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Thailand’s Big Seven

Saturday, February 26, 2011 posted by Bruce 8:22 PM


Elephant, gaur, wild water buffalo, banteng, tapir, tiger and leopard

Large Mammals in the Kingdom and the amazing biodiversity of Asian mega-fauna

Asian tapir camera-trapped in Huai Kha Khaeng

The term Big Five has always been recognized as an African thing with elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard making up the group. In fact, the hippo and the Nile crocodile should also be included as the most awesome animals on the African Continent. These large creatures have always fascinated people interested in nature.

The Big Five was hunting terminology for bagging these beautiful creatures with a gun, and then showing off the trophies and hunting photographs in their homes or offices to family, friends and associates. To come face to face with these sometimes ill-tempered beasts, mostly on the ground, was the ultimate test for the affluent hunters who visited Africa, and was the Holy Grail if they managed to bag all of them, so to say.

Young bull gaur in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary

The ‘black-mane lion’ of the Maasai Mara in Kenya was one of the most sought after trophies and at the top of the sportsman’s list. However, hunting and killing of wild animals has somewhat gone out of fashion for most people around the world but it does continue on a limited scale. Those countries in Africa that still allow the huntsman an opportunity to take a trophy are few, and the cost is astronomically expensive plus the negative aspect of the sport, and the killing of these big beasts.

Last year I made a trip to Kenya and managed to bag the Big Five photographically. It was an amazing experience that is etched in memory. But it was from the safety of a safari van as the regulations in the parks and reserves are very strict about leaving the vehicle. But the thrill of seeing and photographing Africa’s wild mammals, birds and reptiles is an amazing experience, and one I recommend to anyone interested is seeing or photographing nature up close.

Bull elephant in Sai Yok National Park

Southeast Asia is also one of the world’s great wildlife treasure houses and maybe not as large or grand as Africa, Thailand’s Big Seven still flourish in a few of the larger protected areas in the Kingdom. This includes elephant, gaur, wild water buffalo, banteng, tapir, tiger and leopard. There is only one place on the planet that has all seven and that is Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Uthai Thani province in the central-west.

A hundred years ago, two species of rhinoceros (Javan and Sumatran) were found in the large forests around the country but unfortunately were completely decimated before the protected areas came into being. A short fifty years ago when Khao Yai National Park was established, the last few stragglers were hunted down and that was the end of rhino in Thailand. Killed for their horns and sold to Chinese medicine dealers and Arab knife makers (used for dagger handles), it was a sad ending to some very captivating mega-fauna.

Banteng bull in Huai Kha Khaeng

Someone in Huai Kha Khaeng once coined the phrase Thailand’s Big Seven and at one time, there were loads of photographs of all these beautiful animals from the sanctuary all over the walls at the Seub Nakhasathien meeting hall in the headquarters. Most of the original photos are now gone but time does moves on. Most up on the walls now are of conservation and research projects, and rangers at work that is also good. Many school children come to this retreat to pay respect to Seub at his spiritual home, and to learn about nature and his life, and the sacrifice he made for Thailand.

After 15 years of visiting and photographing wildlife here including the Big Seven on film and digital, I can say this place is the Kingdom’s finest protected area. The sanctuary is without doubt, one of the best wildlife havens in Southeast Asia, and the world for that matter. However, other parks and sanctuaries have some of the Big Seven but are lacking the buffalo.

Wild water buffalo cows in Huai Kha Khaeng

After publishing individual Wildlife Species Reports in the Bangkok Post on all theses animals over the last couple of years, an up-dated review is warranted. As we forge ahead into the 21st Century, it is apparent these marvelous creatures and protected areas are under serious threat. The more people at all levels of society are educated about Thailand’s natural resources, the better the chances for survival into the future.

Indochinese tiger in Huai Kha Khaeng

This should be the highest priority for the government and private sector. Old out-dated laws and regulations are hampering conservation efforts and need a serious revamp. Wildlife crime is on the increase and concerted efforts to improve protection and enforcement is unfortunately, a bit slow in coming.

Leopard camera-trapped in Kaeng Krachan National Park

Budgets, funding and more rangers and personnel are needed. Transparency is also a must with the national parks and wildlife sanctuary budgets so money is used properly and efficiently, and corruption stamped out completely. Now that will be a tough nut to crack. It is hoped this draconian situation will change, so the Kingdom’s natural heritage will continue to survive in today’s world.

Thailand’s Big Seven

Asian Elephant: Elephas maximus

Asia’s largest terrestrial mammal is slightly smaller than its African cousin but still a huge beast of the forest, and approximately 2,000 survive in the wild of Thailand. These giant herbivores create trails to feeding grounds, mineral licks and migration routes through large tracks of forest. They are a flagship species for conservation.

In the old days, the genetic survival of the elephant depended on its ability to mix with other herds sometimes a long way away. Unfortunately, roads and human settlements have disrupted migration routes, and the poaching of large bulls with big ivory has affected the elephant’s natural breeding ability. As their numbers in the wild diminish, the Thai people should exert more pressure on the ‘powers-to-be’ the need to improve protection and enforcement as it’s number one priority.

Gaur: Bos gaurus

Gaur are wild forest ox and the largest bovid in the world standing 1.7 meters at the shoulder weighing close to a ton for mature bulls. These even-toed ungulates still survive in some protected areas but are in serious decline. It is now estimated about 1000 remain in Thailand. However, some reserves have gaur breeding in fairly good numbers like Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan forest complex allowing them to actually increase in number if there is adequate protection.

These enormous beasts live in herds but also become solitary, primarily the males. But I have also seen and photographed mature female gaur alone. Mineral deposits play a very important role in the lives of these wild cattle as does thick forests and steep mountainous terrain with abundant water resources. Their future depends whether they are protected to the fullest extent. Unfortunately, their beautifully curved horns are highly sought after by poachers and people who covet trophies.

Wild water buffalo: Bubalus arnee

These low-slung beasts are certainly the most fearsome of all the wild bovid family in Asia. Once upon a time, they were found all over Thailand in swamps and alluvial rivers. In the old days, wild buffalo were rounded up for domestication and hence disappeared from everywhere except Huai Kha Khaeng where the last wild herd now lives. Their numbers are small and it is estimated that 50-60 thrive in the southern section of the sanctuary.

Human expansion throughout Thailand over the last couple of centuries and the use of this beast of burden was the wild buffalo’s demise. Most were tamed for farming and transportation but the last herd was saved just in the nick of time when the wildlife sanctuary was created in 1972. This herd however is continually threatened with an ever-increasing human population just outside the sanctuary, and the mixing of domestic with wild buffalo by the local farmers is a serious problem with possible transmission of cattle disease like anthrax or foot and mouth. Hunting them for their trophy is also a serious threat.

Banteng: Bos javanicus

Banteng are common ancestors to Bos bibos, wild cattle that inhibited the vast plains of Asia during prehistoric times. Fossil finds of banteng from the Pleistocene epoch in Bali and Java are common. These beautiful red wild cattle thrive well in only two places in Thailand and it is estimated about 250 individuals live in Huai Kha Khaeng in the west, and another 80 or so in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary in the east.

There are a few other small pockets where banteng is still found but these are not sustainable and they will eventually disappear. Protection of their remaining habitat is the most important element. Their horns and meat as with gaur and buffalo are also sought after. Banteng prefer open lowland deciduous forest and are easy pickings for poachers with jeeps, spotlights and rifles. As creatures of habit like gaur, they also need to visit mineral deposits and hence, fall victim to determined hunters.

Asian Tapir: Tapris indicus

The family to which the modern tapir belong, Tapridae, can be traced back as far as Early Oligocene times, about 40 million years ago. Tapir evolved from small hoofed mammals. These odd-toed ungulates eat only vegetation. It is also the largest of the world’s four species. They are solitary creatures unless breeding. The young have longitudinal pale striped bodies but as they grow older, the Asian tapir has a distinctive two-toned black and white coloring.

At one time, tapir could be found throughout the western Tenessarim Range all the way down the Thai Peninsula to Malaysia. That has all changed now due to roads, highways and human settlements that have divided up the country. However, it is estimated that maybe 300-400 still thrive in Thailand. Tapir are poached for their meat in some areas.

Indochinese Tiger Panthera tigres corbetti

The tiger is probably one of the most revered creatures in the animal kingdom and is a flagship species for wildlife conservation. As Asia’s apex predator, it present status is not good. Its current standing is at an all-time low with about 200-300 left in Thai forests if that. Where there are abundant prey species and good protection with no poaching, the big cat will survive and breed.

The Western Forest Complex with Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai at the core is the best tiger habitat in Thailand, and Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks in the Northeast is Thailand’s second best tiger reserve. Another good location for tiger is Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri forest complex but their numbers are low here.

Tiger bones are one of the most sought-after wildlife commodities and the pelt is now usually left to rot, as it is very heavy when fresh and difficult to take care of. The Chinese medicine trade is the number one reason tigers have dropped drastically in numbers worldwide, and this responsibility rests directly on China’s shoulders as the tiger moves closer and closer to extinction. They have been unable to stop the flow of wildlife black-market trade and one day soon, this magnificent predator will vanish forever. The world must bring pressure to bear on all countries that use primitive medical remedies at the expense of a wild species

Leopard: Panthera pardus

The leopard is probably much better off than the tiger due to its survivability, size and tolerance to humans. Exact numbers are not known due to its very stealthy character but there are probably 1000 or more still living in the western part of Thailand all the way down to Malaysia. For some reason, they are not found in the East or the Northeast.

Leopard can survive on much smaller animals and will even take farmer’s cattle, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens. Their ability to blend in and being primarily nocturnal, one hardly ever sees them. Both color phases (yellow and black) are found and they are solitary except during breeding season. Their bones are also taken and the pelt is in demand. Leopards like the tiger are susceptible to poisoning of carcasses used by poachers.

In closing, only two things can save the Big Seven plus all the other animals and ecosystems they live in, and that is they must be protected from the onslaught that carries on day in and day out. Stories are popping up in the newspapers about poachers caught with guns and animal carcasses, and it seems to be a hot issue at the moment. These perpetrators need to be removed from local communities and sent to prison setting precedence so others will stay out of the protected areas.

Secondly, wildlife conservation education must be administered into all levels of society. Thailand’s wildlife and forests have evolved over millions of years and are far too important. Awareness, strict enforcement, better funding and management plus up-graded laws are the key!

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Sambar: Thailand’s largest Cervidae

Thursday, February 3, 2011 posted 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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