Sambar: Thailand’s largest Cervidae

Thursday, February 3, 2011posted by Bruce 7:30 AM

WILD SPECIES REPORT: Majestic Asian deer and even-toed ungulate

Important prey species of the tiger and leopard

Sambar doe and yearling drinking from the Huai Kha Khaeng waterway

A mature sambar stag, Thailand’s largest deer with a heavy antler rack, barks a loud warning and stamps its front feet on the ground alerting all the denizens a predator is nearby. The pungent smell of a tiger floats through the forest, and animals within audible range are now on hi-alert. But the big cat is lightning fast and takes a young sambar doe from the herd that is perfect for a meal. Leaf monkeys squeal, squirrels chatter and birds call from the treetops. It is panic on the ground as the deer bolt in all directions.

But this is just the cycle of life that has gone for millions of years. One animal is sacrificed for the other to survive. Deer play a very important part in the prey-predator relationship for without them, the tiger would struggle to live and carry on its legacy as the largest cat in the world. Carnivores thrive if there are abundant prey animals to hunt.

Sambar yearling in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary

Unfortunately in most parts of the country, the human being has eradicated sambar and other animal species like wild pig and common barking deer in man’s utter struggle to live. This has up-set the balance of nature. The big cats have also almost disappeared and as of a consequence, are now on the brink of extinction.

Wild animals and their ecosystems are under constant threat as the population expands further into the last vestiges of Thailand’s great natural heritage. At one time, the country was almost completely covered by vast expanses of virgin forests where sambar and other ungulates plus predators lived in complete harmony. That has all changed now and only a few large protected areas can boast that these big deer, or the tiger for that matter, still live in the interior.

Sambar stag after a mud bath in Huai Kha Khaeng

In any given forest, sambar was one of the first animals to disappear when man began cutting down forests to grow agriculture and build settlements. These deer were taken for meat, and their hides were shipped to Japan for ‘Samurai armor’ back before the turn of the 19th Century, and then for military equipment all the way up to just before World War Two. Literally millions of hides were exported and this had a serious effect on all the deer species.

It was a big business at the time and as an outcome, the other large cervids such as Schomburgk’s deer that has been globally extinct since the 1930s plus hog deer and Eld’s deer disappeared from the wild of Thailand. Sambar were more numerous and preferring deep forest, prevailed slightly better.

Sambar stag during the rut in Huai Kha Khaeng

Fossil evidence suggests that sambar evolved sometime during the Quaternary Period from large ungulates living on the huge plains of Asia at the time. The saber-toothed cat was one of the main carnivores that thrived on these hoofed animals.

My very first encounter with sambar was almost 15 years ago when I began photographing wildlife in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Sambar was seen everyday crossing the river from Khao Ban Dai ranger station at the confluence of the Huai Kha Khaeng and Huai Mae Dee waterways. I was able to catch them on film fairly easily, especially at the mineral licks found by the river.

Sambar stag on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng

Some ten years ago, a large complex was built at Khao Ban Dai for VIPs including a huge visitor center plus three bungalows. Wildlife numbers dropped dramatically in the area due to the construction and the amount of labor numbering about 100 men and women that stayed on location for almost a year. Peafowl also disappeared.

Happily, the area around Khao Ban Dai has now begun to return to somewhat normal after observingthe chain of events and making regular visits to the station over the last few years. Sambar, wild pig, muntjac and green peafowl on occasion are seen on the sandbars during the early morning and late afternoon. Evidence of tigers and leopards from camera-traps now show these carnivores are roaming here once again but this is also probably due to its remoteness. Wildlife is making a slow comeback here.

Huai Kha Khaeng – Huai Mae Dee junction

Down in the southern section of Huai Kha Khaeng however, sambar is still quite abundant. One frosty morning about 8am as I was sitting in my boat-blind waiting for wild water buffalo to come to the river, a sambar doe and several of her offspring popped out of the forest for refreshing drinks about four meters away. I had no other option than to take a head shot of them at the water’s edge as seen in the lead photograph. It was exciting to say the least and it took her a few moments to recognize the strange anomaly by the shoreline. She barked a warning at me and at that distance was extremely loud actually making me jump. The huge doe then crashed into the forest followed by the younger deer.

With increased protection, wild animals will survive as long as visitation by documentary film crews, scientific groups, nature lovers and tourists is kept reasonable or on a very limited scale. However, on many occasions large official and influential groups or research parties make their way into some of the very restricted protected areas and hold drinking sessions that carrying on into the wee hours of the morning while running the generator so ‘World Cup or soap operas’ can be watched on satellite TV.

Sambar yearling in Huai Kha Khaeng

Off-road groups still plow into some wildlife sanctuaries because the road conditions are the toughest in the country but these thrill-seekers who are usually connected, don’t care what damage they cause. The roads then become difficult to transverse created by their highly modified off-road vehicles that makes it doubly tough for the patrol rangers who have standard 4X4 trucks.

Over-visitation by the human element is like the plague as seen in many parks around the country with no limitation on vehicles and visitors with their  ‘tent cities’ especially during the holidays. All of this of course is damaging but carries on for the prominent and connected, and surely has an affect disturbing the wildlife and ecosystem. A serious look into this behavior should be brought to the forefront. The term ‘double standard’ is also practiced in many reserves by some officials and will be difficult to stamp out.

Sambar stag in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

So with all this in mind, it should also be said that the situation on the ground with the forest rangers is still a long way from being good, and is definitely detrimental to good protection and enforcement. The age-old problem of the temporary rangers not receiving any pay for three to four months every year still exists. After visiting several protected areas in the east, west and south over the last few months, the first thing one hears is “no-pay” from October to late January and sometimes beyond due to a glitch in the system, or the so-called lack of a budget.

This phenomenon is not fully understood but it is basically against human rights when someone is employed and not paid especially around the New Year. People really need money at this time. In the last 15 years that I have worked and been around these rangers, it is still very disturbing that the ‘powers-to-be’ continue to overlook this very basic need. Some of these rangers then resort to beg, borrow and steal to survive. Many are in serious debt and struggle with moneylenders. Some commit wildlife crimes to get ahead.

Sambar herd, jungle fowl and crow in Khao Yai National Park

A close friend of mine who retired as chief from a large protected area in southwest Thailand set aside a special fund from his yearly budget to pay the rangers when the money did not arrive from the finance ministry. He also charged no interest when the money was paid back. These men had the highest esteem for this superintendent who really took care of his staff in times of need, and in turn these dedicated patrol rangers made a special effort to take care of this forest that actually flourished.

I know because I was on the ground then and caught many rare creatures like tiger, leopard, fishing cat, sun bear, banded linsang, banteng, gaur, Siamese crocodile plus many others on camera-trap and through the lens. It was truly an exciting experience seeing all these remarkable creatures living as Mother Nature intended.

Sambar doe and fawn in Huai Kha Khaeng

This system should be implemented by all the superintendants in the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Another option is to make all temporary hired rangers permanent staff so they at least they get paid on time for work rendered. But even permanent staff is now experiencing half payment. Under these circumstances how can anyone have incentive to go into the dangerous environment of the forest where poachers with guns shoot to kill? These men also have very poor insurance coverage.

It is hoped someone will take action to help these brave forest rangers that are probably the most important key to good protection and enforcement of Thailand’s natural heritage. For without them, sambar and all the other wonderful wild creatures in the Kingdom are in serious jeopardy. Pressure needs to be exerted from the Thai media so this draconian problem of ‘no pay for months’ on end will cease to exist.

Sambar doe in Sai Yok National Park

Sambar Ecology:

Sambar Cervus unicolor is a terrestrial mammal of the order Artiodactyla, or even-toed ungulate with two functional hoofed toes and two dew toes on each foot. These large deer have a four-chambered stomach and feed on plant material. Food is partially digested in the stomach and then brought back up into the mouth again for further chewing, to increase the amount of nutrition that can be obtained from grasses and leaves. As ruminants, this permits large amounts of food to be ingested quickly before moving to sheltered places for chewing, and better protection against predators.

Stags can weigh more than 500 kilograms and attain a height of 102 to 160 cm at the shoulder. They have long legs and can run at a fast pace to evade large carnivores. With their formidable antlers that can exceed a length of over a 100 cm, they are extremely dangerous to man when a male sambar has been wounded.

The coat is dark brown with chestnut marks on the rump and under parts. These cervids live primarily in woodland and feed on a variety of vegetation, including grasses, foliage, browse, fruit and water plants. Sambar is found in habitats ranging from tropical seasonal forests (dry forests and seasonal moist evergreen forests), subtropical mixed forests (conifers, broadleaf deciduous, and broadleaf evergreen tree species) to tropical rainforests.

They are seldom far from water and, although primarily of the tropics, are hardy and may range from sea level up to high elevations such as the pine and oak forests on the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. They also live in montane mixed forests and grassland habitats at high elevations in the mountains of Northern Thailand.

Sambar needs serious protection to survive into the future. Good protective management with an increase in budget and personnel is needed. A true ranger training school with instructors from the National Parks department, Border Patrol Police, Special Forces, Navy Seals and an NGO like Freeland should be established somewhere in the central provinces away from any national park and all its distractions of over-visitation.

Also, it will provide easy access and distribution for new recruits who graduate as permanent rangers. Temporary rangers can also come and train, and then also become permanently employed. The day this happens will be a step in the right direction for wildlife conservation in the Kingdom.

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