Escape to Nature – Photographing rare animals

Friday, May 27, 2011posted by Bruce 10:59 PM

Visiting the forest during Songkran: Thailand’s New Year and water festival

Huai Kha Khaeng reveals some wild endangered Asian creatures

Indochinese tiger camera-trapped in Huai Kha Khaeng

When I was 19 years old, I arrived in Bangkok at the end of March spending a week or so in the ‘City of Angels’ enjoying the sights and sounds. This was in 1964 just as the Vietnam War was getting into high gear. Pollution was mild and the klongs were not that bad.

I remember riding around in Datsun Bluebird taxis with no air-con and watching the road flash-by between my feet. The gaping hole made me nervous but the capital was an amazing experience all stored in the old memory bank.

Banteng bull and cow at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng

After the hustle and bustle of the city, Dad and I caught the train headed north to Chiang Mai. The next morning at dawn, we passed through Phrae province surrounded by misty mountains. I opened the window and the cool breeze was refreshing. I instantly fell in love with the countryside and decided that Thailand was for me.

We arrived in the northern capital just in time to celebrate Songkran water festival for the very first time. As a teenager, it was a blast. But it was still tough getting around on my motorcycle as the main object of some people especially at intersections was to kill the bike, and then completely drench the rider (me) with water and powder.

Bull gaur arrived at the same waterhole a few minutes after the banteng

Yes, downtown Chiang Mai and the surrounding countryside was a madhouse even back in ‘64’. Songkran lasted for more than seven days in the north starting a few days before April 13th and finishing up a couple of days after the 15th.

As Thailand’s northern forests and mountains provided plenty of water for the festival, there was a seemingly unlimited supply. The watersheds were still very healthy at that time. In late March – early April, the temperature was cool in the evening and warm to hot during the day.

Crested Serpent-eagle flying out of the same waterhole

Eventually I met-up with some fellow Americans and the three of them are life-long friends to this day. John C. Wilhite lll was attending classes at the newly built Chiang Mai University, and his father was a Major in the U.S. Air Force for JUSMAG (Joint US Military Advisory Group) advising Royal Thai Air Force personnel on tactics and operation of AT-28 training aircraft. Johnny and I still continue to communicate after all these years.

Wayne (Beak) Sivaslian and Ed (Mac) McDonnell with the U.S. Army were stationed in Chiang Mai. Their mission was sensitive and classified but we were close friends and still are to this day. We recently held a 40-year reunion back in the States.

Asiatic jackals at a ranger station in the interior

When Songkran rolled around, we got out the old U.S. Army deuce and a half (2 1/2 ton truck) and took off the tarp and filling the back with three or four 200-liter drums with water and ice. We then headed downtown to do battle. As we were higher up than most, we had an advantage and usually won the water fights. At the end of the day, our lips, hands and feet would turn blue and we would be shivering but boy was it fun. Finally, the police outlawed trucks with large drums of water but that did not last long.

Asiatic jackal on the run

One year, I took my family including the wife and daughter plus all the in-laws out on the town in the back of my old Series One Land Rover with no cover, doors or windows. I was the driver and had to keep my wits about me. As we were nearing Suan Dok Hospital, a drunken hooligan dipped a bucket full of dirty klong water to the brim. He then threw the entire load straight into my ribs and face with extreme force from a distance of less than a meter, and that really hurt. All he did was laugh. However, with the family in tow, I kept my cool and carried on.

Asiatic jackal on the run

That was the last time I drove an open vehicle out on the streets of Chiang Mai during the festival. I once saw a bunch of people by the Ping River with a platform and fire-fighting nozzle in a tree, and a pump down by the water’s edge (obviously from the fire department nearby). After a day, the police came around and shut them down as they had damaged several cars with the high-pressure spray.

I went running through town with the Hash House Harriers a few times but again, it was even worse with water in my ears, eyes, nose, and usually contracting a serious cold afterward. I finally decided to retire permanently from the madness.

Abstract- Asiatic jackal on the run

Some may wonder why I am talking about Songkran in this post but it is the main reason I now ‘run away to nature’ every year to enjoy peace and quiet, the birds and bees plus the refreshing coolness of the deciduous and evergreen forests I frequent. No traffic jams or crazy water-throwing people here.

This year I was granted permission to enter Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary by the Wildlife Conservation Division in the Department of National Parks (DNP) to photograph wildlife. It was a great opportunity and I made the best of it.

Jackal pair near the ranger station

Leaving Bangkok on the 11th of April, I arrived at the headquarters and met-up with the new chief Uthai Chansuk who was there to meet me. After consultations with him, I made my way into the interior with three other friends to a ranger station and settled in for a day.

A Thai friend and fellow wildlife photographer Sarawut Sawkhamkhet, has been with me on many occasions and knows this place well. He opted to sit in a permanent blind situated at a mineral lick close to the station.

Jackals chasing each other

My other two friends are Paul Thompson and Ian Edwardes, both Englishmen, and they set-up temporary blinds not far away. These two keen photographers got barking deer and a banteng bull on the very first day.

In the meantime, the rangers took me down to a platform overlooking a water hole and mineral deposit several hours walk away. We arrived at the blind about 10am and they went back to the station. I settled in for an overnight stay. I had plenty of water and food, and the weather was cool. Fortunately, my hammock fits perfectly between two trees that are part of the structure. This was April the 14th as the water festival was in full tilt.

Crested serpent-eagle taking off

The afternoon dragged on and about 2pm, a crested serpent eagle came for a drink. The raptor stayed for short while taking in copious amounts of water and then lifted off while I got a series of shots. About 5pm, as if the ‘Spirits of the Forest’ had granted my wish, a herd of banteng showed up coming straight down to the water hole for a refreshing drink. A huge bull with an enormous set of horns pushed his way through. I immediately began shooting my cameras. All of a sudden, they spooked and retreated up the hill. I thought they had scented me but this was not so.

Banteng herd at the waterhole in late afternoon

Just then, a huge mature bull gaur came down to the waterhole from the same direction as the banteng had come. Two species of large wild bovid in less than five minutes is simply amazing. This bull is very old with many rings at the base of his horns with both tips almost completely worn down. Definitely near the end of his life.

Gaur bull taking a drink at the waterhole

Dr Sompoad Srikosamatara at Mahidol University and Dr Naris Bhumpakphan at Kasetsart University estimated this solitary bull to be somewhere between 14-16 years old judging from the amount of rings. This old boy stayed at the waterhole for more than a half hour taking in his fill. He then snorted and bolted up the hill looking extremely powerful and quick on his hooves.

Lone gaur bulls will sometimes shadow a banteng or gaur herd for protection against tiger attack and poachers. They also sometimes team-up with other bulls. Simply put, more eyes, ears and noses act as security from predation.

Wild pig at the waterhole just before darkness

However, it was not my scent that had spooked the ungulates as a mature wild boar with large tusks then came for a drink just before darkness. Eventually, night set in. I had my little gas stove and boiled up some water for noodles and coffee. After eating, lightning and thunder began in the west but eventually subsided. The weather was nice and crisp, and I slept like a log.

Mineral hot spring deep in the interior of Huai Kha Khaeng

The next morning, I was up at daybreak. After a quick cup of coffee, the banteng herd from the previous day came to the waterhole again. This time they stayed for some time taking in refreshment. Funny enough, the bull had a leafy branch stuck between its left ear and horn. I of course kept shooting until they had gone. These cattle are rare in Thailand and tough to see in the wild. Banteng are a favorite wildlife subject and I felt lucky.

Sambar stag in a mineral lick in the interior

At noon the next day, the rangers and Thompson came to pick me up. Before leaving, we set camera-traps around the mineral deposit leaving them for a month. A young Indochinese tiger visited one of my cameras catching it in a broadside pose shown in the lead photo. This shot is one of my best tiger camera-trap captures ever, as it is close and in beautiful light early one morning just after Songkran.

Young sambar stag at another mineral deposit

Back at the station two Asiatic jackals that had been released by someone who had kept them in captivity were romping about. They have now made the area their home. I was able to get some exciting photographs of these two wild canids as they scavenged around the station. The pair, a male and female, once brought a deer leg from a carcass nearby and devoured it. They certainly have adapted to a life in the wild but are not afraid of humans.

Wild pig and piglets at a mineral deposit

A day later, we moved to a hot springs deep in the interior. Here, we photographed wild pig and sambar. As the rains have come early this year, insect activity is already in full swing. Thompson and I got out our macro lenses and had a great time chasing down the little creatures. We both photographed several new species for us including a lantern bug. The trip finally came to an end and we left the sanctuary with loads of new photographs showing the amazing biodiversity of this place.

Thick-billed pigeon at the hot spring

I know I have written many times about Huai Kha Khaeng in this column, but as the nation’s top wildlife sanctuary, it needs special attention and its continued survival cannot be stressed enough. More work is needed to improve protection with everything else taking a backseat like research and development. Ranger patrolling should be more consistent with revolving teams to create no loopholes for poachers and gatherers. Better budgets and personnel are the key.

Tree frogs mating in a pool on the road in the sanctuary

Thailand contains some of the most beautiful habitats and creatures in the world. The Kingdom is home to more than 70 million people, yet it supports an incredible variety of wildlife. However uncertain the future of the country’s wild flora and fauna may be, their presence today remains a spectacular, intriguing and mystical natural wonder.

Orb web spider at a ranger station deep in the interior

Lantern bugs at the same ranger station


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