Posts Tagged ‘Soutern Thailand’
Colossal limestone massifs in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary, Surat Thani province, southern Thailand.
Down in southern Thailand, the Khlong Saeng River flows from the Phuket Mountain Range into the Gulf of Thailand at Surat Thani province on the eastern side of the peninsula. Up in the highlands, many tributary streams flow into the Rajaprabha Dam (formally know as the Cheiw Larn Dam) permanently flooding this forest in the upper reaches of this once magnificent biosphere. Some of that natural heritage still remains to this day.
Khlong Saeng is part of the Khlong Saeng-Khao Sok Forest Complex that has been a protected area since 1974 way before the destructive dam was constructed on the river in the 1980s. This large waterway flows east known as the Mae Nam Tapee flowing through the city of Surat Thani. The watershed is an immense wet tropical rainforest with many wild Sundaic and Himalayan species still thriving here.
Colossal limestone massifs some as tall as 900 meters rise up from the reservoir and dominate the landscape. These were laid down more than 200 million years ago during the mid to late Permian. Then they were thrust up when India crashed into the Asian plate that began 50 million years ago. The Indian plate had separated from the ancient continent of Gondwanaland and moved north on a tetonic plate resulting in the formation of the Himalayas and causing a north-south uplift across Southeast Asia in a ripple effect.
Unfortunately, the tiger and the leopard have already disappeared from the sanctuary but many other beautiful predators such as clouded leopard, golden cat and marbled cat still thrive here. This habitat unfortunately has been seriously degraded by the construction of the dam. However, some of this forest still harbor rare and unique Asian creatures like tapir, gaur, elephant and the magnificent Argus pheasant that continue to thrive in the thick vegetation made up primarily of moist evergreen forest.
There is a permanent reservoir 60 kilometers long and 20 kilometer at its widest point, and dammed near the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary headquarters. Many people live on floating rafts and fishing is allowed. However, some fisherman in the past used devious methods like electricity or explosives plus trap-lines to catch fish and stocks plummeted. The Fisheries Department regularly release certain species to boost the local economy. Next door to Khlong Saeng is the world famous Khao Sok National Park. However, this has been very detrimental to the environment with extreme tourism that seems to be increasingly damaging to the biosphere.
There are many noisy boats and loads of tourists that visit Khao Sok National Park everyday next door. The Department of National Parks (DNP) manage the lake, and due to poor policies and low budgets, has had an enormous impact on the wildlife and ecosystems in the Khlong Saeng valley. The Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) who own the dam unfortunately gave responsibility to oversee the reservoir to Khao Sok. The national park’s mandate is to get as many people in as possible and make money for the park and its officials, and the local venders. Protection and enforcement is not part of their program. This of course has had a serious impact on the scheme of things.
In Early 2013, I became friends with Greg McCann with Habitat I.D. on Facebook. We decided to do a camera trap survey in the forests of Khlong Saeng as I knew it well having worked there photographing wildlife for two years in 2008-2009. It took us sometime to put a program together but we finally made the first foray into this forbidding and mysterious forest back in July of 2014. Habitat I.D. provided four Bushnell Trophy Cam (video/stills) camera traps plus some financial funding. I also threw in three Bushnell cams and a Nikon D90 DSLR cam.
In September 2014, I went back to Khlong Saeng to check our camera traps and make an assessment of this forest and its inhabitants. It was the middle of the rainy season and the water level in the lake was full. Accompanied by rangers from the sanctuary and research station, we moved up into the forest and serviced all the cams changing out batteries, memory cards and desiccant (silica gel). All the cams were left in place to further record any animal traffic on the wildlife trails down several ridge lines.
After downloading all the cards, imagine my excitement to find so many rare animals on video including elephants, tapir, clouded leopard, golden cat, sambar, Fea’s muntjac and common muntjac plus many others. My DSLR Nikon D90 produced an amazing shot of a clouded leopard.
In mid-January 2015, I made my 2nd visit to Khlong Saeng as scheduled to close-out the camera trap program. Once again this forest did not disappoint. Due to problems with flash on my Nikon D90, I changed it out for a Canon 400D with three flashes. I got some terrific shots of an old female tapir (she looks pregnant) that was totally unexpected on the Canon, plus some absolutely amazing behavioral videos of Argus pheasant. This beautiful creature did ‘wing displays’ in front of a Bushnell Trophy HD Cam and video quality is quite good as this bird came in daylight. In the future, I will be setting higher quality video cams here again as it looks like this male uses this opening in the forest for his display area…!
Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary needs new direction in management plus better protection and enforcement. However, it’s doubtful that any major changes will happen anytime soon. Making money has taken precedence over everything else and that alone will be its downfall. After years of abuse, the future is uncertain as we move into the 21st Century. These wonderful animals and ecosystems are in serious jeopardy…!
Some old camera trap shots of wildlife in Southern Thailand
Limestone ‘karst’ mountains at sunset in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary.
In 2009, I decided to go down south to a wildlife sanctuary that was still teaming with animals common to the wet tropical forests found here. Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Surat Thani province is some 500 miles from Bangkok and is one of the top protected areas in the country.
Flooded forest near the headwaters deep in Khlong Saeng.
Once upon a time, this forest was a magnificent natural watershed that provided water throughout the year to the inhabitants of the lowlands on the eastern side of the Thai peninsula.
Clouded leopard at the entrance to a limestone cave probably searching for dead bats.
It still harbors some very impressive animals such as elephant, gaur, tapir, serow, sambar, clouded leopard, sun bear, Great Argus (second largest of the pheasant family in Thailand), and the mighty king cobra to name just a few – and the list goes on.
A serow (goat-antelope) at the same cave.
Probably the most impressive scenic site in the sanctuary are the massive limestone ‘karst’ formations that were formed sometime during the mid to late Permian over 200 million years ago. Thailand was part of Gondwanaland that was still attached to Pangaea, the ‘Supercontinent’.
A serow at another location at the top of a limestone ‘karst’ mountain.
These colossal outcrops, some reaching as high as 960 meters (3,150 feet), look almost ‘architectural’ in design. These configurations were thrust up when India crashed into the Asian plate some 60 million years ago, and are the remnants of a prehistoric coral reef that once thrived here.
An old tapir up near a cave at the top of a limestone massif.
But in the mid-1980s, a drastic change to the Pasaeng River was to come about. To increase Thailand’s electrical power needs, and back when building hydroelectric dams was in vogue, it was decided by the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), a state enterprise, and the government, to construct the Rajaprabha Dam that eventually inundated a total of 165 square kilometers (65 sq. miles) of the Khlong Saeng valley to become the Chiew Larn reservoir in 1986.
A tapir calf with its mother in the forest near the headwaters.
The water body extends into the sanctuary for more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) but is only about two kilometers at its widest point. As the reservoir filled up, thousands and thousands of trees and animals perished in the rising waters. It was destruction of a natural habitat in the name of modernization.
A tapir with clipped ears; probably nipped by a mature female chasing the young one out.
Awhile back, my friend Greg McCann, founder of ‘Habitat ID,’ a NGO setup to investigate forests in Southeast Asia contacted me. He was interested in starting a camera trap program somewhere in Thailand and Khlong Saeng was chosen as the first forest to see what is still thriving there.
A gaur calf on the trail up on a limestone mountain.
We have just returned from the sanctuary where eight cameras including one DSLR (Nikon D90), a Sony W55 ‘home brew’ and six Bushnell Trophy Cams were set-up in some of the areas where I previously captured some amazing animals.
A very old bull gaur with its hooves in poor condition…!
We will let these cams soak for two-three months and I will be going back then to see what has transpired. It should be interesting…!
A couple of young gaur in the mountainous forest.
When I first began visiting the area, I took my boat-blind (kayak with pontoons and electric trolling motor as a stable shooting platform) to navigate the waters and shoreline.
Another young gaur on a trail up in the limestone mountains.
Over the course of two years, I was able to get some really neat images of the wildlife that had adapted to the new environment. I also began a camera trap program to see what cryptic animals were thriving up in the evergreen forest.
A mature sambar stag on a trail in the forest.
A mature male muntjac (barking deer) on a wildlife trail.
A female muntjac with white spots along the spine and rear torso: a strange anomaly…!
A stump-tail macaque (monkey) up in the limestone crags with its jowls full of food.
An Argus pheasant at the mouth of a cave.
This gallery of shots is just some of the creatures collected over a two-year period (2009-2010). Some of these images are not the greatest but do show the biodiversity of this amazing place. I plan on setting up several DSLRs at these old camera trap locations and will post any new images down the road. Enjoy…!
WILD SPECIES REPORT
Avian fauna on the brink of extinction in Thailand
Gurney’s pitta male – one of the last few surviving birds at Khao Nor Chuchi
In October 2001, I did a story entitled ‘On the verge of extinction’ for the Bangkok Post Nature section about an amazing bird that had been rediscovered in 1986 by my close friend and associate Phillip D. Round, Thailand’s eminent ornithologist after almost three decades of no sightings. Prior to that, it was thought to be extinct in the Kingdom. The bird was listed as a flagship species for conservation and put on Thailand’s 15 reserved species list.
The Gurney’s pitta Pitta gurneyi is a medium-sized passerine bird that completely disappeared from all lowland evergreen forest south of Prachuap Khirikhan province where natural forest was destroyed primarily to grow palm and rubber trees except for one little patch in Krabi province. This site is known as Khao Nor Chuchi or Khao Pra-Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary – the only known place in Thailand where this rare pitta still survived. The area definitely needed extreme management to save this creature from extinction.
A Gurney’s pitta female in Khao Nor Chuchi
In historic times, the range of the Gurney’s pitta was along the coast and inland areas on both sides of the Thai peninsula, in the provinces of Trang and Krabi on the western side, and Nakhon Si Thammarat, Surat Thani, Chumphon up to Prachuap Khirikhan on the east.
It also survived in southern Burma where this beautiful bird was first discovered way back in 1875 by a wildlife specimen collector working for Allan Octavian Hume, a prominent ornithologist. The exotic bird was named rather prosaically after Hume’s friend, J.H. Gurney, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.
Lowland rainforests up to 200 meters above sea level are home to an unsurpassed diversity of flora and fauna including the Gurney’s. Due to excessive human settlement and agriculture, this unique bird has diminished to the point of no return here in Thailand.
A male Gurney’s pitta photographed is 2001
Encroachment and forest destruction has not been the lone evil. Some poaching of the Gurney’s for the black market trade have also taken its toll. It is said a pair of a male and female fetches a hundred thousand baht or more from rich collectors of exotic birds at the infamous Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. In fact, the bird’s beauty has been its worst enemy. Even though protection and enforcement has improved over the years, catching the big traders and buyers of wildlife black market items has been slow and sometimes non-existent at times.
However, over in Burma, thousands of Gurney’s are purported to survive after quite a few surveys since early 2003 when Jonathan Eames with BirdLife International and other associates found the bird at four different sites. Jonathan returned in 2004 and found more locations with the bird but political instability and very restrictive government regulations threaten to keep researchers away, while landmines and bandits further discourage access.
Since then, Dr Paul Donald of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has surveyed many areas and confirmed that almost all of the world’s population of Gurney’s pitta is located in Myanmar but the forests there are also being decimated for palm and rubber agriculture and hence, the bird there is still under serious threat. This granted the species a reassessment from the IUCN, going from critically endangered to endangered.
Hooded pitta with worms feeding its chicks somewhere in the forest
My first encounter with a Gurney’s was back in 2001 when I made an effort to capture this bird on film. The following is an account of that wonderful moment that was very brief, and I only managed to get one shot shown in the story.
“Dark morning stillness in thick lowland rainforest is broken by muffled footsteps as two humans move slowly down the trail. We carry heavy camera equipment to a photographic blind erected deep in the jungle the previous evening. Condensation is heavy as I set up in the hide. My friend and guide, Douglas Judell departs quickly and noisily – the intent being to convey the message that both of us have left the area.
As animals of the night retreat, I wait for the first signs of dawn. My goal is to photograph this elusive pitta known to frequent this small patch of forest. Morning light awakens the jungle and the sounds of dripping moisture begin to be replaced by the noise of birds and insects starting their day. Hidden in the blind, I remain vigilant for the slightest movement on the forest floor. About 8am, light from the sun filters through the canopy in patches.
One of several hooded pittas that showed-up looking for earthworms
A sudden movement shows a hooded pitta, another species common here, hopping about looking for earthworms. This striking blue, green and red bird with a dark brown crown moves closer to the blind seemingly oblivious to the looming structure. Snapping only a few shots for fear of alarming the other denizens of this forest, I continue to sit quietly hoping the ‘forest spirits’ will answer my wish.
A passing morning rain shower quickly passes by and as if on cue, a blue, black and yellow bird suddenly appears in front of the blind about five meters away. Perhaps sensing danger, it quickly hops into the darkness of the forest but a minute later returns just long enough for only one shot of this rare bird. I quickly forgot about the wet grubby conditions and the long road trip of more than 700 kilometers from Bangkok to this place. I was elated to say the least.”
My first Gurney’s pitta male photographed by ‘U’ trail
When I did the story in 2001, there were about 11 pairs and some individuals left in the sanctuary. The decline was evident and it became a worry for the Department of National Parks (DNP). Drastic measures were needed but they never came. When Khao Pra-Bang Khram was up-graded in 1987 by the Royal Forest Department (RFD) from a non-hunting area to a wildlife sanctuary, most of the forest where the bird was actually found unfortunately was not included in the protected area. It is a wonder how things sometimes come to pass.
This then became a pitched battle between conservationists, local villagers and the DNP. Forests were being cleared for palm and rubber and there was nothing the department or NGOs’ could do in certain areas because this land was outside the sanctuary and was the property of the locals. Forest destruction was severe and it put a terrible strain on the ecosystem.
Emerald pond algae not far from the sanctuary headquarters
Another very negative aspect is the visitation by hundreds of tourists almost daily at the Emerald Pond not far from the core area. This place use to be peaceful and beautiful, and a decade ago there were just a few noodle stands and trinket shops at the front. Now this has expanded 100 percent and has become a big business catering to the visitors. Buses and vans are parked everywhere. There are very few birds around the pond now and trash is a serious problem.
Two weeks ago, I made one last ditch effort to photograph this bird. Permission to enter the sanctuary was graciously given by the Wildlife Conservation Division at DNP in Bangkok. I packed-up my old pickup truck and headed South to the small village in Krabi province named Ban Bang Tieo where the sanctuary headquarters is situated.
I met with the new superintendent Nikom Srilamoon of Khao Pra-Bang Khram, requesting authorization to enter the sensitive area in order to catch the Gurney’s on digital. He has certainly inherited a tough job!
Emerald Pond in Khao Pra-Bang Khram
The first day was comprised of walking the nature trails ‘U’ and ‘N’ where the bird is normally found to see first hand the situation on the ground. Many parts are, overcome by humans and their destructive vises of throwing trash on the ground and cutting trees down. Someone has established a rubber plantation in the remaining core area of the sanctuary. Motorcycle tracks are everywhere and it is said spot-lighting for night creatures like frogs and mouse deer goes on. It seems that just about every square meter is under threat.
The next morning, I decided to set-up a quick blind in a palm plantation that borders forest early the next morning at first light. About 7am, a couple female pitta skirted the forest for a couple of meters and then melted back into the thick vegetation. I did not get a shot, as they were too quick.
Palm oil plantation butted-up to the forest in Khao Pra-Bang Khram
In the afternoon, I went back into the trail system to scout a new location. I chose to erect a blind in a gulley with a stream that cuts through the habitat. Sharp thorns are everywhere but it is very secluded from the main nature trails and excessive activity.
The following morning I was sitting alone in the dripping forest at 5.30am sharp. My two helpers departed quickly after installing a slave flash on a tree to the left of my position. Then the rain started and did not let up until late afternoon when the sun finally peaked through the clouds for a short period.
Another male photographed in the sanctuary
Birds immediately began calling and activity picked up. Then, I saw movement ahead and a male Gurney’s popped out of the forest and stayed in front of the blind for only a few seconds as I fired off a short burst including the lead photo. It was exciting, and will be etched in memory. These creatures are still surviving here but they are now hard to locate and stay elusive for the most part. I thanked the ‘spirits of the forest’ for this rare encounter, and the rain came again till just before darkness.
BirdLife International, BirdLife Denmark, DANCED, Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, the Oriental Bird Club and the RSPB have helped the DNP to implement numerous projects at Khao Nor Chuchi, but these efforts have only slowed rather than halted new settlements and the destruction of the forest.
Banded pitta male at Khao Nor Chuchi
The population of Gurney’s pitta at Khao Nor Chuchi has declined drastically, dropping from an estimated 40 pairs in 1986 down to about 20 pairs in the mid-1990s’. At one abandoned nest, local researchers found bird (mist) nets placed by some people to capture this rare bird. The last estimate from various sources on the number of birds is less than ten individuals (both male and female) survive in the core area. This is serious and the prospect of extinction is truly depressing.
Banded pitta female at Khao Nor Chuchi
Unless Khao Pra-Bang Khram protection and enforcement can be quickly implemented and expanded to include all the remaining intact lowland forest, and previously cleared areas are reforested, the species in Thailand faces a very bleak future. Quick and decisive action is the only remedy and it is absolutely no use pointing the finger of blame on anyone.
As a flagship species for the conservation of southern Thailand’s lowland rainforest, only time will tell if the Gurney’s pitta can survive. If this beautiful creature disappears, it will be a sad day for nature conservation in the Kingdom.
THAILAND’S 15 RESERVED SPECIES
Thailand’s list of 15 reserved species is so out-dated it is now covered in dust and needs updating. Two lists should be established: one for species that are truly extinct in the wild, and another list for rare creatures like tiger, leopard, gaur, banteng, Asian elephant, Asiatic bear and sun bear plus the remaining survivors shown below. There are also many other wild animals that need special status!
1) White-eyed river martin: Presumed extinct globally since 1985-86. The last known specimens were from Bueng Boraphet Non-hunting Area in Nakhon Sawan province.
2) Javan rhino: Once found in many large forests and now extinct in Thailand for more than 25 years.
3) Sumatran rhino: Extinct in Thailand for more than a decade or two. A few individuals were reported in Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary. down south in Narathiwat province.
4) Kouprey or grey ox: Extinct in northeasternThailand for at least 30-50 years and absolutely no reports from Cambodia although extensive surveys have been carried out. The Khmer Rouge during wartime is probably responsible for their demise.
5) Dugong or sea cow: Extremely endangered in the seas of Thailand. There are a few survivors but are probably doomed by excessive fishing and tourism.
6) Wild water buffalo or Asiatic buffalo: Endangered with about 50 individuals surviving in only one location: Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand.
7) Eld’s deer: There are two sub-species (Siamensis and the Burmese) and both are extinct in the wild of Thailand.
8) Schomburgk’s deer: Extinct globally since 1935. They were endemic to the Central Plains of Thailand and the last one was killed in a temple in Samut Prakan by a village drunk in 1932. Sad fact!
9) Serow: These goat antelopes are endangered but they still survive in some mountaInous areas that are protected. Their horns are eagerly sought after and used in making knives for fighting cocks in the South.
10) Chinese goral or grey tailed goral: These goat antelopes are seriously endangered; a couple of hundred might live on mountaintops in northern Thailand.
11) Gurney’s pitta or black-breasted pitta: They are technically extinct in Thailand. There are a few individuals surviving in Khao Phra-Bang Kram Wildlife Sanctuary in Krabi.
12) Eastern Sarus crane: Extinct in Thailand for more than 50 years. They do survive in Vietnam and Cambodia but their numbers are low.
13) Marbled cat: They still survive in the thick evergreen forests of Thailand but their numbers are unknown.
14) Asian or Malayan tapir: They still survive in the western flank of Thailand from Thung Yai Naresuan WS all the way down to Malaysia. However, they are hunted for bush meat in many places in the South.
15) Fea’s muntjac: They still survive in the western flank of Thailand from Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary all the way down to Phang Nga and Surat Thani in the South, and are hunted for meat throughout their range.
While I was researching the Gurney’s Pitta on the web, I found a resort website in Krabi using my ‘first’ Gurney’s pitta photograph with out my permission. On photographs of great importance, I will now be using a new watermark covering the subject matter with my name and copyright. I regret this action but do not appreciate people stealing my photographs off the web for their own business purposes. These people have no professional ethics!
CREDIT FOR PHOTOGRAPHS
I would like to thank my good friend Kanit Khanikul for the use of his photographs of Gurney’s and Banded pittas. He certainly has one of the best collections of birds from Khao Nor Chuchi in Thailand and he has spent a lot of time and money recording avian fauna there. He should be praised for his great work!