Posts Tagged ‘wildlife sanctuary’
On the road to Huai Kha Khaeng
Seub Nakhasatien monument
Day one: March 5th
I left Bangkok slightly behind schedule but made good time as I headed northwest. After five hours of driving with a few pit stops here and there to eat, buy fuel, food and essentials, I arrived at the headquarters of Huai Kha Khaeng. As always, I paid respects to Seub Nakhasatien, a forest ranger who gave his life to nature back in 1990. This site is his spiritual home and many people visit his statue and the house where he lived, in remembrance of his sacrifice. While we were at the headquarters, I photographed a few Eld’s deer that were released into the wild around the station.
Wild boar on the run at a mineral deposit
I then drove another couple of hours going south for a rendezvous at Khao Nang Ram Wildlife Research Station. As I got closer, a huge wild boar flashed across the dirt road and disappeared into the forest giving us a bit of jolt. A total of eight forest guards including the assistant chief graciously welcomed me providing shelter and dinner. I arrived just at dusk and handed over the provisions for the excursion down the river. Dinner was served and we then watched a documentary showing wildlife and tiger research carried out at the station. Everyone retired to bed for an early wake-up.
A racket-tailed drongo by the river
Day two: March 6th – A change of plans
Our original plan was to walk from the research station across the mountains and down to the river but due to extremely hot and dry conditions in the mixed deciduous forest and the possibility of forest fire, it was decided to drive further north to the river and walk from an old deserted ranger station named ‘Yang Dang’ so we would have a good supply of water the entire length of the walk. I brought a water purification pump and we always had clean safe drinking water. This tool was simple to use and carry but extremely important for us city folk accustomed to bottled water.
Through the forest we continued west and arrived at Kabook Kabieng ranger station some 50 kilometers north. During the dry season, this part of the forest in Huai Kha Khaeng is still lush hill-evergreen. For me, this place has many fond memories of great photographic sessions.
Another wild boar at another mineral deposit
I got my first ever camera-trap photograph of a leopard on a deer kill very close to the station. On that same trip, I also photographed another leopard along the road in late afternoon from my truck, and captured a shot of a black leopard from a tree-blind at a nearby hot spring the next day. I got three leopards in two days and it still stands out as one of my great achievements as a wildlife photographer. Leopards are notoriously difficult to see and it was a lucky trip.
A black leopard photographed more than ten years ago at a hot spring
Finally, we all arrived at ‘Yang Dang’ and made preparations for the 30-kilometer trip down river. The road was rough on my old Ford Ranger but we chugged along in low gear for some gut-wrenching 4X4 driving. Unfortunately, a carry rack on top of the cab was ripped off and destroyed during the rough and tumble, and reduced to rubble.
Everyone packed up and off we went down the river. We still had to negotiate about 6 kilometers on foot to the first camp during mid-day temperatures that went past 38 degrees centigrade. It was a struggle but we made it and set-up camp by the peaceful Huai Kha Khaeng waterway just as the sun dipped behind the mountains. The water was extremely cool and it was great having a bath and freshening up for the first night by the river. Dinner was served in typical jungle style with rice cooked in army patrol pots and various Thai dishes including some hot curry. Everyone then hit their beds and sleep quickly overcame the group.
WILD SPECIES REPORT
Banteng: Endangered herbivores
Magnificent wild cattle of Southeast Asia
Bovids threatened with extinction
It was a hot steamy morning deep in the wilderness of Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, a World Heritage Site located in the central province of Uthai Thani. Not much was stirring other than a few birds and insects as the sun rose high in the sky. A hot breeze whiffed through, and heat shimmered from the center of a natural mineral deposit several hours walk from the nearest road. As the day got hotter, thirst kicked in among the many species of herbivore that live in the forest nearby.
Banteng bull in Huai Kha Khaeng
Muntjac (barking deer), sambar, banteng and gaur use this important source of minerals. Many smaller mammals, birds, and reptiles also come to the lick as part of their everyday life. Tiger, leopard, and wild dog frequent the area in search of prey. Occasionally, wild elephant stop for a drink. A male barking deer stepped cautiously down to the water hole. Moving slowly and constantly watching out for predators, the young buck took a long-awaited sip of the life giving minerals. Shortly after, it disappeared back into the forest it had come from. Silence again took precedence as the morning wore on.
Banteng bull and cow in Huai Kha Khaeng
About an hour later at the top-end of the clearing, a herd of twelve banteng magically appeared and went straight down to the waterhole, as their kind have done for aeons. The herd included one old bull, a couple of young bulls and cows, plus three calves, and, like the deer, were extremely alert for carnivores. All of a sudden, a cow snorted an alarm, and the herd bolted for the safety of the bush. Curious by nature, the herd bull stopped short near the forest edge for one last look. The herd surrounded the bull and the young calves trailed behind before disappearing into the trees. For a moment, they were vulnerable to attack by predator. Banteng are very sensitive to any disturbance and flee immediately on the first hint of danger.
Banteng on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng
Another hour went by and suddenly, a solitary banteng bull appeared from the forest and moved down to the waterhole but stayed only momentarily. These loners usually pursue the herd during the mating season and have an irresistible urge to mate with the females. However, the herd bull will keep the young bulls in check.
The spirits of the forest had just provided a vision; some beautiful moments in the lives of banteng, Southeast Asia’s wild cattle. My friend Robert Semon and I were sitting in a photographic blind set up just inside the forest edge, but with an open view to the water hole. Banteng had been the main photographic objective on this trip, and it was magnificent seeing and photographing these wild bovids. My camera was very busy during that short period. As it was the first time I had photographed them, the encounter will be forever etched in memory.
Mature banteng bull in Huai Kha Khaeng
Coming back to Huai Kha Khaeng a couple of years later, my team erected a photo-blind while I went looking for tracks. A large granite rock sits in the middle of this oasis in the forest, so I paid my respects to the spirits of the forest thanking them for my previous good fortune here. It was about an hour’s walk back to the truck, and another hour to camp, but I was feeling lucky. After dinner, and a few drinks with the team, I retired to my hammock for an early wake-up.
The next morning I was in the blind at 6am and, after a three-hour wait, a lone banteng bull lumbered down to the waterhole for a drink. My wish had come true. After getting very close to the blind, he sensed danger and bolted. I shot several rolls of film. Alone, the bull was open to attack by tiger or wild dogs. It was very exciting photographing this beautiful creature.
A couple of years later, on one of my many forays into Huai Kha Khaeng, I decided to stay overnight in a permanent photographic blind set-up along the banks of Huai Mae Dee, a tributary of the Huai Kha Khaeng. That night as I lay in my hammock, I wished once again to see banteng. The next morning, the mist was thick as soup, coating the forest with dew. My focus was on a mineral lick across the river. Many rare species of large mammal visit this natural deposit for a drink, and a nibble on the lush grass growing on the rocky slope. A female muntjac nervously appeared, took a drink but quickly departed.
Banteng cow on the Huai Mae Dee
At about 8am, as the sun was just peaking over the treetops, a large herd of banteng stepped out into the mineral lick. There were five bulls and numerous cows and calves in this herd totaling 18 banteng, and it was an exciting ten-minute session. It was during the mating season, the reason so many bulls had come together. I was shooting a digital camera by now and did not stop photographing them until the last one had gone. As always, I gave thanks to the spirits of the forest for my good fortune.
The accompanying photographs show the beauty and gracefulness of these magnificent ungulates. Over the years, I have seen these wild cattle many times, not only in Huai Kha Khaeng (present herd estimated at over 250 individuals), but also over in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, eastern Thailand (about 80 banteng). These two santuaries are the last bations of a sizable banteng herd left in the Kingdom.
Banteng cows at a waterhole
Huai Kha Khaeng still retains the best prey/predator relationship with many tigers and a sizable herd of banteng plus many other ungulates like gaur, sambar and wild pig. Khao Ang Rue Nai has very few carnivores but Asian wild dogs do take banteng from time to time. Humans unfortunately, are the most devestating predator and are directly responsible for the disappearence of these wonderful creatures. Trophy hunting and bush meat are the two main reasons for this demise.
The other remaining sites that have recorded banteng but are probably now close to extirpation of the species with very few remaining are: Om Koi Wildlife Sanctuary in the North; Nam Nao and Tap Praya national parks in the Northeast; Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary and, Sai Yok, Sri Nakharin and Kaeng Krachan national parks in the west; Khlong Saeng and Khlong Yan wildlife sanctuaries in the south; and Sri Satchanarai National Park in the foot-hills of Central Thailand. Their present numbers are estimated to be no more than a very low 300-500 nationwide.
Fossils of an antelope-like ox named Leptobos was discovered in Early Pleistocene deposits 1.8 million years old in Eurasia. Another ancient cattle found in Europe called Bos primigenius or better known as aurochs were domesticated some 6,000 years ago but died out about 500 years ago. Banteng are common ansestors to Bos bibos, a cattle that inhibitated the vast plains of Asia during prehistoric times. Fossil finds of banteng from the Pleistocene epoch in Bali and Java are common.
Banteng herd on a sandbar in Huai Kha Khaeng
Wild banteng Bos javanicus have a scattered distribution throughout Southeast Asia, and three subspecies are recognized. The Java banteng Bos javanicus javanicus of Java and Bali, the Borneo banteng Bos javanicus lowi, and the Burma banteng Bos javanicus birmanicus, also of Thailand and Indochina. Only a few thousand wild banteng are reported to survive throughout their entire range, since human encroachment and poaching in all the above countries have exacted a heavy toll on them. Their future hangs in the balance. Thailand is no exception and the banteng population has declined drastically since World War II.
Banteng bull at a mineral lick in Huai Kha Khaeng
The Kingdom’s protected areas include national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, and are all controlled and managed by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP). It is extremely difficult defending these forests from human intervention, and the DNP has a heavy burden to bear. Let us hope that they will succeed in this very important but really tough task!
One alternative to disappearing banteng is a reintroduction program to save the species. There are a few breeding centers around the country with banteng. Unfortunately, most of the stock is Indonesian banteng. Years ago, Kukrit Pramote, Thailand’s Prime Minister using government to government relations, imported Indonesian banteng that were released at Lum Phow Non-hunting Area in Kalasin province. There are about 60 surviving on a 900 rai plot. Only one breeding center at Khao Nam Phu, Kanchanaburi province is reported to have Thai banteng. Several young banteng were taken from Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary next door and produced off-spring. Presently, there are about 10 individuals at Khao Nam Phu.
Banteng bull at a breeding station in Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary
Another pilot program started in 1991 was initiated at Khao Kheow Open Zoo and 13 banteng (unknown origin) were released to adjacent Khao Kheow-Khao Chumpu Wildlife Sanctuary (144 sq.kilometers) in Chonburi province. There are now an estimated 49 banteng surviving in this herd with a few mature bulls living in a very splintered habitat. Poachers however, are a serious threat here using pipe guns and rope snares left in the forest, and inflict casualties on these reintroduced denzins. DNP needs to make sure they are protected to the fullest.
Rare white-spotted banteng cow – endemic to Huai Kha Khaeng
Banteng have been called the most beautiful of all the wild relatives of cattle. The colouring of young bulls and cows is generally a vibrant reddish brown, though some are fawn. The old bulls in Thailand are mostly blackish-brown, but Indonesian banteng bulls are very dark brown to black in some. Regardless of sex, all Thai banteng have a white band around the muzzle, small white patches over the eyes, white stockings on all four legs, and a large white patch on the rump. Another distinct feature is a black stripe along the spine. The dorsal ridge is pronounced in the large adult bulls. Some Thai banteng have white spots along the flank, but this is not found among the other subspecies.
The skull and horns of banteng are less massive then their cousins the gaur Bos gaurus, but are nevertheless formidable weapons. They use their horns for protection, but the males also use them to decide who will get the females during the breeding season in May and June. Gestation is nine and a half to ten months, and one or two calves may be born. The calves are suckled until they are fourteen to sixteen months old.
Banteng bull and cows at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng – note very dark colored bull
Banteng look very much like some domestic cattle and are probably ancestral to them. In Indonesia and Borneo, banteng have been successfully domesticated and are widely used there. For some reason, this practice has not caught on in mainland Southeast Asia. However, many villagers living close to banteng habitats have had wild bulls mingling with their domesticated cattle, and hybrids have been born. Hybrids have also been reported from some forests in the west where banteng and gaur overlap.
The habitat where banteng are normally found is open deciduous forests and hence banteng are more seriously endangered than gaur. They are grazers and prefer open grasslands. However, they have become more nocturnal due to hunting pressure and are rarely seen during the day, preferring to come out in the open at night. Herds of two up to twenty-five or more have been recorded and usually there is only one mature bull.
Banteng bull and cows at a waterhole in Khao Ang Rue Nai
Solitary bulls, or loners, are quite common, as the herd bull has kicked them out. They will typically shadow the herd, especially during the breeding season when they are hoping for the chance to mate with the cows that come into heat. The herd bull will remain supreme only for as long as he remains fit and has not broken a horn.
The future chances of these magestic creatures is slim. Pressure from humans and increased population growth over the long run can only have an adverse effect on the flora and fauna of the nation. The question is, how long will these magnificent bovid survive and in what places? Can we say that in 50 years banteng will continue to live in their protected areas, safe from human poachers and encroachment. Nature’s clock is ticking relentlessly, and only time will tell.
Wildlife Candid Camera – Infrared cameras ‘trap’ Thailand’s elusive wildlife
Indochinese tiger camera trapped in Sai Yok National Park
One evening as the shadows were melting into darkness in the jungle of Sai Yok National Park, an Indochinese tiger Panthera tigris corbetti was meandering up to a forest pool for his evening drink. At the planned position, a camera-trap mounted on a dead tree tripped a photograph of the cat, causing it to bound into a bamboo thicket. The tiger could not of course have understood exactly what had just taken place. Instinct triggered its reaction to the flash and the camera’s mechanical click. Taking a photograph of a tiger in the wild is a very daunting task but the wizardry of modern electronics has made the job much easier.
Gaur herd caught at a mineral deposit in Kaeng Krachan National Park
A few days later and just two kilometers away, another tiger pads slowly through the forest topping a 600-meter-high ridge in late afternoon. Its senses are on high alert for any movement or sound that could lead to its next meal. A passive infrared camera-trap set on a wildlife trail catches the tiger as it passes through an invisible motion-detection field. The time and date is recorded and the wildlife photographer has just triumphantly photographed one of Thailand’s rarest mammals in the wild – without even being there at the time; a rare candid wildlife photograph set off by the subject itself.
Mother and cub in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
Far away in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Thailand, a mother leopard guides her young cub to a sambar kill. The carcass is ripe after a few days but still good for a full meal. In early-morning darkness the leopards trigger an active infrared SLR camera and strobe strategically positioned close to the dead deer. When the film was processed, I saw two feeding leopards – a mother and its cub. The female is yellow but the young one is black. Photographs of the notoriously elusive leopard would be far rarer if not for modern technology.
The history of camera traps goes back more than a hundred years. In 1906, pioneer wildlife photographer George Shiras III used a flashlight camera with trip wires to photograph wild animals. His equipment was very heavy and very complicated to use, with the lens aperture being very difficult to anticipate. Two other men experimented with camera traps activated by pressure-plates: F.M. Chapman in 1927 and F.W. Champion in 1928. Their primitive traps produced many superb black-and-white photographs that thrilled magazine and book readers at the time.
Banteng herd at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng
For the last four decades or so, researchers and biologists to collect data on wildlife and also to investigate the secretive and nocturnal lives of such rare and endangered species as the tiger and leopard use camera traps. Beyond glamorous predators, species such as wild cattle, deer and pig are also, without discrimination, recorded to reveal such useful information as relative abundance and activity patterns. Camera trapping can lead to important scientific databases.
The units are most often attached to a tree, usually half a meter above the ground and three to four meters away from water holes, mineral licks, wildlife trails, forest roads or stream beds. The time and date is imprinted on each frame for scientific research.
An American hunter whose goal was to survey designed one of the first camera traps utilizing infrared technology and scout possible locations for big game like deer and bear. These active infrared sensors manufactured by TrailMaster.com in Kansas used a separate transmitter and receiver connected to a small ‘point-and-shoot’ camera which is triggered when the beam between the two units is interrupted by any moving object. A major drawback of active systems is that even an insect momentarily blocking the sensor will stimulate a photograph of seemingly empty forest. Active infrared camera traps are best suited to conditions that are dry with minimal insect activity. Further, three separate units are quite complicated to set up and maintain.
Problems with active infrared systems caused a researcher in Texas to ask a friend to develop a passive infrared camera trap, leading to the establishment of CamTrakker.com in Georgia. Passive camera-traps are a self-contained unit with the camera, batteries and sensing electronics sealed in a box. The sensor detects motion. The chief advantage of the passive system is the ease of a single unit installation with no alignment or external wires.
Asian leopard feeding on a sambar carcass in Huai Kha Khaeng
Passive infrared camera traps, which can work for one month or more between battery changes, have proven the most utilitarian for both researchers and wildlife photographers. The relatively high cost of commercial units is the major drawback, particularly to budget-strapped researchers in developing countries.
Both TrailMaster and CamTrakker have steadily improved their equipment over the years. Other companies have now joined the competition, bringing prices for entry level units down to about US$250 (Top-of-the-line models are about US$500 and CamTrakker offers a digital model that costs US$1,200).
Throughout my early years of wildlife photography, the thought of camera trapping had frequently crossed my mind. Finally, with many years of mechanical experience, I decided to build my own camera-traps. Using existing units as a model, I built a passive infrared camera-trap housed in a 6” x 6” tig-welded aluminum alloy box with a removable front cover. The camera-trap as an enclosed unit that is fixed to a tree using two stainless steel lag bolts contained within the box. A small bag of dessicant (silica gel) is set inside to protect the delicate electronics and camera from moisture, and the front cover is hermetically sealed using silicon sealant and stainless steel screws. The unit is elephant-proof that is very important in the forests I work in. Elephants destroy plastic camera-traps.
Tuskless bull elephant in Kaeng Krachan
Out of my home workshop, I was able to make these custom-built cameras for way less than half the price of imported commercial units. My very close friend Yutdhana Anantavara from Chiang Mai modified the cameras and installed the infrared electronic systems. This early work really helped me onto the road to successful home-made camera traps.
Feral cat camera trapped at my home in Chiang Mai
The first batch of prototype units employed several brands of ‘point-and-shoot’ cameras and different experimental housings. To evaluate each camera’s quality and reliability, I intensively tested each on the domestic cats that regularly walked on top of a wall behind my machine shop. Various films were tested but slide film at 400 ISO proved to produce the highest quality image.
My 1st camera trapped tiger in Sai Yok
To field test the new gear I took a trip to Sai Yok National Park in western Thailand. All of the cameras were placed along wildlife trails, waterholes and mineral licks. Over several months, the film was collected and developed. I was ecstatic when I saw two different tigers, an elephant, serow, muntjac, stumped-tailed macaque, bear, porcupine, water monitor, jungle fowl and wild pigs. The omnivores were the most frequently photographed and probably the tiger’s main prey species. A totally unexpected bonus was photographs of a few poachers.
Serow male camera trapped in Kaeng Krachan NP
Numerous camera trap surveys have been conducted in many of Thailand’s forests. A 2001 survey produced a photograph of a Siamese crocodile in Kaeng Krachan National Park. The croc was caught in broad daylight on a sandbar along the river. Park staff set cameras for a month along the Phetchaburi River. The amazing discovery of this very rare reptile has prompted more investigation into this endangered species. In 2003, I camera trapped a crocodile in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary.
Wild Siamese crocodile camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary
To analyze wildlife in a given area, researchers use two main techniques: a trail-based survey (where cameras are randomly placed along wildlife trails and roads covering 100 to 300 square kilometers) and a more intensive plot-based method. A smaller plot is chosen (usually 40-50 sq. kilometers) and a camera is placed in each one-kilometer grid. An area can eventually be exhaustively surveyed – the duration depending on the number of cameras used – to prove the presence or absence of tigers and other animals. The data then can be used for conservation management of the protected area.
Indochinese tiger abstract in Kaeng Krachan
Camera traps can reveal very disturbing information. Extensive surveys around Khao Yai National Park indicate that only two tigers survive. The patterns of tigers are as unique as human fingerprints so it is essential to get photos of both sides of each animal so that individuals can be identified. Researchers often set cameras on either side of a trail to capture both sides simultaneously. Khao Yai might have more tigers but the fact that only two individuals are confirmed is depressing. As of 2005, no tigers have been seen in intensive surveys carried out by Kate Jenks from the Smithonian Institute.
Indochinese tiger camera trapped abstract
Poachers have also been camera trapped here. Usually they walk obliviously past the camera but they sometimes damage or steal cameras. Elephants also destroy cameras, tearing the plastic commercial housings off the tree and smashing them or lobbing them into the bush. A Royal Forest Department researcher at Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in the deep south of Thailand found a unit damaged by elephants, but the camera was still working and developed the film. The last frame shows a very close view of an elephant’s trunk! Some researchers have built stronger steel boxes to protect the plastic units.
Buffy fish-owl landing by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan NP
My aluminum-cased camera-traps firmly bolted to a tree have survived many inquisitive elephants. However, they can be stolen or vandalized by determined people who do not want their photo taken. In May of 2005, I lost three cameras near the headwaters of the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park. Forest fires in the dry season destroy cameras. Insects will invade the interior of imperfectly sealed units, playing havoc with their operation. High humidity in the rainforest also damages electrical circuitry, cameras, film and batteries not protected by a well sealed unit and a small bag of moisture absorbing silica gel.
Infrared camera trapping has undoubtedly become a uniquely useful tool for conservation biologists. This ‘candid camera’ is also a blessing for wildlife photographers wanting images of rare and endangered animals. Who knows? In the future, a camera-trap could photograph a species new to science. I’m always excited when I get camera-trap film back from the lab. But the digital age had arrived. Film is being slowly phased out and digital cameras have now overtaken the market dominating it.
Asian Leopard hunting on old logging road in Kaeng Krachan NP
Wildlife Candid Camera: The Digital Age has arrived
LBK camera trap attached to a tree using Python locking cable
LBK camera trap with Yeticam board and Sony W7 in custom aluminum case
Digital camera traps have now become the new sensation, especially the home-brew (self-made) market. It is now a huge business with a few companies vying for market share. The most predominant are Snapshotsniper.com and Yeticam.com, and they offer parts (sensor boards, lens, battery packs, cases, etc.) to the home builder.
Very old bull gaur at a waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng WS
My friend Chris Wemmer, the ‘Cameratrap Codger’, was the first person to tell me about a new company in the US producing infrared circuit boards and other accessories for the home-brew camera trap market. The company is Pixcontroller.com. Unfortunately, they no longer offer parts but now sell completed units with digital camera and video.
Mature bull gaur at water hole
As a wildlife photographer, I decided to produce my own digital camera traps using passive infrared circuit boards acquired from the U.S., and digital cameras modified locally with housings and constructed from tig-welded aluminum alloy at my machine shop at home in Chiang Mai. The first cameras used Nikon L11 and L14 cameras and Snapshotsniper boards that were set-up in the forest of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province in Southwest Thailand over a three-month period in October to December 2008.
Asian tapir – mother and calf in Khlong Saeng WS, Southern Thailand
Animals captured were elephants, gaur, tiger, sambar and muntjac. One camera had over 300 captures in one month at a mineral deposit in the park.
Asian tapir calf in Khlong Saeng
Down in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the first part of 2009, I set both film and digital camera traps deep in the forest. Elephants, gaur, tapir, sambar, muntjac, golden cat and Argus pheasant were captured.
Tuskless bull elephant camera trapped at waterhole in Huai Kha Khaeng
I now have more than a dozen digital camera traps using primarily ‘Sony S600’ and W5-7 cameras, Snapshotsniper.com and Yeticam.com circuit boards.
Tusker elephant in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary
The Sony cameras have been the best and most durable due to the manual features like ISO and f.stop adjustments. Picture quality with the ‘Carl Zeiss’ lens is usually good.
A herd of wild pigs including a runt in Khlong Saeng
Camera trapping has allowed me the sheer pleasure of seeing Thailand’s amazing wildlife on both film and digital. As of this writing, I have expanded my camera trap fleet to more than 20 units and continue to run a trap-line in Sai Yok National Park. On my first setting in July 2011, I got a mature Gaur bull up a hill in the interior. Still waiting on a tiger.
A look at tiger and leopard evolution in Asia
At the beginning of the dry season in January, the jungle canopy is still mostly green but falling leaves begin to carpet the forest floor as the first cold snap arrives. Some species of trees start their transformation, producing a mosaic of yellows, oranges, reds, browns and greens. For the first few hours each morning, heavy fog blocks out the sun as moisture dissipates from the forest. The Phetchaburi River is crystal clear as it flows through this magnificent forest.
Indochinese tiger camera trapped by the Phetchaburi River
A large predator walks the trails seeking its next meal. Sensing danger, a muntjac barks a warning. The whole community of wild animals is on alert as macaques and langurs cry out from the trees above. A striped carnivore stalks a herd of wild pigs. The nervous omnivores squeal and panic, running through the underbrush to escape. But the big cat is lightning quick – it catches a young pig with sharp claws. The struggle is over in seconds as fangs penetrate to the spine.
Leopard camera-trapped on an old logging road
The tiger has just made a kill. It lifts the lifeless prey into deep cover and devours the carcass. After feeding, the big cat seeks water for a thirst quenching drink. It will then lie down and rest until the desire to eat or drink begins again. Tigers will sometimes move great distances in search of food. But where there is an abundance of prey species, these magnificent cats continue to live in balance with nature. The average kill ratio for a tiger is about twenty unsuccessful attempts for one actual kill. At a certain time of year, the male tiger will seek out a female to carry on his legacy.
Another tiger by the Phetchaburi River
Kaeng Krachan National Park is a great wilderness that sits in the Tenassarim Range in southwest Thailand. It is one of the most beautiful protected areas left in the country. Elephants, gaur, tiger, leopard, tapir, gibbons, hornbills and literally thousands of other plants and animals still survive in a rich ecosystem that is world class.
A tiger camera trapped at a mineral lick in Kaeng Krachan
To understand how the tiger and leopard evolved, we must go back to the beginning of these wild creatures. After the carnivorous dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago, mammals with sharp teeth, strong jaws and claws replaced them as the top land predators. The first successful mammalian carnivores were the Creodonts that evolved during the Eocene epoch 57-35 million years ago. Creodonts ranged in size from smaller than a weasel to as big as a bear. A bear-dog also evolved during this period. These carnivores all had voracious appetites that were satisfied by large concentrations of prey species, mainly the odd-toed and even-toed ungulates that browsed and grazed the lush forests and plains of the time. The early Creodonts evolved into the modern carnivores that we know today: the bears, cats, dogs and other predators.
Tiger camera trap abstract
The order Carnivora is separated into three superfamilies: The Arctoidea includes marten, weasel, badger, otter, bear and the panda; the Cynoidea are made up of the dog, fox and the wolf; and the Herpestoidea includes the mongoose, civet, hyena and the cat. Most carnivores are dedicated meat-eaters, but some groups such as civet, panda and bear are omnivorous, eating meat and plants.
Leopard camera trapped on a nature trail in the park
Nimravidae were the first cats to evolve in the Early Oligocene epoch, about 35 million years ago. They lasted till the Late Miocene, some eight million years ago, when huge grasslands had developed around the world. The large saber-toothed cats were the first of the family Felidae. These long-fanged felines evolved alongside huge herds of grazing mammals like antelope and cattle. There were several different species of saber-tooth, but they all became extinct about two to three million years ago.
Black leopard camera trapped on the main road in the park
Modern cats belong to the family Felidae and include: tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar, cougar and cheetah, and all the smaller cats such as lynx, bobcat, jungle cat, fishing cat to name just a few plus domestic cats. Wild carnivores feed almost exclusively on vertebrate prey and sit at the top of the food chain. Tiger and lion have few predators apart from man but a pack of wild dogs however are a constant threat to the large cats and their offspring. The tiger and leopard belong to the genus Panthera, or roaring cats, that include the lion and the jaguar.
Leopard camera trapped in the interior
Thousands of years ago when primitive humans lived off the land as hunters and gatherers, they survived by pure instinct. They killed animals for meat and skins, and also gathered many different tools and plants from the forests. As humans became more sophisticated, they used weapons to take down larger animals. Clubs, spears, knives, bow and arrows were all that separated them from almost certain death at the claws and jaws of a predator many times their size.
Black leopard camera trapped on an old logging road
The possibility of being eaten by a carnivore like a tiger or leopard must have been on everyone’s mind that lived in or near the wilderness. Entering the forest where every step could be the last was like walking a tightrope. Attack normally lasted only seconds as a huge predator pounced from behind, biting the neck and causing almost instant death. Very few people survive such an incident. It must have been a scary environment to live in.
The will to survive, however, was strong and men eventually conquered his fear of the wild cats with more modern weaponry. The tables had finally turned and the predators became the hunted. As human populations and settlements grew, the forests were quickly transformed into agricultural land.
An Indochinese tiger on the prowl at night by the Phetchaburi River
After firearms were invented, European royalty, native kings, landlords, planters, foresters, government officials and many adventurers journeyed to the forests of Asia in search of the tiger. Mostly, they came to prove their dominance over the big cat. A trophy of tiger on the wall or floor at home proved beyond doubt that the owner was the supreme species. One could boast of their prowess as a hunter.
But the fact is most hunters shot tigers and leopards from the safety of a tree-blind, vehicle or elephant back. The cats would be attracted to within gun range by cattle, buffalo or a goat used as bait. For special hunts, hundreds of local villagers were recruited as beaters, trackers and mahouts. To join a shikar (Indian word for the hunt) was the ultimate experience for the adventurous.
The same tiger as above a few moments later
More tigers have been killed for sport in India then anywhere else in the world. In the days of the Raj, it was common to see five, ten or twenty cats lying dead on the ground in front of a hunting party. The Maharajah of Surguja killed some 1,157 tigers during his reign. Some Englishmen claimed to have shot more than 100 tigers. Fortunately in 1972, the Indian government finally banned hunting because the tiger and many other species were threatened with extinction.
The most famous hunter ever to overcome his fear of the big Asian cats was Jim Corbett of India. From 1907 to 1939, he single-handedly dispatched scores of man-eating tigers and leopards. His book ‘Man-eaters of Kumaon’ is a classic. Some cats mentioned in the book had killed hundreds of people. Corbett National Park was established in his honor, and the Indo-Chinese subspecies of tiger Panthera tigris corbetti is named after him.
In Thailand, the tiger and the leopard were also hunted for sport but on a much smaller scale than in India. In the past, rural Thai people living near wilderness areas built houses high off the ground that protected them during the night. But daytime was another thing. If they worked in fields bordering thick jungle or they went into the forest, they risked their lives.
At the turn of the 20th Century as modern firearms, agriculture and transportation took hold in the Kingdom, the forests and wildlife began to disappear. Man-eaters also declined. However, during World War II along the death railway in the Sai Yok district of Kanchanaburi province there were still accounts of man-eating cats. In recent times, there has been no such record. From time to time, domestic cattle are still killed by a tiger or leopard but this is now very rare. Low wildlife densities in the forest and easy prey are the main reason for this occurrence.
Thailand is fortunate in that tiger and leopard plus another seven species of cat still survive in some of the larger national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Kaeng Krachan National Park is one of those protected areas that still harbor the big cats. Tigers can and do kill the leopard. Although their paths do cross, normally the spotted cat will avoid the striped predator. Documentary accounts and photographs do exist of tigers eating leopards.
In 2002-2003 while carrying out camera trap work in Kaeng Krachan in cooperation with the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, I was surprised and elated to see both species tripping the same cameras in several areas only days apart. In one month, four different leopards, one of them black, were caught on film. In the following month, a leopard was caught during the day, and a huge male tiger stopped and posed for the camera. Both species were using the same trail for their hunting forays. A few other protected areas like Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries have records of overlapping.
In Kaeng Krachan, an important discovery is that tiger and leopard hunt at all times during the day. It is usually thought they are only active in the late afternoon and throughout the night preferring to rest during the day. More research is required if we are to determine the pattern of daytime hunting by the big cats here. It is probably due to the pristine state of this forest and the lack of human activity.
Without doubt, the future of the big cats 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 overdevelopment and encroachment is allowed to continue, these magnificent animals will eventually disappear.
Unfortunately, too much time and money is wasted by too many organizations talking about saving the tiger and other wildlife, with very little actually being done. Human population growth will eventually destroy most wild places. Only true protection by a few dedicated people will slow the destruction of nature’s precious wildlife and wilderness areas. It is only hoped that the tiger and leopard will continue to survive as they have for millions of years.
Leopard – Panthera pardus
The leopard is closely related to the jaguar of South America. Both have a spotted coat pattern, incidence of melanism (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. These secretive cats are mainly nocturnal. Their populations and ranges are difficult to determine but radio tracking of collared animals has shed new light on their movements and area they live in. ‘Spots’ is more tolerable to humans and their settlements.
Tiger – Panthera tigris
According to fossil evidence Panthera cats branched from the other Felidae about five million years ago in Asia. The first tigers originated in eastern China. Fossils of the earliest tigers date back to the Pleistocene epoch, about 1.6 to two million years ago, have been found in Henan, southeast China, and on the island of Java in Indonesia. The historic range of the tiger covered much of Asia and some of its islands.
However, humans have had an enormous impact on the geographic range of the species. The big cat only survives in 13 countries: Russia, China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The present range is less than five percent of the tiger’s former range. There are less than 5,000 tigers left in the wild.
A World Heritage Site in the Northeast
Khao Yai – ‘The Big Mountain’
The concept of parks or wildlife sanctuaries in Siam dates back to the 13th century Sukhothai Period during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great who created a park known as ‘Dong Tan’ used for royal recreation and preservation. The people were also encouraged to set-up parks around Buddhist temples and other religious sites because it was against Buddhist strictures to take a life and hence all parks were havens of safety for the animals of the forests. However, from the end of the Sukhothai Period to the 19thCentury, parks and conservation declined.
Haew Narok Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park
The Royal Forest Department (RFD) was established in 1896, introducing modern management practices to forestry, especially the teak industry. However, conservation fields were not addressed in the beginning. In 1900, the first law protecting animals was the Law Governing Conservation of Wild Elephants, and thus elephants became the first species protected by a law. In 1921, the law was amended, which superseded the previous act providing better protection.
Haew Suwat Waterfall in Khao Yai
Then in 1943, the RFD began turning its attention to conservation and efforts to manage certain forests for the public’s recreational use. The department established Phu Kradueng National Park in Loei province. However, due to World War II and very limited budgets and trained personnel, the park project was shelved.
Tusker in a mineral lick close to the road in Khao Yai
In 1959, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, Thailand’s prime minister, voiced his opinion about protecting some of the immense forests that existed in the Kingdom at the time. He made several inspection tours into the wild areas of the North and Northeast, and became impressed with the natural resources. His idea was to establish reserved areas much like Yellowstone National Park in the US and Kruger National Park in South Africa. His foresight has developed into one of the largest concentrations of protected areas in the world. At last count, there are more than 260 national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, non-hunting areas and marine national parks, plus 1,221 reserved forests situated throughout Thailand.
Tusker near the road
Sarit’s fascination with nature prompted him to establish the National Parks Committee and the Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Committee to hash out necessary protective management plans, and to select pristine wilderness areas suitable for preservation. The first new step to conserving wildlife was the enactment of the Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Act of 1960. The next law passed by legislation was the National Park Act of 1961, which really got the ball rolling. By Royal Decree, on September 18, 1962, the 2,165km2 Khao Yai National Park was appointed, becoming the nation’s first national park, thanks to Sarit and many others.
Muntjac munching on leaves by the road
The core group was made up of General Surajit Jarusaraenee, the Minister of Agriculture and General Prapas Jarusatien, who was the Minister of Interior, along with Chalerm Siriwan, the director general of the RFD and Pramual Unhanand, who was the director of the Bureau of Silviculture under the RFD. The first chief of the park was Boonlueng Saisorn. One man who was also involved in the establishment was Dr Boonsong Lekagul, who was the executive-director of the Association for the Conservation of Wildlife that was actually started up in 1951.
Muntjac male by the road in the park
Dr Boonsong, a well-to-do Thai medical physician, was also a hunter and biologist. He published scores of scientific papers and books on mammals, birds and butterflies found in Thailand. His enormous contribution to natural science was the first stepping-stone to knowledge of the natural world and a better understanding about Thai fauna. Dr Boonsong also collected wildlife specimens to document as many species as possible. He certainly made an impact on the movement of wildlife conservation.
Sambar stag in the campground
Dr George C. Ruhle, an American national park expert from the U.S. National Park Service did a survey in 1959-1960 and a report in 1964 for the ‘International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN), and the American Committee for International Wildlife Protection’ about the forests. This work contributed to a greater understanding of Thailand’s natural heritage. He made many treks into the wilderness areas of Khao Yai, Thung Salaeng Luang and Doi Inthanon plus many others, and was instrumental in some of the first ‘national parks management plans’ that were to follow.
Banded Kingfisher by the campgrounds
After World War II, about 70 percent of the country was still covered in thick vegetation with an amazing array of wild animals and ecosystems. The first big area to be acknowledged was the primaeval contiguous forest once known as Dong Phaya Fai (or “Jungle of Fire”). This remarkable wilderness stretched from the lower Northeast all the way into Cambodia, and north to parts of the Central and north-Northeast regions. These mountain formations were created during continental uplift about 60 million years ago when the Indian Plate crashed into the Himalayas.
Pig-tailed macaque by the road
Kouprey, a rare wild cattle and now most likely extinct, lived in parts of this great forest. Large tigers preyed on abundant deer and other ungulate species that proliferated in the deep jungle. Smaller species, including clouded leopard, sun bear, gibbons, hornbills as well as many others were common. It was an impenetrable and dangerous place due to the steep mountainous terrain where no roads existed. Very few humans lived in the depths of this once great biosphere. Malaria and fierce creatures reigned supreme.
Great hornbill a its nest by the road
Before Khao Yai was formed, settlers and outlaws used slash-and-burn agriculture in the mountains, creating huge grasslands around the present-day headquarters area. Many of these people were evading the police, but they were evicted after the park was established. The government decided to establish a golf course on the grassland and bungalows to generate income, which was run by the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT). Back in the mid-1970s, I actually played golf on the links when it was opened to visitors. It was amazing seeing all those wild animals crossing the fairways. However, the “rough” was jungle, and if you did not hit the ball straight and true, it was a goner! It was a tough course to play on and I lost quite a few balls. It was, however, finally closed in 1991 at the urging of the Anand Panyarachun government.
Male muntjac jumping in front of a motorcycle at khao Khiew
In 1955, a road (Mittraphap Highway: Saraburi to Nakhon Ratchasima) was cut through the forest to facilitate the US military machine at the airbases in Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchathani provinces, as well as Phanom Sarakham district in Chachoengsao province in the Northeast. Later, another road separating Khao Yai and Thap Lan (Route 304: Kabin Buri to Pak Thong Chai) was constructed.
Muntjac jumping 2
These roads basically cut all migration routes of elephant, gaur, banteng and other large mammals established over thousands of years, and opened up virgin forest to settlement. In the meantime, Khao Yai was being encroached on from all sides and can be seen today as resorts, golf courses and agriculture that completely surrounded the park.
Muntjac jumping 3
Khao Yai (“Big Mountain” in English) is part of the Dong Phaya Yen-Khao Yai forest complex covering 6,152km2, and is also Thailand’s second World Heritage Site, which was granted on July 14, 2005 by Unesco. The complex is comprised of five protected areas – Khao Yai, Thap Lan (1981, 2,235km2), Pang Sida (1982, 844km2) and Ta Phraya (1996, 594km2) national parks, and Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary (1996, 312km2).
Tusker and tourist bus on the road – a dangerous situation
Khao Yai is Thailand’s third largest national park and covers four provinces including Saraburi, Nakhon Nayok, Prachin Buri and Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat). It incorporates parts of the Sankampaeng range made up of shale and sandstone at the south-east edge of the Khorat Plateau. The highest peak is Khao Rom at 1,365m and vegetation includes moist evergreen, dry evergreen, hill evergreen, mixed deciduous, dry dipterocarp, secondary forest and grassland. Some formations in the park go back more than 100 million years when dinosaurs roamed here. One set of dinosaur footprints has been found in Khao Yai on an isolated slab of red sandstone by the banks of the Sai Yai River. Some dinosaur fossils have been found close by in Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks to the east.
Tusker on the road in the late afternoon
Today, elephants, gaur, sambar and muntjac (common barking deer) are still common, but unfortunately, only survive around the Khao Yai headquarters area for about 300km2. Years and years of degradation and poaching have taken its toll imploding towards the centre. Very few animals or birds survive in the outlying areas after many wildlife surveys done by various organisations and individuals came up with data to confirm the void. Even though Khao Yai was the first national park, it certainly has been devastated by years of minimal protective management and prolonged encroachment and poaching.
Tusker charging my truck – reverse was the only option
However, much research, training and management planning has been carried out in Khao Yai, primarily around the headquarters area. One of the first people in 1975 was Dr Chumphon Ngampongsai, who studied habitat relation of the sambar. Secondly, Dr Warren Brockelman of the US and some of his students from Mahidol University have conducted what is now the longest primate study in the world at “Mo Singto Forest Dynamics Plot” of the intricate lives and habitats of both white-handed and pileated gibbons that live together and sometimes produce a hybrid of the two species.
Philip D. Round and George Gale also carried out a bird survey in the plot. In 1978, a hornbill ecology research team under Dr Pilai Poonswad began hornbill surveys and helped increase nest sites. In the 1980s, Dr Surachet Chettamas from Kasetsart University wrote a Khao Yai park and recreation management plan, and Robert Dobias from the US also did planning at that time.
In the late-1990s, a master student, Sean C. Austin from New Mexico State University, did a survey for sympatric carnivores such as the leopard cat, clouded leopard, Asian wild dog and binturong, as well as radio-collared quite a few of them. He also used camera trap technology to build up a database.
In 1999, “Wild Aid”, now known as “Freeland”, started the Khao Yai Conservation Project including community outreach, wildlife monitoring, ranger training and park management in partnership with the Department of National Parks, and the Wildlife Conservation Society who did camera trapping and managed to catch a few tigers on film plus a multitude of other creatures.
Wild Aid also set up a team to monitor the park’s wild elephants and provided some equipment to the rangers. Another master student, Kate Jenks, from the Smithsonian Institute carried out a camera trap programme that involved an attempt to photograph carnivores in conjunction with Wild Aid from 2004 to 2007. Sadly, she camera trapped no tigers during the program but did record one set of tiger footprints in 2005.
Dr Naris Bhumpakphan of Kasetsart University sent master student Preecha Prommakul to monitor and camera-trap tigers in Khao Yai, but with a lack of data, the program was shelved. Preecha did, however, see a set of tracks around the back of a camera trap, indicating a tiger was possibly avoiding the traps.
Unfortunately, it looks as though the tiger has probably disappeared from the park. These magnificent cats have not been seen or recorded for some time now and no camera trap photos have been collected of tigers since 2001. However, reports of sightings and tracks do come in from time to time, but these are now rare. If leopards once thrived here, it was a long time ago.
Asian wild dogs are now at the top of the food chain. A large pack of more than 20 dogs devouring a sambar in one hour has been observed by a tour guide and the rangers. These pack animals are ferocious carnivores and once a feeding frenzy has begun, it’s every dog for itself. They have been consistently seen and photographed around the headquarters area.
Khao Yai is one of the best places to see wild elephants up close during the day or night. These giants can be seen along the road down to Nakhon Nayok, but from the safety of one’s motor vehicle. They also can be seen at the mineral licks set up on the grasslands. It is definitely recommended not to exit your car and strike out on foot as the elephants can become irritated and things could get dangerous, especially an encounter with a bull in musth, or a mother with a baby. Bull elephants in the park have killed several Buddhist monks in the forest meditating.
A birdwatcher friend of mine took his family out one night and was surrounded by a herd of elephants on the road. These gentle giants dented his van, costing him thousands of baht in repairs, and scaring the heck out of them while they sat motionlessly waiting for the herd to pass.
The most famous waterfalls in Khao Yai are Haew Narok, which takes a hike of about one kilometre and Haew Suwat, not far from the road. During the rainy season all of the rivers in the park become raging torrents. Quite a few elephants have been washed over the falls at Haew Narok and killed during heavy rain with swollen rivers. A temporary ranger station has been set up to ward off any elephants trying to cross during a heavy surge. There are more than a dozen marked nature trails covering about 50km for the adventurous type, but it is advised to hire a guide from the park as some are ever-changing and one could get lost in the dense forests.
During the rainy season, leeches and malaria mosquitoes are a problem. During the dry season, ticks can be irritating and dangerous to one’s health as some carry diseases. Insect repellent, leech socks and heavy clothing are the best way to ward off the bothersome creatures. But seeing the exotic mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies and other insects in their natural habitats, plus the beautiful flora is still quite good and worth the effort.
The best time to visit is during midweek. Make your bookings in advance with the department’s online website for accommodations. Food and services are good but close shop at around 6pm. One of the biggest problems facing Khao Yai is the over-abundance of visitors during the holidays and long weekends, plus excessive spotlighting during these times. There is quite a large number of buildings, bungalows and campsites, and rubbish can be a problem for the park.
Many deer and other animals have perished from foam and plastic intact by eating discarded food containers. Khao Yai as Thailand’s first national park should be a role model for all other conservation areas. Given this important heritage, increased efforts by those responsible need to be made to save this magnificent biosphere. It is a fact that, with good protection, animals and plants will make a comeback. The park has the potential and we the people need to ensure its future survival.
Thailand’s top protected area in the central-west
Black leopard in the afternoon sun showing its spots
Mist hangs in the air early one morning as a green peafowl calls from up-river. A male bird, its long tail feathers glistening in the early sun, struts across a sandbar looking for something to eat. A pair of wreathed hornbills fly into a fruiting fig tree and two white-winged ducks honk as they wing past Khao Ban Dai ranger station deep in the interior of Thailand’s top protected area.
Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, which covers some 2,780 square kilometers (1,073 square miles) of mountainous forest in Uthai Thani province in the western central plains, is one of the greatest biospheres on the planet. Its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is well deserved. The river named Huai Kha Khaeng flows through the middle of the sanctuary for about 100 kilometers before joining the Khwae Yai River further south. This riverine habitat has an unmatched biodiversity with many tributary streams that course through hilly woodland. Thousands of plants and animals thrive here, and the sanctuary is truly a tribute to the Kingdom’s natural heritage.
Tuskless bull elephant at a mineral deposit
Deciduous and hill evergreen forest make up most of this forest. Thousands of insect species thrive and the bird life is exceptional. There are an incredible 22 woodpecker species including the white-bellied and great slaty, the largest of the “Old World” woodpeckers – one of the highest densities in the world for comparable areas. Hornbills and fish-eagles are also found along the river, and all up there are more than 350 recorded bird species.
Banteng cows at a waterhole
Thailand’s largest bird, the green peafowl is now rare and found only in a few locations in the Kingdom. It is the most spectacular of all Thai birds, especially in November when the breeding season begins. The magnificent tail feather display when the male walks along the river is really something to see. The call of a male peafowl is truly inspirational, and its feathers a beautiful translucent green color. These birds still thrive in the deciduous and bamboo thickets along the river and in the interior, and this sanctuary has the one of the last and largest wild concentration of this species in the world.
Banteng bull by Huai Mae Dee, a tributary of Huai Kha Khaeng
Mammals from elephants to treeshrews survive in good numbers in most areas of the sanctuary. Due to an incredible amount of prey animals like deer, wild pig and cattle, the tiger, leopard and Asian wild dog thrive in good numbers too. There are eight species of cat from the tiger down to the little leopard cat, plus another eight species of civet. Three species of wild bovid including gaur, banteng and wild water buffalo are here, probably the only place in the world where this occurs.
Banteng herd including a big bull, cows and calves
Probably, the most significant species in the protected area is the buffalo. This is the last wild herd in the Kingdom, and Southeast Asia for that matter. Centuries ago, wild water buffalo were found in many forests and rivers. A mature bull can weigh up to a ton and have hooves eight inches (20cm) across. They leave deep tracks in the sandy soil along the river. These magnificent bovid are much larger and more aggressive than their domestic counterparts. Wild buffalo have a distinct forehead with horn bases closer together than domestic buffalo, whose boss is wider. Wild buffalo have a fierce temperament and will group together in the herd to face a predator like a tiger or Asian wild dog. Male solitary bulls will charge without hesitation. Many a hunter has had a close call or been killed by these massive low-slung beasts.
Wild water buffalo cow charging my boat-blind
Due to a very small population of just 50 or so individuals, the future of the wild water buffalo in Thailand is uncertain. Many dangers threaten them, such as foot and mouth disease, which could easily be passed on by domesticated buffalo living just outside the southern border of the sanctuary. In the past, local villagers have deliberately mingled their buffalo with the wild herd so that the offspring would be sturdy. Also, a few solitary bulls have come out of the sanctuary looking for females in heat. This is a very dangerous situation, which if not checked, could lead to a decline of all the classic herbivores in Huai Kha Khaeng. The southern border at Krueng Krai ranger station remains a gateway for danger and must be protected at all costs.
Wild water buffalo herd in Huai Kha Khaeng
Carnivores such as tiger and leopard are common in the interior, as are the herbivores. The balance of nature is played out everyday where “eat or be eaten” is the norm. Vultures were once found here but have virtually disappeared from Thailand’s skies primarily due to people poisoning carcasses. Illegal poaching, logging and gathering of forest products still occurs on a small scale and is a constant drain on all the species of flora and fauna.
Indochinese tiger at a waterhole deep in the interior
Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary is part of the ‘Western Forest Complex’, the largest forested area in Southeast Asia, which covers some 15,000 square kilometers (5800 sq. miles). All the protected areas are the responsibility of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation. Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary to the west is also a World Heritage Site and forms a continuous forest with Huai Kha Khaeng.
Seub Nakhasathien – Thailand’s hero of wildlife conservation
There are many heroes of the past but one-man – Seub Nakhasathien – stands out. Seub gave his life for Huai Kha Khaeng and the nature conservation movement. In September 1990, this dedicated ranger, who fought hard for the rights of wild flora and fauna, took his own life at the headquarters area. A large bronze statue has been built close to his house in his honor, and is now his spiritual home. Many people flock to this magic place, including myself, to pay homage to him.
Oriental darter drying its wings in the morning sun
Seub helped to propose Huai Kha Khaeng as a World Heritage Site, along with Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary to the west. But he did not live long enough to see the proposal accepted. Together, the two sanctuaries help protect 6,427 square kilometers (2,481 square miles) of pristine wildlife habitat. They make up one of the finest and largest protected areas in Southeast Asia. The flora and fauna of this area includes an exceptional number of species from four bio-geographic zones – Sino-Himalayan, Sundaic, Indo-Burmese and Indo-Chinese, with significant habitat diversity.
The author in an old boat-blind after wild water buffalo
Four or five years ago, the department built a huge visitor center and three VIP bungalows at Khao Ban Dai. More than one hundred construction workers camped out here and materials were trucked into the location. Construction took more than a year. During and just after the completion of these buildings, I made many trips to the station only to find out that green peafowl and many other creatures normally seen had disappeared, or it seemed that way. Last month, I made a trip to Khao Ban Dai and it was an inspiration to see that green peafowl, wreathed hornbills, fish-eagles, banteng, gaur have returned to this magnificent natural paradise. It means, increase protection and patrols by the DNP are really working over the long run.
However, the importance of saving Huai Kha Khaeng for future generations cannot be stressed enough. It is hoped that management of the protected area will continue to improve, and government funding will also increase. More personnel are needed to take care of these valuable places. As it stands, budgets have been consistently slashed across the board for all protected areas over the last few years by bean counters. The department’s old policies need to be improved, and a constant watch kept for corruption – it can be tough to prevent. Only time will tell if Huai Kha Khaeng can survive such threats.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD:
In December 2008 when the first cold snap arrives, I was fortunate to visit Huai Kha Khaeng for a week or so. The dry season had begun and dead leaves carpeted the forest floor. Along Huai Mae Dee, the largest tributary of Huai Kha Khaeng, several wildlife-viewing platforms have been erected allowing rangers and researchers to do surveys, and wildlife photographers a chance to photograph the magnificent wildlife thriving here including elephant, banteng, gaur, sambar, muntjac, and very occasionally a tiger or leopard. Other creatures like macaque monkeys, green peafowl, yellow-throated martin and many other smaller animals are also seen here.
Tuskless bull elephant in the afternoon sun
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I awoke early, ate breakfast and drove some 8 kilometers to the trail leading down to the photo-blind. As I walked down the trail about 6am, I came upon a large pile of fresh elephant dung that had just been deposited. A large solitary bull elephant was close by. I hesitated, but carried on feeling lucky that I would not bump into him. I reached the blind and began climbing up the ladder when a rung gave way and I fell through. When the smoke cleared, I had broken two ribs. I then picked up my cameras and other equipment and managed to climb up crossing over where the third rung had been.
I then settled in the blind with my cameras facing across the river at the mineral deposit (commonly called salt lick). Many creatures come to these natural seeps for the life giving minerals. After waiting all day, at about 4:30pm, a large tusk-less bull elephant stepped out of the forest in beautiful afternoon light and crossed the river just 20 meters from where I was. He then headed down river and I gave out a sigh of relief. Loners like this old boy (estimated about 40 years old) are sometimes very aggressive to anything it senses as a threat. It has become difficult to get good photographs due to their elusive nature. Our paths crossed very briefly and I feel privileged to have seen and photographed this magnificent wild elephant.