Sunday, August 26, 2012

Elephant Conservation Network

Back in February, I had the lovely opportunity to visit Kanchanaburi (home to the famous river Kwai) and the wonderful folks of the Elephant Conservation Network (ECN). The purpose of the trip was a knowledge exchange between FREELAND and ECN. A colleague and I were to fulfill the first part of the exchange by providing guidance on how to use camera-traps.

ECN works primarily in the Western Forest Complex. At the time of our visit, ECN had documented elephants leaving Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary and conflicting with local people. Cameratraps they had purchased would be used to monitor the situation and, perhaps, identify problem individuals.

FREELAND has a good relationship with ECN and it was a great opportunity to not only help them with their great work, but to also meet some fellow passionate conservationists. I thank them for being such wonderful hosts. To learn more about ECN, please visit

Kanchanaburi is home to an infamous style of coffee affectionately called "Civet Poo" coffee. The coffee berries are eaten by a weasel-like creature called a civet which then pass through its digestive system. It is believed the digestive process enhances the flavor of the coffee bean, which is then cleaned and prepared for brewing. The coffee made from these beans is quite expensive, but I couldn't resist being adventurous and ordering a small cup. I admit, it was quite lovely.

A preliminary meeting at ECN HQ.

Steel boxes to hold the cameratraps, which not only prevent theft, but also ensure protection from any unruly elephants.
A ranger from Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary secures one of the camera traps at a pond deep in the reserve.

ECN staff get involved in setting up a cameratrap.
The sun sets upon a substation deep in the wildlife sanctuary.
A plaster cast of a tiger pugmark found in the area.
The sun rises through the trees and bamboo in the sanctuary.
A spotted owlet watches us eat breakfast with a rather skeptical expression.
A small shrine at the substation with two rather impressive guardians.
More lessons on camera trap placement during the second day in the forest. Both ECN staff and local rangers got involved.
The skull of an unfortunate jackal decays in the forest.
Obligatory funtime group photo!
The owlet was probably happy to see us go.
A final dinner with our new friends from ECN on Kanchanaburi's famous river Kwai.
Coffee the next morning... I can verify that the benefits of the coffee did not fall asleep.
A rather strange, but lovely name for a local intersection encountered on the way back to Bangkok.

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.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Khao Yai

Early February, I had the opportunity to travel with two fellow FREELANDers to Thailand’s most famous national park, Khao Yai. As with my other work, Khao Yai is located in the Eastern Forest Complex and is visited by more than 1 million tourists every year.

Relief map on the wall at Khao Yai Headquarters
 The purpose of the trip was to hold a meeting between FREELAND and park staff. However, since the meeting was completely in Thai, I was encouraged to wander.

The drive to the park’s headquarters was exceptionally scenic with a winding road coursing through mountainous forest. It eventually took us to an area near the park’s headquarters that was once a village. The villagers had since been removed to reduce human disturbance in the park and what was left was grassland in stark contrast to the thick forest surrounding it. To the keen eye, the odd mango tree could be spotted, a relic from the once active community. 

A road running through Khao Yai.
 We arrived at the park headquarters and spent some time with some of the park’s rangers prior to the meeting. The building featured a massive diorama of the park’s undulating elevations, which I spent some time exploring before heading out to explore.

Given the short duration of the meeting, I could not see the diversity of attractions and wildlife that many visitors come to Khao Yai to see, but I was fortunate to be in close proximity to a gift shop, visitors’ center and a forested creek. Normally, the creek was spanned by a suspension bridge, but on the day of the trip it was out of commission. Nonetheless, I was able to explore the local environment and relax to the sounds of the rushing water pouring over ancient rocks. 

Dramatic reenactment of a tiger attacking a gaur.
  The visitors’ center was an interesting and a somewhat macabre experience. Bones, plaster casts of tracks and taxidermied animals crowded the interior as part of the park’s education strategy. It included three stuffed tigers that were deathly and derelict avatars of a once magnificent, living past. Fur was falling off the skin and bones protruded from where holes had opened. Stuffing was also visible from small holes in the hide, likely wrought by bullets at the time of their death.  Both adult tigers on display had attacked and killed people with one taking the life of a small girl crouching to pick up a pencil that had fallen under a stilted house. The other was an old female likely unable to hunt normal prey. The display even included a small cub glaring through unnerving, synthetic eyes. I shuttered at the thought that these sad exhibits may, one day, be all that is left of Khao Yai’s tigers...and perhaps the world’s. 

A taxidermied tiger cub stares out from a glass case at Khao Yai's visitor center.
Fur from a stuffed tiger falls away from neglect. Fitting of the tiger's current situation.

A stuffed tiger, falling apart, is frozen in protest.

 At the conclusion of the FREELAND meeting, we departed by truck through the same winding road. Shortly into the journey, the driver spotted something in a creek while crossing a bridge. Slowing to a stop, we stared inquisitively at an unidentifiable brown mass at the water’s edge. We decided to get out of the vehicle for a closer look, which spooked something near where we were looking. Gliding through the water, the animal we had disturbed seemed snake-like. It turned out to be a water monitor, but the unusual mass it had fled from was still a mystery. Even photos I had taken at full zoom didn’t seem to lift the veil.  I decided to get a closer look.

A camera-shy monitor swims away at our approach.

A footprints from a wild dog pockmark the riverbank.
 I made my way through thick scrub to the muddy river-bank. I could immediately hear the sound of flies and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the brown mass in the water was something dead (and smelly). The tangled mass belonged to a partially submerged sambar deer, intertwined in a fallen tree. How it met its end, I couldn’t be sure, but more than monitors seemed to be taking advantage of a potential meal. Animal tracks lined the muddy bank, which were later confirmed to be from wild dog. Given that the location was likely to attract a number of animals, I decided not to linger and made my way back to the truck. 

The incredible exploding cervid.
  As we continued on our journey, we excited discussed our discovery. We turned a corner and, marked by a shout of surprise, the view was suddenly filled with the leathery grey mass of a male elephant. 

A male elephant in Khao Yai scans the air with its massive trunk.
As the largest living residents in Khao Yai, elephants occasionally feel compelled to occupy roads, sometimes halting traffic for an hour or more; when faced with something that can effortlessly destroy your car if its mood turns sour, you don’t press the issue of getting past.

The male seemed in a mellow mood and casually sniffed the air with its massive trunk. Fellow visitors stuck on the other side foolishly got out of their cars to take photos only to be chased back when the elephant made a short, mock charge. Content with whatever it had accomplished, the elephant slowly made its way to the forest edge. It is surreal to imagine elephants moving through such thick forest , especially when most footage of elephants in media comes from open savannah in Africa; however, it was even more surreal to watch the elephant slip through the trees and completely disappear after no more than 5 meters. The feeling was akin to watching someone walk through a wall.

Once the elephant had disappeared, we continued on our way. Talking about tigers in Khao Yai, we decided to stop once again when we picked up the signature ammonia scent of feline urine. Pulling off to the side of the road, we jumped out and walked along the road in the hopes of encountering more visual wildlife sign. We meandered up a trail on a hill, which took us up to a viewpoint. We didn’t find any other sign of felids, but we were treated to a spectacular view of the park’s mountains, lit by a sun descending into dusk. 

A scenic conclusion to my visit.
We left the park without further incident and made our way (in my case begrudgingly), back to the hectic and polluted streets of Bangkok. I took solace in the fact that I would likely return.