger and leopard. The wild dog is also a very efficient predator devouring almost everything including the meat, bones and hide leaving only parts of the lower intestines for other creatures.

Asian wild dogs camera trapped by the Phetchaburi River

The jackal being a scavenger, are mainly solitary. A male and female will den and hunt together after mating and rearing their young. In addition to scavenging on tiger and leopard kills, they hunt small living creatures such as young deer, rodents, birds, amphibians and reptiles plus insects. They are also omnivorous eating a variety of plant foods. Another trait is to enter villages or camps to scavenge garbage, and to take chickens and ducks. They even raid crops such as sugar cane. Their home range is only two to three square kilometers.

Asiatic Jackal in Huai Kha Khaeng

Several years ago while sitting alone by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park in southwest Thailand with my camera at ready during the mid-day, an Asian wild dog popped out of the forest directly across from my position about twenty meters away. I had just finished eating some noodles and laid the bowl on the ground.

As I was dressed in a camouflage suit with my camera, lens and tripod ready and well concealed, the female dog did not notice me. She was part of a pack scouting the river for prey and did not stay long. I was very fortunate and got some amazingly close-up photographs of the dog as seen in the lead photo. I have also camera-trapped many wild dogs at several areas in the park.

Asian wild dog by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

Early this year during the dry season, I made a visit to Kuiburi National Park just south of Kaeng Krachan. Kuiburi is home to many gaur and elephant plus the tiger, leopard and wild dog. I was sitting in a tree stand about ten meters up from a waterhole used by the large mammals. About 5:30pm, I saw a jackal out the corner of my right eye walking up the road. I was using my big Nikon 400mm lens coupled with a 1.7 tele-converter for a total of 680mm. The canid cautiously slinked up to the water’s edge and stayed for sometime drinking while I shot a long series of images. Amazingly, it was the first photographic record of a jackal in the park.

Asiatic jackal near a waterhole in Kui Buri National Park

Another totally unexpected encounter with the jackal also happened early this year in Huai Kha Khaeng. I was driving into the sanctuary when two breeding adults crossed the road in front of my Ford pickup. They high-tailed it but then stopped to stare about 70 meters away. I was able to get a few quick snap-shots of the pair. The rangers at the front gate said the two were raising a small family nearby. I certainly felt lucky at seeing and photographing the two predators.

Wild dog and jackal still thrive in some parts of the following complexes: Western Forest, Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai, Phu Khieo-Nam Nao, Keang Krachan-Kuiburi, Khao Ang Rue Nai-Khao Soi Dow. They also survive in the Mae Ping-Omkoi and other protected forests in the north, plus Hala-Bala and others in the south. Both species are threatened due to numerous problems already addressed.

Dhole camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

My close friend and associate Kate Jenks with the Smithsonian Institute has been researching wild dogs since 2005. She began a research and camera trap program in Khao Yai National Park and gained valuable information on the park’s carnivores. A very large pack of 23 wild dogs was once seen by my friend Mark Reed killing a sambar in the park and it is believed they have replaced the tiger as the top predator here. Several other people have bumped into this pack on the nature trails and they are seen quite often around the headquarters area.

In 2008, Kate then moved to Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Thailand and began a new collaborative project between scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Kasetsart University and the Department of National Parks.

The goals of the project were: conduct ecological studies of the dhole population in the sanctuary; evaluate the disease risk presented by domestic dogs to the health of dholes and the carnivore population; develop and implement an education and outreach initiative for local villagers about the importance of the dhole and other carnivores, and the role of these species in sustaining a healthy Thai ecosystem; and promote long-term conservation of the dhole in Thailand by assembling and sharing all findings at stakeholder workshops to create a feasible conservation action plan for the wild dog in the Kingdom.

Kate carried out camera trapping in Khao Ang Rue Nai in conjunction with the staff at the Chachoengsao Research Unit located in the protected area for over two and a half years placing cameras at 276 locations for a total of 5,794 trap nights. The team documented the presence of one dhole pack with six members. One female was missing a tail. In addition to documenting the distribution of dhole and other wildlife, camera-traps also documented villagers, poachers and domestic dogs in the protected area.

Asian wild dogs in Huai Kha Khaeng

Over the long run, it is vitally important for the Department of National Parks and other responsible agencies to do their utmost to protect and enforce the law in order to save not only the wild dog and the jackal, but all the other species and the ecosystems they live in.

Thailand’s natural heritage has taken millions of years to evolve and it is extremely important for the present and future generations to love and cherish this treasure. Mother Nature needs our concerted efforts and respect to survive. In the event you love nature, do your part, no matter how big or small, and she will surely reward you.

Ecology: The Asian wild dog

Described by Pallas in 1811, the Asian wild dog is a highly social creature sometimes living in large packs of twenty or more. They occasionally split up into smaller groups to hunt. These dogs are fearful of humans but are bold enough to attack large and dangerous animals such as wild boar, water buffalo and tigers. Dholes are post-Pleistocene in origin, and are more closely related to jackals than they are to wolves. It is thought they became social animals as an adaptation to living with tigers and leopards.

They usually live in fertile primary forest where there are many herbivores, and are more abundant in riverine evergreen forest than in mixed deciduous forest. The dhole usually hunt in the day and retire to their dens at night. While hunting, they use their olfactory sense to follow and find prey while taking turns to chase animals until exhausted. They mostly eat their prey live but will occasionally take in carrion depending on conditions.

The overall body length of the dhole is from 80-135 cm. and the tail is 28-48 cm. long. The males weigh from 10-21 kg. and the female from 10-13 kg. The muzzle is shorter than that of most canid with a large nose pad. Their ears are rounded, erect and short with white hair inside. The coat is reddish-brown, the belly white and the tail is black. They are found in Siberia, Korean peninsula, Mongolia down to the Indian sub-continent and across to Southeast Asia including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia, Sumatra and Java. In Thailand, there are two sub-species: Cuon alpinus adustus North of the Istmas of Kra, and C.a. sumatrensis to the South.

Ecology: The Asiatic jackal

Described by Linnaeus in 1758, the Asiatic jackal also known as the golden jackal is related to the wolf. They are smaller than the dhole but bigger than the red fox. The body of the jackal is 60-70 cm. long with a tail at 20-25 cm., and they weigh 8-9 kg. These omnivores are slim and generally grayish-brown to golden-brown depending on the season, with black-tipped hairs on the shoulders and back tending to form a saddle-like pattern. Their ears are broadly pointed, and the tail bushy and black at the tip.

They prefer drier, open areas and are usually seen singly or in pairs. Jackals call just after dusk and before dawn. Generally tolerant of human disturbance but the species has declined in many areas due to excessive trapping.

Two sub-species are found in Asia: Canis aureus indicus found in Nepal, Bhutan, Assam across Burma and Thailand. The other is C.a. hola found in Palunpur and Gujarat in the southeast of India. Other jackal sub-species are found from the Balkan peninsula in the east of Europe to east Africa through to Turkey, Iraq, central and south Iran to the Indian sub-continent. The jackal is a very versatile species and one of nature’s clean-up crew and needs total protection like all the other denizens of the Thai forest.

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The Asian Tapir – Living fossil and bizarre mammal

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

Odd-toed ungulate and strictly vegetarian

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

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

Asian tapir posing in the Phetchaburi River

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

Buffy fish-owl saved from certain death

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

King cobra hunting by the Phetchaburi River

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

Asian tapir swimming in the Phetchaburi River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asian tapir camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan

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

Asian tapir mother and calf camera trapped in Khlong Saeng

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

Tapir calf camera trapped in Khlong Saeng

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

Young ear-bitten tapir camera trapped in Khlong Saeng

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

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

Tapir up-close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Asian Leopard: Thailand’s second largest cat

Friday, July 23, 2010 posted by Bruce 8:57 AM

WILD SPECIES REPORT
An ambush predator – solitary, stealthy and naturally camouflaged

The late French poet Robert Desnos (1900-1945) wrote a short poem entitled “The Leopard”

“If you go into the woods, beware of the leopard.
He meows in subdued voice and arrives from nowhere”

Black leopard in the late afternoon sun

The leopard Panthera pardus described by Linnaeus in 1758 is the second largest cat in Thailand. Once upon a time, leopards could be found in all the forests of the Kingdom. These felines are still surviving quite well in protected areas in the West, and some in the South. The central, eastern and northeastern regions have no reports of leopard for some time now.

A few have been reported in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary in Chaiyaphum province, but for some reason they have disappeared from most remaining forests. The reason these areas have no leopards are quite simple; prey species has been hunted out including the leopard itself for its pelt and bones, and  encroachment has destroyed much of its habitat.

Sighting a leopard in Asia is extremely difficult, and even catching a rare glimpse of this very essential top predator is tough due to its solitary and stealthy behavior. However, luck can sometimes play an important part in viewing the leopard and I feel lucky to have seen and photographed them on quite a few occasions.

Leopard camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan National Park

The most thrilling or heart stopping adventure with a black leopard happened in Huai Kha Khaeng about five years ago while I was sitting up on a bluff overlooking the river. A photographic blind was erected on the rock-face about 20 meters up with a small trail that enabled me to get into the hide. It was a neat location that I had dreamed of sitting here for many years prior. The sun was bright and the weather was warm during the dry season.

About 9am, several monks down by the river passed on but did not see the camouflaged structure as they went their way. After that, I came down for lunch and set some camera traps at a mineral deposit nearby. At 2pm, I settled back in the blind and began a vigil of the river. I started to feel a bit groggy as the sun was beating down on my position. I moved my camera in to save it from the direct sunlight.

All of a sudden, I was startled by a guttural growl outside the enclosure. I stood up slightly and peering out the window came face to face with a huge round black head and yellow eyes about two meters away that penetrated my soul. My first instinct reaction; it was a big black dog. But that quickly changed as the creature stared intently at me before bounding down the trail it had come up. The big cat was gone in a split second. Of course there was not enough time to get any photographs. The incident surely is etched in my memory.

Black leopard camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan

Why had the leopard come so close without smelling me? On that particular day, I was using an old hunters technique by collecting fresh wild water buffalo droppings and putting them in front of the blind, and that probably covered my scent. Maybe the leopard thought there was a newborn calf, or an old weaken animal. Or maybe it used this natural place overlooking the river to spot prey like sambar, barking deer or wild pigs that are abundant here and came up to investigate. The vantage point is on a bend in the river and one can see for quite a distance both ways.

I will never know how close I came to being attacked by a leopard but it was a heart stopper for sure. I sat motionless for quite sometime. Only a few sticks and camouflaged material separated me from a wild creature armed with fangs and claws. On that day, the spirits of the forest looked after me, or was it the ‘Spirit of the Forest’. I like to believe that was the case. I hope one day to go back and stake out this bluff, and believe this leopard is probably a resident around here. Previously, I camera trapped tiger and a yellow phase leopard not far from here.

A leopard resting on a wildlife trail

Speaking of leopard attacks, my close friend and associate Dr Lon Grassman was once seriously injured in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi province by a leopard while working there on a survey to camera trap and collar the big cat. When Lon released one, it looked up and turned on him in a split second mauling his legs and arms. It was a close call but he survived to carry on his work researching wild carnivores. Lon established the home range and other behavior patterns of leopards in the park.

He then moved to Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary, Chaiyaphum province in the Northeast and continued this work catching and releasing quite a few golden cats, clouded leopards and a marbled cat. He eventually received his doctorate for his excellent work.

In the beginning of my profession as a wildlife photographer, I was very fortunate. The Director of the Wildlife Conservation Division of the National Parks Department (DNP) at the time, my dear friend Dr Viroj Pimmanrojnagool (now retired), had confidence in me and gave permission to enter the realm of the leopard and the tiger, something not easily acquired. Entry into wildlife sanctuaries has always been very restricted but is possible with the right qualifications. Viroj and I are still very close and I visit him from time to time at his durian farm in Surat Thani down south where he is happily enjoying retirement.

Leopard in the bamboo – my very first photo of the big cat

My first encounter with the sleek cat goes back to the beginning of my career more than a decade ago. Driving into the forest late one afternoon in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site, the sun was low but the light still quite good for photography. The protected area is situated in Uthai Thani province and is part of the Western Forest Complex.

I was about to capture my very first Asian leopard on film. This was in my early days as a wildlife photographer with a newly acquired Nikon N90s camera and 300mm lens. I was on a learning curve that would take me into some unique natural habitats and bump into some very unusual animals around Thailand.

Leopard posing in Kaeng Krachan

About 4pm some 10 kilometers from the headquarters as I was driving in, a leopard jumped in front of my truck and bounded up the steep embankment on my right. I gently came to a halt and there looking down at me was these two big yellow eyes that brought my attention to 100 percent. In the meantime, I had already grabbed my camera and started snapping through the window as fast as possible but quickly slowed the pace concentrating on focus. After a few more shots, the spotted cat melted into a bamboo thicket and was gone. The encounter was measured in mere seconds.

I sat in the vehicle for a few minutes to catch my breath as my heart was thumping. A close encounter with a carnivore capable of tearing us apart is something that can get the blood flowing. I finally got going again as my destination was still a couple of hours away deep in the forest.

Leopard on a sambar kill – my first camera-trap photo of the feline

Arriving at the Kabook Kabieng ranger station just at dusk, the head of the station Loong Waitanyakarn, another good friend, came immediately to the truck and said, “ a sambar mother and fawn have been killed by a leopard or wild dogs not far from the station and let’s go look”.

It didn’t take me long to ponder that an opportunity had presented itself. I had a new infrared sensor for my Nikon camera and decided to set-up the unit next to the dead sambar. A new role of film was loaded and the lens focused on the mother deer. The sensor was active infrared that uses a transmitter and receiver hooked to the camera. When an animal trips the beam, the shutter is activated taking a self-portrait. At the time, this technology was rather new but I needed it to supplement my regular photography.

Black leopard posing for me at a hot spring

The next day at noon some 10 kilometers away, Loong took me to a tree stand over-looking a hot spring. The box-like structure was quite high up and it was a bit scary getting situated in the blind but finally, I settled down with my Nikon 500mm lens and camera scheduled for a three-day stint. The mineral deposit and hot springs attracts many large mammals including elephant, gaur, banteng, tiger, leopard, wild dogs, tapir and many other animals that come for the life-giving minerals, or for prey.

Black leopard at the hotspring

About 3pm, a troop of leaf-monkeys visited the hot springs for a quick drink but did not stay long. They had been spooked by something as they all panicked and gave flight in the trees up the hill. A short time later, a black leopard appeared from the top end and walked over to where the monkeys had just been. The sun was low in the sky and I could see the leopard’s pattern of rosettes through the lens that jumped out at me.

My heart began racing as the stealthy cat stopped at the top to take a drink. It stayed for about an hour. I calmed down but continued shooting changing several rolls of film and watching this magnificent creature. Just before the sun was gone, it moved closer to the tree I was in and then walked across the stream. The cat plopped down on a log and stretched out posing for me, all the while looking up at my position. I kept shooting and then it came even closer before veering off probably spooked by my scent. As the leopard moved through the forest, monkeys, barking deer and sambar barked at the predator.

Leopard mother and cub camera trapped at a sambar kill – A rare photo

showing both color phases

I will never forget these encounters. Three leopards in two days are pretty good going for a new wildlife photographer and it was truly the beginning of many sightings and photographs of this amazing carnivore. I have seen loads of them on film while working in Kaeng Krachan. Both black and yellow phase were camera trapped in three separate locations in the interior at almost every location.

The Tenassarim Range in southwest Thailand is an absolute haven for the leopard due to a very good prey base here. Tigers also survive and have overlapping territories with the spotted cat. Both species hunt during the day and night. My old friend Suthad Sapphu, a forest ranger in Kaeng Krachan, was extremely helpful while we were camera trapping the big cats.

Leopard track in Kaeng Krachan

Without doubt, the future of the leopard depends on one thing only – the complete protection of the remaining forests where they live. If the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries remain intact with a high number of prey species, the big cats will survive. But if over-development, poaching and encroachment are allowed to continue, the large cats will eventually disappear.

Unfortunately, too much time and money is wasted by too many organizations talking about saving wildlife and their habitats, with very little actually being done. Human population growth will eventually destroy most wild places. Only true protection by some dedicated people will slow the destruction of nature’s precious wildlife and wilderness areas. It is hoped the leopard, and the tiger, will continue to survive as they have for millions of years.

Leopard Ecology:
Pound for pound, the leopard can take on some seriously large animals several times its size. The leopard is closely related to the jaguar of South America. Both have a spotted coat pattern, incidence of ‘melanism’ or black phase, and relatively short legs.

The present distribution of the leopard is restricted to Asia Minor, India, Southeast Asia, the Himalayas, Tibet, China, Siberia, and Africa. Fossils of leopards were found in Pleistocene deposits throughout Europe, the Middle East, Java, and Africa, some 1.5 million years old, indicating the leopard arrived after the tiger. These secretive cats are mainly nocturnal but in some localities, they are active in the day too. Their populations and ranges are difficult to determine but radio tracking of collared animals has shed new light on their movements and areas they live in.

Black leopard camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan

The leopard is a member of the Felidae family and is the smallest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera, or roaring cats. The other three are the tiger, lion and jaguar. The leopard’s range of distribution has decreased radically because of hunting and loss of habitat. It is now chiefly found in sub-Saharan Africa; there are also fragmented populations in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Indochina, Malaysia, and China. Because of its declining range and population, it is listed as a “Near Threatened” species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

The species’ success in the wild is in part due to its opportunistic hunting behavior, its adaptability to habitats, human settlements and activity, its ability to run at speeds approaching 58 kilometers per hour (36 mph), its unequaled ability to climb trees even when carrying a heavy carcass, and its notorious ability for stealth. The leopard consumes virtually any animal it can hunt down and catch. Its habitat ranges from rainforest to desert terrains.

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