Posts Tagged ‘cervidae’
Small cervidae and even-toed ungulate
Persecuted for the pot, muntjac still thrive in many protected areas around the Kingdom
Male muntjac in Khao Yai National Park
As the sun starts its daily ascent from the eastern horizon, the early morning air is crisp and cool. It is November and not a single cloud is seen in the clear blue sky. Heavy dew blankets everything in Mae Lao-Mae Sae, a wildlife sanctuary situated in the northern province of Chiang Mai northwest of the capital. Mist rises from the forest as the morning heat builds. Scent from pine trees, some hundreds of years old, is refreshing. A ‘sea of fog’ covers the lowland valleys and the view from the mountaintop is breathtaking.
Birds begin their incessant chirping, and a single gibbon calls from the interior. Butterflies cling to tree branches waiting for their wings to dry out, and other creatures of nature begin daily rituals. Life in this northern wilderness is pure as it has been for millions of years.
Fea’s muntjac male camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan
A huge granite massif sits in the sanctuary a couple kilometers from the main road. A pack of Asian wild dogs are zigzagging through the forest searching every nook and cranny for prey near the peak. They bump into a local resident muntjac male munching on fallen fruit.
The mature buck hears the dogs yelping and is instantly on high alert. Sounding much like a domestic dog, this small-sized deer emits a loud bark continuously until the threat is gone. The warning call is heard over many kilometers distance alerting all the other animals within audible range that a predator is on the prowl. This extremely fast cervid is now on the run weaving and darting through the forest. It escapes the slower dogs to live another day, and the pack carries on with the hunt.
Female muntjac on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
In another scenario, a lone leopard hunting for quarry gives chase to a female muntjac in Huai Kha Khaeng. The doe becomes confused and makes a wrong turn. In seconds, the big cat pulls the creature to the ground and goes in for the kill. But it is just another day in the balance of nature where the struggle for life and death between predator and prey is played out.
Muntjac, also known as “barking deer”, is a small deer of the genus Muntiacus with short antlers on the male joined on a very long pedicel or bony base. Females have no antlers. Both sexes have long canines, elongated in males and used for fighting for mates or for defense against predators. The males shed their antlers annually which re-grow through a phase called ‘velvet’.
Muntjac doe in Huai Kha Khaeng
They are the oldest known deer, appearing 15–35 million years ago, with fossil remains found in Miocene deposits in France, Germanyand Poland. The present-day species can be found from Sri Lanka to southern China, Taiwan, Japan (Boso Peninsula and Oshima Island), India and Indonesia. They are also found in the eastern Himalayas and throughout Indochina. There are twelve species of muntjac and they all show similar traits.
Two species of muntjac live in the forests of Thailand; the most common is the red muntjac found in many protected areas throughout the Kingdom, and the other anomaly is the very rare Feas’ muntjac still thriving in the West. Both species are similar in size and behavior, and remain solitary for most of the year except during breeding season. Muntjac feed on leaves, buds, seeds and twigs, as well as fallen fruit. They visit mineral deposits daily to supplement their diet like other even-toed ungulates including sambar, wild pig and gaur.
Muntjac buck in Khao Yai on the grassland
I have photographed barking deer on many occasions at just about every location I have ever visited over the last 15 years as a wildlife photographer. I have also camera trapped many. No matter how many images I have of muntjac, I still continue to shoot these delicate deer always looking for the better shot. Some of my best photographs have come from Khao Yai National Park as seen in the lead photo. My good friend Coke Smith recently managed to catch a female Fea’s muntjac in Kaeng Krachan National Park seen in the story. He was lucky as they are tough to see, let alone photograph.
Fea’s muntjac in Kaeng Krachan National Park
Unfortunately, both species of barking deer are taken for the pot. Their antlers even though small in comparison to sambar trophies are still collected. Poaching is a serious threat to muntjac and needs to be stamped out completely. However, this will more than likely be an on-going problem. The Fea’s muntjac status is ‘Near Threatened’ on IUCN’s list but the Red muntjac is not currently at risk though declining owing to excessive hunting and habitat loss.
Female barking deer on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng
Although some improvement has been made in forest protection by the Department of National Parks (DNP) poachers still continue to evade the rangers and stories pop-up in the newspapers, radio and TV all the time. Heavier fines and long jail time for law-breakers is the key. The DNP should up-grade protection with better enforcement, bigger budgets and more personnel needed in this important aspect of taking care of the Kingdom’s protected areas.
Muntjac doe in Huai Kha Khaeng
Hopefully, muntjac will be with us for sometime. However old policies like the treatment of the DNP’s temporary rangers (50 percent of staff) still plagues the department. No pay for months on end from October through the New Year due to a glitch in the system continues to harm the incentive of these tireless men who are the true protectors of the forest.
Male muntjac jumping a motorcycle in Khao Yai
Management is still lost on this most important issue and I say time and time again: fix this problem now so that Thailand’s wildlife and forests can at least have a chance of survival into the future. The ‘temporary’ hired ranger needs to be up-graded to ‘permanent status’ so he has all the benefits of the other 50 percent (permanent and government officials). It is the only way forward!
Red Muntjac – Muntiacus muntjak
Muntjac male in ‘velvet’ in Huai Kha Khaeng
Muntjac is the most numerous of all deer species in Thailand. Its unmistakable bark, which can be heard over long distances, is made when a predator has been detected. These small ungulates are mostly reddish brown to bright chestnut, with a dark brown face and legs. The underside of the tail is white, and when alarmed will flip up like a white flag.
Female on the run in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary
Only the male has antlers, which are short and joined to a long pedicle or bony base. The antlers are dark brown in color, about 10-15 centimeters in length, and with a short tine about five centimeters long. The females lack antlers and have small bony knobs with a tuft of black hair where the pedicle is on the male.
In some areas they are active during the day, but where heavily disturbed by hunting muntjac become nocturnal. The rut takes place in December and January. After six months of gestation, a single fawn is born. On rare occasions twins may be conceived. These deer are eagerly sought after for meat.
Fea’s Muntjac – Muntiacus feae
Fea’s muntjac female in Kaeng Krachan
Fea’s Muntjac are now considered very rare and survive only in the Tenassarim Mountain range from Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary near the Burmese border in the West, all the way down to Pha Nga in the South.
These delicate creatures have a dark brown coat with a black ringed uppertail and white undertail. The antlers of the male are yellowish and small compared to the common red muntjac, but behavior of the two species is the same.
Fea’s live only in pristine evergreen like in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province and Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. Their range in Southeast Asia is very small.
Notes from the field
Male muntjac dead in the Western Forest Complex
A sad day from December 2000, while working in a protected area within the Western Forest Complex, is etched in my memory. A local hunter killed a muntjac in the forest behind his village. It was a young buck and the villagers were ecstatic; fresh meat is always welcome. The men eagerly carved up the carcass. None of the deer meat was sold but shared with the rest of the village. This is called “subsistence hunting” as practised in community forests in Thailand.
But muntjac is protected and these people had just committed a crime. Who was going to turn them in? As a guest of the house, I took a few photographs but kept my mouth shut, knowing that a step in the wrong direction would alienate these people. Rural Thailand can be a tough place sometimes, and after more than three decades of living here at the time, I felt silent discretion was the best option.
Muntjac being carved-up in a protected area in the West
The biggest problem with community forests is poor or no enforcement at all. Local villagers and hill-tribe people take animals from the forest for self-consumption, or for sale. It is hard to blame them when they live off the land, maybe as their forefathers did or out of necessity, because they are poor and scratch out a meagre living.
Modern life influences people. Many have increased desires relating to modern living habits: new homes, cars and pickup trucks, televisions, mobile phones, computers and video games, etc. The list of consumer items that people want is big and many struggle with debt. Living off the land is free for the taking, so why not take advantage of it? But small and large ecosystems are struggling to survive as humans take all and leave little.
The problems and dangers of the ‘Community Forest Bill’ are quite simple. Just one example: Close to a protected area in Uthai Thani province, a school was responsible for a small patch of forest under the Community Forest Bill. This forest had barking deer, wild pigs, jungle fowl and other small creatures. The teachers and students faced gun muzzles when villagers from afar, who had already depleted their own forests, came to hunt and gather.
Nobody could stop them. Unfortunately, shortly after this incident, wildlife in the small forest was completely wiped out by a few selfish people. The school project, planned to instil conservation awareness among local children and people, failed to even get off the ground. This is a sad fact of life if “firepower” is allowed to dictate who does what, and the consequences were devastating for the school.
Most community forests outside protected areas are virtual islands protected by local communities, rather than the central government. Some are adjacent to protected areas and have unmarked boundaries. Now that the bill has been passed, most people living in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries can take what they want from the forest if they “misinterpret” the law.
Some people and NGOs fiercely contest the ideology behind it. There are some successful programs in which people responsible for a local forest truly protect it from outsiders, but these are few and far between. The road to extinction for many species will undoubtedly speed up. All humans have a right to exist, but unfortunately, not at the expense of the natural world.
Saving a species like muntjac from extinction should be a top priority of the DNP. Other ungulates like goral, serow, wild pig and banteng should be reintroduced into protected areas where they once thrived. Some may argue against reintroduction, but as we lose more and more species, release is the only practical way to save Thailand’s rare creatures from extinction in the wild.
WILD SPECIES REPORT: Majestic Asian deer and even-toed ungulate
Important prey species of the tiger and leopard
Sambar doe and yearling drinking from the Huai Kha Khaeng waterway
A mature sambar stag, Thailand’s largest deer with a heavy antler rack, barks a loud warning and stamps its front feet on the ground alerting all the denizens a predator is nearby. The pungent smell of a tiger floats through the forest, and animals within audible range are now on hi-alert. But the big cat is lightning fast and takes a young sambar doe from the herd that is perfect for a meal. Leaf monkeys squeal, squirrels chatter and birds call from the treetops. It is panic on the ground as the deer bolt in all directions.
But this is just the cycle of life that has gone for millions of years. One animal is sacrificed for the other to survive. Deer play a very important part in the prey-predator relationship for without them, the tiger would struggle to live and carry on its legacy as the largest cat in the world. Carnivores thrive if there are abundant prey animals to hunt.
Sambar yearling in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary
Unfortunately in most parts of the country, the human being has eradicated sambar and other animal species like wild pig and common barking deer in man’s utter struggle to live. This has up-set the balance of nature. The big cats have also almost disappeared and as of a consequence, are now on the brink of extinction.
Wild animals and their ecosystems are under constant threat as the population expands further into the last vestiges of Thailand’s great natural heritage. At one time, the country was almost completely covered by vast expanses of virgin forests where sambar and other ungulates plus predators lived in complete harmony. That has all changed now and only a few large protected areas can boast that these big deer, or the tiger for that matter, still live in the interior.
Sambar stag after a mud bath in Huai Kha Khaeng
In any given forest, sambar was one of the first animals to disappear when man began cutting down forests to grow agriculture and build settlements. These deer were taken for meat, and their hides were shipped to Japan for ‘Samurai armor’ back before the turn of the 19th Century, and then for military equipment all the way up to just before World War Two. Literally millions of hides were exported and this had a serious effect on all the deer species.
It was a big business at the time and as an outcome, the other large cervids such as Schomburgk’s deer that has been globally extinct since the 1930s plus hog deer and Eld’s deer disappeared from the wild of Thailand. Sambar were more numerous and preferring deep forest, prevailed slightly better.
Sambar stag during the rut in Huai Kha Khaeng
Fossil evidence suggests that sambar evolved sometime during the Quaternary Period from large ungulates living on the huge plains of Asia at the time. The saber-toothed cat was one of the main carnivores that thrived on these hoofed animals.
My very first encounter with sambar was almost 15 years ago when I began photographing wildlife in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Sambar was seen everyday crossing the river from Khao Ban Dai ranger station at the confluence of the Huai Kha Khaeng and Huai Mae Dee waterways. I was able to catch them on film fairly easily, especially at the mineral licks found by the river.
Sambar stag on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng
Some ten years ago, a large complex was built at Khao Ban Dai for VIPs including a huge visitor center plus three bungalows. Wildlife numbers dropped dramatically in the area due to the construction and the amount of labor numbering about 100 men and women that stayed on location for almost a year. Peafowl also disappeared.
Happily, the area around Khao Ban Dai has now begun to return to somewhat normal after observingthe chain of events and making regular visits to the station over the last few years. Sambar, wild pig, muntjac and green peafowl on occasion are seen on the sandbars during the early morning and late afternoon. Evidence of tigers and leopards from camera-traps now show these carnivores are roaming here once again but this is also probably due to its remoteness. Wildlife is making a slow comeback here.
Huai Kha Khaeng – Huai Mae Dee junction
Down in the southern section of Huai Kha Khaeng however, sambar is still quite abundant. One frosty morning about 8am as I was sitting in my boat-blind waiting for wild water buffalo to come to the river, a sambar doe and several of her offspring popped out of the forest for refreshing drinks about four meters away. I had no other option than to take a head shot of them at the water’s edge as seen in the lead photograph. It was exciting to say the least and it took her a few moments to recognize the strange anomaly by the shoreline. She barked a warning at me and at that distance was extremely loud actually making me jump. The huge doe then crashed into the forest followed by the younger deer.
With increased protection, wild animals will survive as long as visitation by documentary film crews, scientific groups, nature lovers and tourists is kept reasonable or on a very limited scale. However, on many occasions large official and influential groups or research parties make their way into some of the very restricted protected areas and hold drinking sessions that carrying on into the wee hours of the morning while running the generator so ‘World Cup or soap operas’ can be watched on satellite TV.
Sambar yearling in Huai Kha Khaeng
Off-road groups still plow into some wildlife sanctuaries because the road conditions are the toughest in the country but these thrill-seekers who are usually connected, don’t care what damage they cause. The roads then become difficult to transverse created by their highly modified off-road vehicles that makes it doubly tough for the patrol rangers who have standard 4X4 trucks.
Over-visitation by the human element is like the plague as seen in many parks around the country with no limitation on vehicles and visitors with their ‘tent cities’ especially during the holidays. All of this of course is damaging but carries on for the prominent and connected, and surely has an affect disturbing the wildlife and ecosystem. A serious look into this behavior should be brought to the forefront. The term ‘double standard’ is also practiced in many reserves by some officials and will be difficult to stamp out.
Sambar stag in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary
So with all this in mind, it should also be said that the situation on the ground with the forest rangers is still a long way from being good, and is definitely detrimental to good protection and enforcement. The age-old problem of the temporary rangers not receiving any pay for three to four months every year still exists. After visiting several protected areas in the east, west and south over the last few months, the first thing one hears is “no-pay” from October to late January and sometimes beyond due to a glitch in the system, or the so-called lack of a budget.
This phenomenon is not fully understood but it is basically against human rights when someone is employed and not paid especially around the New Year. People really need money at this time. In the last 15 years that I have worked and been around these rangers, it is still very disturbing that the ‘powers-to-be’ continue to overlook this very basic need. Some of these rangers then resort to beg, borrow and steal to survive. Many are in serious debt and struggle with moneylenders. Some commit wildlife crimes to get ahead.
Sambar herd, jungle fowl and crow in Khao Yai National Park
A close friend of mine who retired as chief from a large protected area in southwest Thailand set aside a special fund from his yearly budget to pay the rangers when the money did not arrive from the finance ministry. He also charged no interest when the money was paid back. These men had the highest esteem for this superintendent who really took care of his staff in times of need, and in turn these dedicated patrol rangers made a special effort to take care of this forest that actually flourished.
I know because I was on the ground then and caught many rare creatures like tiger, leopard, fishing cat, sun bear, banded linsang, banteng, gaur, Siamese crocodile plus many others on camera-trap and through the lens. It was truly an exciting experience seeing all these remarkable creatures living as Mother Nature intended.
Sambar doe and fawn in Huai Kha Khaeng
This system should be implemented by all the superintendants in the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Another option is to make all temporary hired rangers permanent staff so they at least they get paid on time for work rendered. But even permanent staff is now experiencing half payment. Under these circumstances how can anyone have incentive to go into the dangerous environment of the forest where poachers with guns shoot to kill? These men also have very poor insurance coverage.
It is hoped someone will take action to help these brave forest rangers that are probably the most important key to good protection and enforcement of Thailand’s natural heritage. For without them, sambar and all the other wonderful wild creatures in the Kingdom are in serious jeopardy. Pressure needs to be exerted from the Thai media so this draconian problem of ‘no pay for months’ on end will cease to exist.
Sambar doe in Sai Yok National Park
Sambar Cervus unicolor is a terrestrial mammal of the order Artiodactyla, or even-toed ungulate with two functional hoofed toes and two dew toes on each foot. These large deer have a four-chambered stomach and feed on plant material. Food is partially digested in the stomach and then brought back up into the mouth again for further chewing, to increase the amount of nutrition that can be obtained from grasses and leaves. As ruminants, this permits large amounts of food to be ingested quickly before moving to sheltered places for chewing, and better protection against predators.
Stags can weigh more than 500 kilograms and attain a height of 102 to 160 cm at the shoulder. They have long legs and can run at a fast pace to evade large carnivores. With their formidable antlers that can exceed a length of over a 100 cm, they are extremely dangerous to man when a male sambar has been wounded.
The coat is dark brown with chestnut marks on the rump and under parts. These cervids live primarily in woodland and feed on a variety of vegetation, including grasses, foliage, browse, fruit and water plants. Sambar is found in habitats ranging from tropical seasonal forests (dry forests and seasonal moist evergreen forests), subtropical mixed forests (conifers, broadleaf deciduous, and broadleaf evergreen tree species) to tropical rainforests.
They are seldom far from water and, although primarily of the tropics, are hardy and may range from sea level up to high elevations such as the pine and oak forests on the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. They also live in montane mixed forests and grassland habitats at high elevations in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
Sambar needs serious protection to survive into the future. Good protective management with an increase in budget and personnel is needed. A true ranger training school with instructors from the National Parks department, Border Patrol Police, Special Forces, Navy Seals and an NGO like Freeland should be established somewhere in the central provinces away from any national park and all its distractions of over-visitation.
Also, it will provide easy access and distribution for new recruits who graduate as permanent rangers. Temporary rangers can also come and train, and then also become permanently employed. The day this happens will be a step in the right direction for wildlife conservation in the Kingdom.