Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Into the Forest (Part 2)

No stories here, just extra photos that didn't fit in with my previous post. =)

A camera trap successfully set to capture local wildlife.
Myself next to a big tree. It was big!

Two members of the team navigate through the diverse forest types of the DPKY Forest Complex

Mountaintop trees

Forest waterfall

A black giant squirrel doing some arboreal acrobatics to chew on some fruit.

Walking into a forest made misty from a recent rainstorm.

A small stream meanders through the jungle.
Here be tigers.

The clouds above the forest disperse after an evening rainstorm.

Stay tuned for more posts! There is plenty more to come!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Into the Jungle...

Tigers, despite being one of the world’s most revered species, are struggling to receive the protection they need in the wild. This is especially true for areas where knowledge about tiger populations is lacking. After all, how can we leverage support for tigers if we aren’t even sure where they are and how many exist in an area? This is one of the primary concerns for tigers in Thailand’s Eastern Forest Complex. 

Located only a two hour drive from the bustling streets of Bangkok, the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex (DPKY) contains a number of protected areas, including the world famous Khao Yai National Park. However, while places like the Western Forest Complex receive a considerable amount of attention and financial support from international conservation groups, attention paid to this forest complex has been somewhat lacking. Organizations like FREELAND have taken a stand to give this area a closer look, document its wildlife and ensure that it is protected through the support of enforcement patrols.

I had the opportunity to participate in some of the work FREELAND is doing in this area and although I cannot tell you specific locations, I’ll do my best to share the experience with you.

The purpose of the trip to the Eastern Forest Complex was to help collect, maintain and set up camera traps as a means to document wildlife in the area. This entails using a special type of camera that is triggered when an animal comes into view. In some areas, this can be used to estimate a population of tigers through individual identification (using a tiger’s unique stripe pattern); however, in this initial stage of research, the goal is to simply see what animals are using certain areas. Naturally, it is the hope of everyone that the cameras will photograph tigers, which are not only important as a species, but also as an indication of a healthy ecosystem.

A Tiger Caught in a Camera Trap

Prior to the trip, I assisted FREELAND staff by helping maintain the hearty metal boxes that would house the cameras, protecting them from angry or curious elephants. I also made sure to pack enough supplies to take with me on the two day treks into the forest. 

Cameras set aside for the trip.

Protective cases for the cameras.
I was an eager participant and somewhat nervous by the new experience. Along with another from FREELAND, we joined rangers that had been given patrol and wildlife monitoring training by the organization. One carried an automatic weapon, a must in a line of work that has the potential to clash with armed poachers willing to kill more than animals for their ill-gotten gains. One ranger years prior was killed in such a conflict and more have been injured. These rangers are on the front lines in a war for wildlife; without such ground-level protection, species like tigers don’t stand a chance. 

A ranger and I with a confiscated gun designed to shoot animals in the forest as they walk past. I was told to look angry.
Myself (far right) with the team.

With two 20km+, two day routes through the forest, the trek certainly wasn’t just a walk in the park. While elephant trails and old logging roads provided some relief, we often found ourselves walking through thorny scrub. It wasn’t uncommon to get snagged on a stray branch or tripped up by a vine or root which left their mark with torn clothes and the occasional bloody scratch.

Equipped with a GPS, compass and map, we navigated to cameras that had been placed months prior and left to capture wildlife that wandered past. Upon arriving at a camera and removing it from the tree, details about the location, camera functionality and number of photos taken were documented on data sheets. In some cases, we were able to see the results on the spot with a typical camera. Together with the rangers, we crowded around excitedly to see what animals were in the area. It provided an opportunity to rest and refuel before moving on to the next camera. 

Forest ranger walking with his gun.

One problem with the cameras is that some of the animals move too fast and create blurred images. Rangers would opportunistically spread fish sauce in front of the camera in the hopes animals would pause to investigate the scent. When fish sauce was not available, I instead offered my own urine. I am eager to see if it attracted any tigers.

Despite it being the ‘dry season’, it rained shortly into the first day and the heaven’s opened during the first night (thankfully after camp was established). It was an epic struggle to keep dry. I found myself trying to be as small as possible, swinging precariously in my hammock as the deafening rain lashed the tarp and trees overhead. Despite scrambling to keep dry, the water worked its way into many of my belongings, including the hammock in which I was sleeping. When the rain moved on, the weight of the surrounding forest loomed large. It was difficult not to feel exposed to the potentially dangerous elephants and tigers known to call the forest home, wandering somewhere in the dark. The mood was softened by the sublime beauty of the forest scored by crickets conducting their song. The forest floor was speckled blue with a type of bio-luminescent fungus which glowed mysteriously in the night. Moreover, just as the tiger adds a sense of danger, it also lends its spirit to make the forest come alive. It was a surreal privilege. 

My humble night shelter, complete with hammock and tarp.

The morning sun illuminated the forest mist and we had a quick breakfast before packing up. We retrieved the remainder of the camera traps and began the journey back to the starting point. Unfortunately, this meant much of the day’s walking was an uphill journey including a fairly sizable mountain made even more arduous by thick bamboo and a diminished water supply. Burdened by a lack of experience and heavy hiking bag, I found myself struggling in what was likely the most physically exhausting undertaking I have ever experienced. I didn’t give up and finished the first route intact, save for my pride. At least the rangers had a good laugh about it. 

The next day, I embarked along another route of cameras. These were to be maintained or replaced with a handful more to be set in new locations. Although this was a far easier task given that much of the route consisted of established trails, we had the misfortune of being soaked by a substantial rainstorm. It not only made changing the delicate cameras a tricky operation, but it also managed to flood my waterproof boots. This was a disastrous journey for my feet, but was nonetheless a productive one as we continued to collect camera trap data. Camp on this trip was eventually established in a beautiful, but particularly pointy bamboo forest where the dog-like howl of the colugo (a type of mammal not unlike a flying squirrel) could be heard echoing in the night.

Rangers in a bamboo forest.
One of the more unfortunate things I observed in the forest was the presence of garbage, particularly near the edges of the forest where poachers could gain access. It’s a discouraging sign of encroachment that is important to document, particularly to see if it is increasing.

The remaining journey was damped somewhat by more rain, which again made a home in my boots. Some of the trees in the forest were awe-inspiring in height, the kind one would conjure when the word ‘jungle’ comes to mind. While conducting a shaky journey across a stream on a felled tree, a flock of greater hornbills flying overhead, making for a lovely conclusion to the day. My FREELAND friend and I were quite tired by the end and took with us some rather large blisters on our feet, but I felt inspired. 

A ranger after a rainstorm hike.
Despite it being a fun trip, it was nonetheless an important part of FREELAND’s conservation activities. The cameras documented a wide variety of species including, elephant, clouded leopard, gaur, wild pig and, to the delight of the teams, tigers as well. The results are currently being analyzed and, with the help of myself, will be incorporated into documents that will paint a more accurate picture of wildlife in the forest complex. Once this is established, more intensive activities such as wildlife population estimation could potentially follow. It is a crucial part of the conservation of important wildlife species here in Thailand and your support means you are a part of it. 

A tiger and I photographed by a camera-trap at the same location.