Land of the Argus Pheasant

Thursday, September 24, 2015posted by Bruce 4:08 PM

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…!



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