Sunday, May 13, 2012

Return to the Forest

One month after my first foray in the forest of Eastern Thailand, I found myself preparing for another to check on the cameras that we had set in the forest. However, this time I would not be accompanied by my English speaking supervisor and had to get by on my own with the Thai I had managed to scrape together in two months.  It was a challenging prospect, but one I faced eagerly to show that I could handle the responsibilities alone.

One of the cameras we use to capture photos of wildlife in the forest.
One of the good things about this trip is that I would be following one of the same routes I had experienced previously, which happened to be a well established trail. Given that my parade through the forest was quite literally rained upon the first time, I made sure to consult my military savvy brother and picked up some gaiters to deter water from entering my boots on this trip. I felt wiser for my previous experience and was hopeful that I could complete a camera trap trip without getting myself into much trouble.

Fresh blood from a bear stains the forest floor
I was accompanied by four rangers, two with automatic rifles; however, upon reaching our entry point into the forest, we heard the unnerving howls of two bears locked in what sounded like a violent battle on our prospective route. The rangers looked into the forest and listened intently. Out of all the animals in the forest, I had been told that both rangers and poachers alike fear the bear more than any other, even tigers (the Indo-chinese variety seem to conflict with humans less often than their counterparts in other areas). Upon entering the forest we saw fresh blood on the forest floor, which gave us all the more reason to be attentive. No one wants to run into an injured, angry bear. Thankfully, no bears were encountered save for the images of those captured by our cameras.

Changing the settings of a camera to be placed and recording data. The camera would later capture a tiger walking by.

Walking through a forest with wild elephants with a bag of peanuts? I like to live dangerously.
Although being in the forest again was a fantastic privilege, I have to say that the trip was relatively uneventful, likely for the better. On the first day, the rangers and I established a brisk pace through the jungle and set up our cameras without too much trouble. Camp was established a bit later in the day this time around since we had trouble locating a source of drinkable water. We eventually settled under the canopy of a spectacularly large tree. I had enough time to have a small “shower” in a stream, vainly scanning the bushes surrounding me for animals that could be lurking in the dark. I eventually retired to my hammock, though the uncomfortably hot weather made for a restless night. 

A nest with two bird eggs along the trail.
Cooking the night's dinner under a large tree.
My somewhat better looking night shelter.
On both days, the weather cooperated quite well. For much of the first day and part of the night, we were surrounded by towering dark clouds hammering the humid air with thunder. I did my best to will the clouds away lest I get the same soaking I did the month prior. We were fortunate to not get a single drop of rain.

Rangers pause under a large tree.
A flashy caterpillar finds itself on my camera case.
A rather surly looking toad rests on the forest floor.
The collection of photos we had retained were interesting. Although we had photos of elephant, bear, gaur and wild pig, we did not see any tigers. It is somewhat concerning, though we did see an old scat of a tiger during our trip. I later convened with my supervisor to discuss the results and the strategy moving forward for additional research. 

A butterfly takes advantage of me resting to suck up some delicious sweat on my camera case.
After the 25km trek in 30°+ heat, a cold cola is a welcomed treat.
With the internship almost complete, I feel confident that I am both contributing to FREELAND with my increasing responsibilities and developing important experiences that will help me contribute even more to conservation in the future. I cannot thank my supporters and FREELAND enough for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

The FREELAND team talks with a park supervisor to discuss ways of mitigating the impacts of a dam being built in the area, which could potentially increase poaching and encroachment.
A tiny tick I pried from my arm after the survey.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Study Tour in Huai Kha Khaeng

One of Thailand’s most famous protected areas, particularly for tigers, is Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (HKK). Over the past twenty years, this world heritage site has received considerable conservation support from both the Thai government and international NGOs. Long term studies have shown the area has a healthy population of tigers (~70 individuals) with the potential for the sanctuary to restore populations across the western forest complex of Thailand. With recovery of prey species and continued protection, it is believed this area of Thailand could support up to 2000 tigers; with an estimated total population of 3,200 wild tigers in all of Asia, this area is a key part of protecting tigers from extinction and recovering populations in south and south-east Asia.

Passing through Uthai Thani on the way to HKK one could see just how high the recent Thai floods reached.

A crane meanders through a rice paddy near HKK.
Since HKK is a wildlife sanctuary, the park is not typically open for tourists. However, I was fortunate enough to be invited on a 3-day tour with FREELAND and park staff from elsewhere in Thailand. It was a great learning opportunity to see how effective conservation investment has translated into success, what problems the area currently faces, and how the park and its allies plan to address them.

Watch out for tigers!
Upon entering the park, one of the first things I noticed was the charred forest floor in some areas. I suspected that the park was using fire as part of its management strategy, a suspicion confirmed by my FREELAND colleague and the presence of park staff watching over several fires burning along the entrance road.  Given that the park was baking in the height of the dry season, I was somewhat nervous that the fire could spread to other parts of the park and become uncontrollable. Management uses these fires as a means to increase grassland, favourable to ungulates (hooved animals) and the carnivores than prey upon them (tigers and leopards). It’s a controversial strategy; fire is a natural occurrence, but abuse could prove destructive. 

Fire burns along a road within HKK.
Another curious element of the park was the presence of rare or non-typical species of deer such as Eld’s and hog deer. I knew something was unique about them not only because they had tags and electronic collars, but also because they hovered extremely close to the guest houses, paying little mind to the guests. I learned these deer were introduced from captivity in order to bolster prey species for the park’s carnivores. Unfortunately, I also learned that these individuals were less predator-savvy than their wild counterparts and have become easy meals for leopards. This explained why, underneath the guest houses, scores of hoof-prints could be seen in the sand; deer were using human shelter to protect themselves at night from becoming cat food. It’s one of those projects that is great in theory, but is definitely a work in progress.

Introduced Eld's Deer hover closely to guest residences in HKK.
On the first night, we viewed presentations by the park chief and assistant chief, outlining the history of the park as well as some of the scientific research that has shed light on the park’s wildlife. The park is one of the most biologically diverse areas of Thailand. The region’s diversity is exceptionally high because, in addition to its high habitat diversity, it occupies a unique position at the junction of the four biogeographic zones of mainland South-East Asia.  Many species reach the north, south, east or western limit of their range within its boundaries and do not occur together in any other area. 

A silky river flows through the forests of the sanctuary.
Although I couldn’t completely understand some of the conversations, I was impressed by how the park chief conducted himself. He seemed eager to share information with his guests and his body language suggested he has a passion for maintaining the high reputation of the park; however, he also spent some time asking questions and getting feedback. The chief seemed quite committed to conservation and aware of the importance and responsibilities of his position. He eagerly handed his card to me – for what reason, I am not sure, as I clearly am not an important conservation figure – but the gesture was appreciated and was indicative of his desire to remain open to networking with other groups.
A ranger provides a patrol and wildlife report to his peers.
The next day, myself and my colleagues had the great fortune of observing a monthly ranger patrol meeting with Dr. Anak Pattanavibool, development director and significant HKK research figure from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Thailand. Park management attended to view multi-media reports from rangers on patrol results over the past month under the Smart Patrol program. These presentations highlighted ranger activities and observations on the various threats to the park. It was interesting to see how organized and professional the rangers were at communicating their work; although I didn’t fully understand the presentations, I was able to gain a general understanding of the work that is being done on the ground. Afterwards, the rangers split into groups to hold strategic planning meetings for the month ahead, particularly to address pressing threats such as poaching and encroachment. 

A peacock advertises itself to any nearby females.
Afterwards, I spent some time on my own walking through the forest, trying to find leopard or tiger tracks, but to no avail. I joined my colleagues on an afternoon trip to an observation tower near an open forest field. During our arrival, I was able to see several nervous banteng (a rare cow-like animal and tiger prey species), slip into the forest out of view. As the sun began its slow descent behind western mountains, the group sat in silence, straining to hear or see any signs of wildlife. Hundreds of meters away, I could barely make out the dish-like form of a peacock advertising its colourful feathers to any nearby females and I was able to spot a group of jungle fowl grazing by the river. Fortunately, our patience and silence paid off as the banteng we had initially scared off returned to the field to graze. The group included a female and two large, macho-looking males. It seemed as though they were attempted to court her, though the larger of the two monopolized her attention. Fresh wounds on both suggested they were quite serious about establishing mating rights.

The mountains of HKK bathed in the light of a setting sun
As the larger of the two males strutted onto the field, it dug its head into the dirt and tossed it upwards, producing a large cloud. Whether this was to show its strength or free itself from the burden of bugs, I am not sure, but it was an impressive display. He hovered over the female imposingly and would occasionally cast an intimidating gaze in our direction. We weren’t as covert as we had thought, but the banteng seemed content with the large distance that separated us. I found myself astounded that these massive bovids with such intimidating horns (along with gaur) could be so frequently targeted by tigers as prey.

A female and male banteng cast a skeptical glare at the photographer
On our final day, one of our crew managed to convince park staff to allow us entry deeper into the park and to a particularly well-used tiger research station. On our way, we stopped occasionally to check the dirt for tracks and, in one instance, we came across the tracks of a leopard. 
On the way to a tiger research station, we come across the track of a leopard on the road.

A wild pig roots in the grass around the tiger research station. A brave pig!
Jungle cock, the wildest cock of all.
We eventually arrived at Kao Nangram Wildlife Research Station. Here, we learned about the long history of tiger research at Huai Kha Khaeng and how understanding of tigers in the park is enriched by methods such as camera-trap sampling and radio-collaring. One of the staff showed us some of the radio and satellite-collars that have been used to track the park’s tigers and showed us recent data in Google Earth on where tigers have been known to occur. Informed that tigers had been tracked nearby, we were escorted by car to fresh tiger tracks and tiger scent marks, which tigers use to advertise their territory. The scent left by the tiger was quite fresh, a smell burned into my nostrils and memory from voluntary cleaning duties at Jungle Cat World Zoo outside Toronto. It was quite exciting to know that a tiger was so close and that we were in its territory.

A tiger scrape in the leaves with a line of fresh urine.
Sadly, we had to eventually leave the park. I was quite impressed and would have been happy to spend more time at HKK, particularly at the research station. However, I have my own work to do with FREELAND and don’t lament that fact one bit.

Trees in HKK have natural defenses against dendrophiliacs.

An Eld's deer pauses while crossing a river in HKK.