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Laying some Groundwork in Sumatra’s Hadabuan Hills.

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Camp palm oil

Camp palm oil

We woke up around 6:30am after a night of “tuak” or “palm wine” at the edge of a vast palm oil plantation, right on the side of the cliff, in fact, that dropped down to a river that was backed by yet more palm oil. And beyond that plantation below us, way out in the distance, were mountains covered in primary rain forest, among them the “Hadabuan Hills,” which translates to something like “Falling down hill,” our target for the next day. But our present location did not seem like the kind of place one would visit if one was looking for wildlife. After all, the Rantau Prapat district of North Sumatra province is basically one giant carpet of palm oil plantations. That is, until you reach the starfish-shaped massif that juts up from the sea of agriculture like a lodestone beckoning those in search of nature. I walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down to the river below, and then I saw a family of Long-tailed macaques hunting in the river for crabs and other meals. Moments later I heard something crashing around in the palm oil to my right and lo and behold another macaque was staring right at me. Could there be wildlife in the palm oil plantations?

Long-tailed macaques hunt along the river's edge in Rantau Prapat province.

Long-tailed macaques hunt along the river’s edge in Rantau Prapat province.

In an hour we were in an old jacked-up Daihatsu 4×4 riding through yet more palm oil and finally we arrived at the last village. According to Mr. Haray Sampurna Munthe, leader of the Bukit Barisan Sumatran Tigers -a local Indonesian NGO- only one foreigner had ever been here before, Mr. Phil Davis of Tiger Awareness. This was evident in the reception we received, with virtually every man, woman and child emerging from their homes to have a look at the group of four “Bule’s” or “foreigners” who had just jumped off the pickup truck.       We had to switch to another even more dilapidated truck to take us to the trail head, but when the driver cut the engine were were almost immediately greeted by the sound of a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills calling from the Hadabuan Hills. I always take hornbills as an auspicious sign on my treks, be it in Cambodia, Thailand, or Indonesia. A few minutes later we were on our way up the mountain when yet another auspicious signal greeted us: Siamang Gibbons calling from the same hills…!

The Hadabuan Hills area of Rantau Prabat province, Sumatra.

The Hadabuan Hills area of Rantau Prabat province, Sumatra.

We were treated to Rhinoceros Hornbills and Siamang Gibbons calling from the hills for the entire 1-hour walk up to the camp site. Our new campground featured a tree house platform built about 15 meters off the ground. The views from the top are simply stupendous. I tried to sleep up there but with the breeze I felt too cold and had to make my way down the tall, rickety ladder at 2am with only the moonlight to illuminate the rungs. I didn’t sleep well in my tent but that meant that I was back up in the tree house by 6am waiting for gibbons to call. White-handed gibbons began the morning chorus, but only one Siamang added the occasional lonely hoot. As I stared out over the mountains onto the mixture of forested hills and patches of palm oil that made up the misty lowlands coming to life beneath a beautiful sunrise, I tried to imagine what Sumatra was like 50-100 years ago before the lowland forests were annihilated and replaced by monoculture plantations. I envisioned a huge island of steaming jungles running from north to south and from east to west, blanketed in forest from the tops of the peaks all the way down to the mangroves on the coast. Every morning, the entire island came to life with the calling of millions of gibbons and hornbills, a nature cacophony like nothing else the world has ever known and will ever know again: White-handed gibbons with their mournful yet delirious wails; Siamang gibbons with their ear-splitting hoots and manic cries; Helmeted Hornbills  with their mocking cackles; and so much more.

Tree house platform on the top of Hadabuan Hill. Climbing up it is not for the faint of heart.

Tree house platform on the top of Hadabuan Hill. Climbing up it is not for the faint of heart.

We were in search of what remained of that natural wonderland, to see what kind of undocumented fragments still existed in this forgotten corner of Sumatra where not a single international NGO had any presence. I also had 5 Reconyx camera-traps with me, and after a breakfast of plain white rice and coffee we were on our way.

This unnamed valley might look beautiful at first glance, but look more closely and you'll see that the bottom portions of those mountains have been carved up by palm oil plantations -the curse of the curse of the tropics extends its reach into the most remote corners of Sumatra.

This unnamed valley might look beautiful at first glance, but look more closely and you’ll see that the bottom portions of those mountains have been carved up by palm oil plantations -the curse of the tropics extends its reach into the most remote corners of Sumatra.

Argus pheasants, Rhinoceros Hornbills, Oriental Pied Hornbills, White-handed gibbons, and Siamang gibbons called throughout the morning and afternoon–all good signs of a healthy forest ecosystem despite the agricultural encroachment on the lower slopes of the hills. We were now trekking along the mountain ridges, which usually form natural trails favored not only by humans but also Sumatran tigers and tapirs-both of which have been camera-trapped by Haray with cameras donated to him by Mr. Phil Davis. As for the tigers, Haray estimates there about 17 in the area, and there are enough Tapirs that my friend Kurt Johnson and I chipped into to have a fence built around a rubber plantation late last year because a farmer was threatening to poison the animals because they enjoyed raiding his farm to dig up rubber seeds.

The fence we paid to have installed to keep Tapirs out.

The fence we paid to have installed to keep Tapirs out.

We trekked until about 4pm and made camp on a rare chunk of spacious flatland. There was, however, no real water source here and all of our bottles were empty and our mouths parched. The answer came in the form of a rain shower. Speaking of showers, I was afraid that we wouldn’t be having one for a few days. The rain came down so hard that Dr. Andreas Neunert and I got the idea that we could simply shower in the rain, and that’s exactly what we did. One of guides, Mr. Raja Rambers, a university student in Medan and a volunteer with Bukit Barisan Sumatran Tigers, informed us that this was called Mandihujan or “showering when it rains.” I enjoyed every minute of our mandihujan, which included using soup bowls to scoop water off the roofs of the tarp to help rinse off. We even drank some of that tarp water, and we never felt sick.

The "Bule" portion of our team plus Mr. Haray.

The “Bule” portion of our team plus Mr. Haray.

The next day saw some tough trekking, with a lot of steep uphill bushwhacking along ridge lines that hadn’t seen a human visitor in quite some time. At one of the most difficult uphill stretches we came very close to a troupe of Siamangs-which the locals call “black gibbons”- singing very close by. They sang loudly and joyously until they saw us. But at least we saw them too! All of our team caught a glimpse of the Siamangs making a brachiating escape away from this strange group of human intruders. They went silent after that, though I could still hear another family calling from across the valley. They cry out with such abandon and delirium that, despite whatever the experts say, I believe that gibbons sing for the pure joy of it, for the fun of it, in a celebration of life.

Haray Sampurna Munthe

Haray Sampurna Munthe

Shortly after arriving at the top of a steep, narrow mountain ridge, we got pinned down by a sudden and very cold rain storm. The guides threw the tarp up over us and we got it tied to the trees for safety. We decided to set up camp right there for the night. With the weather seeming to have taken bad turn over the past 12 hours or so, with the food having run out, and the with trail disappearing ahead, it was decided that the next day we would explore a “short cut” down the side of the mountain that we were now on and try to make it down to the plantations, where a road would lead us back to the village. No one among us had ever tried this before so it was terra incognita for all of us and maybe all but a handful of the very most determined poachers.

We came down from the mountains in the distance.

We came down from the mountains in the distance.

The going was slow, steep, slippery, and a bit dangerous, but we all made it down in one piece. We saw gibbons again, and judging by their size I would say there were White-handed gibbons, not Siamangs. At the sight of us they remained silent. In the same area I watched two Rhinoceros Hornbills fly straight out from their high perches to some other safe place. It was a vision of paradise for me: two huge black-feathered birds with bizarrely long, curving yellow beaks with a red upturned hook on the top that gives them the name “Rhinoceros.” We had stumbled upon a secret hideout, a remote fastness, where gibbons and hornbills came to rest in the afternoon -a place we and other humans didn’t belong! A stream trickled down the drainage and formed small pools and waterfalls in areas. We stopped at one of these to cook lunch, and named the stream the “Bule River.”

Out through palm oil.

Out through palm oil.

At around 4:30pm we finally found our way to the bottom of the valley and came upon the first signs of man: a deforested hillside, banana plantations, and soon enough, palm oil. We will be keeping in touch with Mr. Haray and we have high hopes for what our camera traps might turn up in the mysterious Hadabuan Hills!

2016 Virachey Expedition

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This year’s Habitat ID expedition in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park centered on servicing our most far-flung camera traps and exploring new terrain along the Lao border. Sadly, I had to be escorted out of the Park on the third day of the trek (which lasted 2 weeks) due to a brutal attack of kidney stones. Fortunately I made it out of jungle in one piece, and better yet I was treated to two mornings of gibbons singing the forest to life, and to the calls of hornbills, barbets, Crested Serpent Eagles, and many other avifauna.

Binturong with young in Virachey

Binturong with young in Virachey

One of the greatest surprises was a shot of a mother Binturong with two cubs in tow. In fact, this species appeared on six of our camera traps, so while we understand that this beauty is fast disappearing throughout much of its range, Virachey remains a kind of haven for it, a global stronghold for sure. Author William deBuys describes this viverrid as something straight out of a Dr. Suess comic, in his fabulous 2015 book, The Last Unicorn, which describes a “protected area” in Annamite Mountains of Laos. In fact, Binturongs don’t show up all that often in camera traps placed in Cambodia, and one of the reasons that Virachey has so many is that VNP is actually part of the Annamite Cordillera, an area where Binturongs used to be found in greater abundance. The species is now being mercilessly trapped and hunted throughout much of its range.

A Stump-tailed macaque is interested in our camera.

A Stump-tailed macaque is interested in our camera.

Animals seen on the fly (by the rest of our team, not me) include: Red-shanked Douc Langurs (including the fur of one that had been shot, killed, skinned and eaten in what was probably a Vietnamese poaching camp near the Lao border), Northern Buff-cheeked Gibbons, Muntjac, cobra, and several types of Hornbill. In other words, the trek was a treat. The cameras did not disappoint either, reconfirming all species that previously appeared on our list and adding a few new ones as well. Still, I was saddened that elephants did not make an appearance. We were really hoping for them!

A Brown Fish Owl hunts along the headwaters of a stream in Virachey.

A Brown Fish Owl hunts along the headwaters of a stream in Virachey -another uncommon animal in Cambodia but found in VNP.

The cameras in the Yak Yeuk Grasslands area will be checked again in early April, and we will post a full 2016 Report when those memory cards come in. In the meantime, you can learn about our new project site in Sumatra’s Hadabuan Hills, just south of Lake Toba.

A new adventure begins!

Greg

Expedition 2015: Virachey National Park Preliminary Report by Greg McCann

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We have just returned from our second camera-trapping expedition in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park (VNP). This time we had two teams deploy cameras in distant locations within the core of the park -the Yak Yeuk Grasslands and the sacred Haling-Halang Mountains and foothills. Keith Pawlowski of Buffalo State University’s Great Lakes Ecology Program and his brother Dan Pawlowski from Potsdam University led a team of Kavet minority porters to Yak Yeuk and the upper border mountains while I, along with naturalist Richard Wacha, bird ace Howie Nielsen and his wife Karen Nielsen (herself an expert in community ecotourism development) and German Physician and longtime adventurer Andreas Neunert joined the effort to place cameras on the Haling-Halang Mountains that straddle the Cambodia-Laos border inside VNP.

a rare douc langur takes a  seat in front of our camera trap

A rare douc langur takes a seat in front of our camera trap

Keith’s team deployed seven new cameras within the Yak Yeuk Grasslands of Voen Sai district and also into the hills on the Laos border, finding an elephant wallowing hole at 1,150 meters almost right on the border! The team also espied a pack of 10 dhole walking along a trail. Gibbons were heard every day on their trek, as were Great hornbills and other birds. The Yak Yeuk Grasslands-Mera Mountain area is sacred to the Kavet people and very few foreigners have ever seen the area. It is not on the tourist trail!

We now have photo of Stump-tailed macaques from 5 of our cameras i n the forests north of Veal Thom. They are a first record for Northeast Cambodia

We now have photo of Stump-tailed macaques from 5 of our cameras i n the forests north of Veal Thom. They are a first record for Northeast Cambodia

The second team, organized by yours truly, began by trekking the tourist trail the Veal Thom Grasslands where we had 4 cameras deployed. Unfortunately, we found that one had been stolen and another destroyed by moisture (though all cams are well equipped with silica dessicants now). We collected the remaining cams and headed into the O Gan Yu River Valley with a swimming stop at D’dar Poom Chop Waterfall camp, where another camera was collected. The camera trap results from this location were covered in a 2014 Mongabay.com article , and included Asian black bear, sun bear, clouded leopard, leopard cat, and Malayan porcupines, among others. This particular camera (cam #1) near D’dar Poom Chop captured dhole and, for the first time, serow on this camera.

calling out near the O Gan Yu River

A dhole calling out near the O Gan Yu River

We then made the arduous trek up to Haling Mountain, collecting more cameras along the way and making a shocking discovering of what may or may not be a juvenile tiger in one of our cams (the jury is still out on this one as experts are debating it). It would be impossible to exaggerate the excitement that surged through our group when the eight porters (all former hunters) cried out kra thom! (tiger!) without a moment’s hesitation when the photo came up in the viewfinder of my camera. Needless to say, I am not going to publish this photograph right now. Stay tuned.

from left: Peen, Thom, and Sou

from left: Peen, Thom, and Sou

On and on we trekked up a punishingly steep mountain before we reached a clearing were we could camp (not the photo above); this is where Camera #5 had been set up and when I sat down to check the card I found our first Asian golden cat, along with a massive group of wild pigs, a gargantuan gaur and his mate and calf; stump-tailed macaque, dhole, and barking deer also used this pleasant little meadow to pass through. Previously this camera had turned up our first clouded leopard photo, along with sun bear and leopard cat. Nearby cams also awarded us with douc langur (the first photo up top), black bear, tree shrew, pig-tailed macaques, more “stumpies”,and more deer and pigs.

Golden cat coming out of the bushes of Laos and into Cambodia!

Golden cat coming out of the bushes of Laos and into Cambodia!

On our way out from camp the next morning we found a tree full of rare Northern brown hornbills sharing the tree with douc langurs. Both gave strangely similar-sounding alarm calls and began flying away and crashing around through the canopy as we slowly moved in for a closer look. Howie was particularly pleased to see the brown hornbills, only the second recording for Cambodia (the first being down in the Cardamom Mountains years ago).

Haling Mountain (also called Haling-Halang)

Haling Mountain (also called Haling-Halang)

This was at about the point we turned back last year, unable to find our way. However, with our new fearless Kavet leader Thom in charge, we marched on, and within an hour the jungle opened up and my heart soared as we emerged onto a rocky platform with a full view of our destination, Haling-Halang (above) in clear sight and seemingly so close and looking something like a Javan volcanic cone completely covered in primary rain forest. We set up a couple of cameras in this area along good-looking game trails and explored some side patches of grasslands that seemed to me to be some of the last areas of Mainland Southeast Asia than humans have seldom ever traveled. Last glimpses of paradise, was what I kept saying to myself.

Upon entering the foothills of Haling Halang the forest took on a distinctly different feeling, with a certain "oldness" or enchantment pervading the air

Upon entering the foothills of Haling Halang the forest took on a distinctly different feeling, with a certain “oldness” or enchantment pervading the air

Both Richard and I sensed something enchanting about the place, like something out of a fairy book, and it wasn’t long before we came upon a wallowing hole where Andreas suggested we set up a camera trap.

Andreas says a cam goes "here"!

Andreas says a cam goes “here”!

We did find this (below) footprint in the wallow. Could it be a bear, or the Tek Tek -a “tropical yeti” that the Phnom Penh Post interviewed me about back in November:

What made this footprint?

What made this footprint?

In fact, the Brao and Kavet ethnic minorities believe in two different yeti-like monsters that supposedly inhabit the rugged border mountains between Laos and Cambodia (creatures who both the Vietcong and American combatants claimed to have seen and fired on), the Tek Tek and the Yai Yai. Within minutes of trekking through an evermore luxurious forest of massive trees and vegetation we found the poop of what the Brao are convinced is that of the Yai Yai. Have a look:

Feces from an unknown hominid?

Feces from an unknown hominid?

Have another gander:

WHAT is it?

WHAT is it?

No one could ID this tree. Can you?

No one could ID this tree. Can you?

possibly Neocollyris Cellebensis

possibly Neocollyris Cellebensis

"Haunted" Haling-Halang base camp, where we heard gibbons, hornbills, barking deer, and crashing trees

“Haunted” Haling-Halang base camp, where we heard gibbons, hornbills, barking deer, and crashing trees…and had some very strange dreams.

Thom had a dream the night before our ascent in which he claims a man with a red beard told him the way up. It was correct!

Thom had a dream the night before our ascent in which he claims an old man with a red beard told him the way up. It was correct!

Thom and I shake hands at the top of Haling-Halang, where I was very surprised to find a border post. Reaching the top of this remote peak has been a personal obsession of mine for several years now and I had to fight back the tears when we arrived there.

Thom and I shake hands at the top of Haling-Halang, where I was very surprised to find a border post. Reaching the top of this remote peak has been a personal obsession of mine for several years now and I had to fight back the tears when we arrived there.

Laos side

Laos side

The team at the top. We now have 2 cameras set up in this area

The team at the top. We now have 2 cameras set up in this area

Brao guide Peen with the much sought-after special Haling-Halang bamboo shoots that are used for rice wine drinking straws. All the guys harvested quantities of this good stuff!

Brao guide Peen with the much sought-after special Haling-Halang bamboo shoots that are used for rice wine drinking straws. All the guys harvested quantities of this good stuff!

A very rare view of Nan Ghong Provincial Protected Area in Laos as seen from the top of Haling Mountain. The peak in the distance is actually Halang Mountain. You can find more out about the area here: https://nkppa.wordpress.com/

A very rare view of Nan Ghong Provincial Protected Area in Laos as seen from the top of Haling Mountain. The peak in the distance is actually Halang Mountain. You can find more out about the area here: https://nkppa.wordpress.com/

the enchanted forest at the base of Haling Mountain, like something out of Lord of the Rings

the enchanted forest at the base of Haling Mountain, like something out of Lord of the Rings

Elephant poop

Elephant poop

This creepy-looking carving in a tree in the elephant poop area frightened one of the guides. He said it was a sign of the Tek Tek

This creepy-looking carving in a tree in the elephant poop area frightened one of the guides. He said it was a sign of the Tek Tek

On our way out of the northern jungles we witnessed a beautiful sunset on the Veal Thom Grasslands with Haling-Halang in the background

On our way out of the northern jungles we witnessed a beautiful sunset on the Veal Thom Grasslands with Haling-Halang in the background

Our efforts will continue throughout the year, with several camera-trap checks planned for both before and after the rainy season. Tigers were recently declared extinct in Indochina, but we think we can prove that otherwise (already!). The Phnom Penh Post has covered our work in the recent past, and so has Mongabay.com consistently over the years. We will be seeking more coverage in the coming months. Stay tuned, but for now:

Mammals seen or heard:

Northern buff-cheeked gibbon

Red-shanked douc langur

barking deer

dhole (on Keith’s trek)

*Bintourang (this was the closest we could get to what the porter described seeing)

Mammals on camera-trap (on this trip):

Asian golden cat

leopard cat

Asian black bear

common palm civet

 Red-shanked douc langur (though it appears much more black to me)

stump-tailed macaque

pig-tailed macaque

dhole

gaur

sambar deer

red muntjac (barking deer)

Lesser mouse deer

Serow

tree shrew (or rat, still trying to ID it)

Squirrel (still trying to ID it)

Malayan porcupine

Brush-tailed porcupine

Wild pig

*Tiger

You can also see Howie Nielsen’s bird list, which tops 170 birds recorded from this expedition.

 

Camera’s deployed in Thailand’s Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary

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Habitat ID recently joined veteran wildlife photographer Bruce Kekule on a camera-trapping mission in Thailand’s majestic and little-known Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Located 500 miles south of Bangkok in Surat Thani province, the 1,155 sq. kilometer Khlong Saeng WS is home to marbled cat, clouded leopards, leopards, Malayan tapir, elephant, Argus pheasant, and many other remarkable creatures. There is also a slight possibility that tigers still roam some of the remotest sections of the reserve.

photographer Bruce Kekule leads us into Khlong Saeng WS

Wildlife photographer Bruce Kekule leads us into Khlong Saeng WS in July 2014

Striking limestone crags erupt straight out of the huge Chiao Lan Lake. These mountains are actually an ancient coral formed 200 million years ago in the Permian Era that were pushed above ground when the Indian plate collided with Asian. In fact, the lake that helps provide this stunning setting is artificial, created decades ago when the Rajaprabha Dam was built to produce hydroelectricity. One can only imagine what the area was like before the inundation -an Amazonia beyond our wildest dreams swarming with tigers, rhinoceros, and leopards (the latter are extant in the sanctuary).

submerged trees drowned by the flood create an eerie and surreal atmosphere at Khlong Saeng WS

Submerged trees drowned by the flood create an eerie and surreal atmosphere at Khlong Saeng WS

We deployed 4 Bushnell Trophy camera-traps (set for video!) alongside Bruce’s gargantuan pro DSLR traps:

Habitat ID’s Bushnell Trophy Cam sits above Kekule’s heavy duty DSLR

The cameras will be checked in about two months, before the end of September, and we should have some amazing video footage that will go towards proving that Khlong Saeng WS is a world treasure and deserves full protection efforts. Interestingly, Khlong Saeng is contiguous with several other protected areas, including Khao Sok National ParkSri Phang Nga NP,  Kaeng Krung NP, and Khlong Phanom NP. Taken together these “protected” areas form a province-sized wilderness containing the oldest rain forest on the planet (the Thai-Malay Peninsula was never covered over during the Ice Age, making the rain forests of the peninsula older than the Congo and Amazon jungles!

Field Coordinator Greg McCann at the Khlong Ya floating bungalow

Field Coordinator Greg McCann at the Khlong Ya floating bungalow

It rained heavily when we were in the field setting up cameras, making work difficult. Leeches were a constant annoyance, and freshly cut tree saplings (slashed by our guides -that’s something we’ll have to talk about on our next trip) posed a grave risk when slipping and sliding down the mountainsides. Nonetheless, there is something magical about being in a rain forest in the rain, but perhaps that’s because we had the luxury of retreating back to our floating bungalows at the end of each day.

Dr. Jimmy Chen (left), Lek (center), Baut (right)

Dr. Jimmy Chen (left), Lek (center), Baut (right)

We had an interesting and diverse crew on this expedition. Taiwanese doctor Jimmy Chen joined this trip, and brothers Lek and Baut (see above) led us into the jungle in search of game trails. But the man responsible for making this expedition happen is the legendary wildlife photographer Bruce Kekule, author of Wild Rivers,  Wildlife in the Kingdom of Thailand, and Thailand’s Natural Heritage. His books are available on this web site www.brucekekule.com  In addition to publishing gorgeous and informative books about Thailand’s last and best wild places, Bruce is likely the world’s leading photographer of the rare black leopard of the Asian jungle.

Bruce in his element in the Thai jungle

Bruce in his element in the Thai jungle

Each morning we woke to several families of white-handed gibbons singing and whooping in the forests across the water, sounding like some sort of primordial war call shouted out by angry natives preparing for an attack in the hills. We saw barking deer on two mornings, spotted a wild pig, a large monitor lizard, and saw numerous birds, including the rare Blue-eared kingfisher, White-bellied sea eagle, Pied hornbill, Great hornbill (these were making all kinds of awesome noise all day long), osprey, greater cuckoo, and lapwing (the “alarm bell” for the gaur, according to Bruce), among others.

Dang, our excellent Thai cook, called me over when this skittish blue-eared kingfisher perched outside his kitchen. I crawled over for a shot!

We were not as fortunate as a group of 3 Swiss ecotourists who had the great privilege of seeing a young male elephant come down to the shore 2 of the 3 mornings they stayed at Khlong Ya! Bruce had seen the young bull before, but Jimmy and I were anxious for a look and we woke up early every morning to catch a glimpse of the pachyderm. No such luck for us!

lots of insect life in the jungle during the rainy season

lots of insect life in the jungle during the rainy season

On our way out we came upon a the skull and antler rack of a long-dead Sambar deer that died at perhaps 8 years of age. Was it killed by a black leopard? We’ll never know…

This could go up on someone’s wall, which is why we know it was not killed by poachers but hunted by a wild predator such as a leopard.

We’ll be back with an update regarding our Khlong Saeng WS cams in a couple of months, but before that Habitat ID will be getting more camera-trap images from Cambodia’s Virachey National Park, as Park ranger Sou Soukern will be heading back into the jungle to service our cameras where we have a long-running conservation project. We can hardly wait!

First round of camera-trap results are in!

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We now have the memory cards for all 11 of our camera-traps that we placed in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park earlier this year. The images you see below (and we are still holding back on releasing a few) were taken in just 11 weeks of shooting -a fairly short amount of time. And yet the results are thrilling! We have what is probably the first ever photographic record of a Chinese Serow (Capricornis milneedwardsii) in Northeastern Cambodia, as well as a rare photo of an Asian Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus). In addition, we have a mysterious civet cat, one which may very well be new to science (see photo titled Mysterious Civet below) which has a single white band near the tip of its tail. According to Charles M. Francis’ definitive A Field Guide to the Mammals of Southeast Asia, there are no known civets with this tail pattern! These photographs prove that not only is Virachey brimming with wildlife, but it’s still full of surprises and that it needs to be protected! Click on the photos to enlarge.

Clouded leopard 1

Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus). This bear is hunted for its bile, fur, meat, and also trapped alive to but used as a circus animal

Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus). This bear is hunted for its bile, fur, meat, and also trapped alive to but used as a circus animal

A rare image of an Asian Black bear

A rare image of an Asian Black bear

Gaur (Bos gaurus), listed as "vulnerable" by the IUCN

Gaur (Bos gaurus), listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN

Chinese Serow. Quite possibly the first record of this species in Northeastern Cambodia

Chinese Serow. Quite possibly the first record of this species in Northeastern Cambodia

Small-toothed Palm Civet

Small-toothed Palm Civet

Is this civet new to science? We -as well as our friends- are unable to ID it

Is this civet new to science? We -as well as our friends- are unable to ID it

Deer blinded by the lights!

Deer blinded by the lights!

a Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) takes a daylight stroll

a Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) takes a daylight stroll

look carefully in the upper right corner and you will see a wildcat. Is it the Fishing cat? We are not yet sure.

look carefully in the upper right corner and you will see a wildcat. Is it the Fishing cat? We are not yet sure.

this bird loves the camera attention (we have many photos of it)

this bird loves the camera attention (we have many photos of it)

Muntjac portrait

Muntjac, also known as the “barking deer”

Not a unicorn, but a Sambar deer (Asian elk) with a missing horn

Not a unicorn, but a Sambar deer (Asian elk) with a missing antler

Brush-tailed porcupines

Brush-tailed porcupines

Malayan porcupines (Hystrix brachyura)

Malayan porcupines (Hystrix brachyura)

Wild pig in the Veal Thom Grasslands

Wild pig in the Veal Thom Grasslands

A massive Sambar deer rises from a Veal Thom mud wallow hole. Prime tiger food!

A massive Sambar deer rises from a Veal Thom mud wallow hole. Prime tiger food!

red muntjac

red muntjac

Giant muntjac at the wallowing hole

Giant muntjac at the wallowing hole

The cameras will remain in the park throughout the summer and checked again in the Fall at the conclusion of the rainy season. We also plan to launch another camera-trapping exedition in early 2014 to the little-visited Yak Yeuk Grasslands near the Laos border, which we explored in 2013. In the meantime, we would like to thank Vuykeo Nhuy, Sou Soukern, Soukhon Thon, and Chou Sopheak from Virachey National Park for their invaluable help and cooperation on this project. We also want to thank Keith Pawlowski, Kurt Johnson, and Andreas Neunert for their contributions on this project. This project could not have happened without the help of the people mentioned above, and from all those who donated to our project

a jungle meeting just 400 meters from the Laos border. Several cameras were placed in strategic positions in this highly remote area.

a jungle meeting just 400 meters from the Laos border. Several cameras were placed in strategic positions in this highly remote area.

STAY TUNED FOR MORE CAMERA-TRAP PHOTOS!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Early Camera-trap results

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Our camera-trap ecotourism scheme is off to a great start, with three trekkers recently making the trip to the Veal Thom Grasslands and D’dar Poom Chop waterfall camp on the Gan Yu River. We had five of our cameras serviced (see photos below), including four in the grasslands and one near D’dar Poom Chop. The photos you see below are a small sampling that were taken in just under six weeks -ample proof that Virachey is still full of wildlife! And bear in mind that we still have anothe six cameras located very deep in the forest near Laos that haven’t been checked yet:

a large Sambar deer rises from a wallowing hole in Veal Thom

a large Sambar deer rises from a wallowing hole in Veal Thom

red muntjac

red muntjac

 

a wild pig stops at the popular mud hole

a wild pig stops at the popular mud hole

Giant muntjac at the wallowing hole

Giant muntjac at the wallowing hole

 

Malayan porcupines

Malayan porcupines

 

The following shots come from a camera whose card was not brought back to town but left in the camera-trap. The ranger checked the card in a tourist’s camera and took a photo of the display screen. Next month we’ll have the originals:

a Malayan Sun Bear prowls the night

a Malayan Sun Bear prowls the night

a leopard cat near the Gan Yu River

a leopard cat takes an early morning stroll

another prickly porcupine

another prickly porcupine

could be a Leopard cat, a Jungle cat, or even a Marbled cat. We'll probably have to wait till we get the original photo before we can ID this mysterious cat

could be a Leopard cat, a Jungle cat, or even a Marbled cat. We’ll probably have to wait till we get the original photo before we can ID this mysterious cat

We also have photos of a large Civet cat -among others- but those are on the camera whose card was left in the trap. The next step is to have the rangers go into the forest on a 10-day trip to check all of our cameras. Another six cameras are positioned near the Laos border and no doubt they have been snapping away, “trapping” all kinds of denizens of the forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Media Wrap-up

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We thought now would be a good time to provide a summary of what Habitat ID has been up to so far in 2014. We began with our planned 2-week camera-trapping expedition in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park (see photos here), and this will be an ongoing project for the foreseeable future. Upon his return from Cambodia, Habitat ID field coordinator Greg McCann published articles about the potentials of “camera-trap ecotourism” on Travelfish and Mongabay, arguing the case that ecotourists can pay for the privilege of helping rangers service camera-traps that are set up deep inside of national parks. In this way, the costs of sending a team out into the forest to check on the cameras by the ecotourists, and these trekkers can also download copies of some of the camera-trap photos onto their smartphones or other mobile devices. They get to do a trek in the jungle, help support a new conservation initiative, and they also get a rare glimpse of the rare wildlife that is prowling around when people aren’t around. A win-win-win situation!

This is a highly remote area of the upper Gan Yu River, north of the Veal Thom Grasslands

This is a highly remote area of the upper Gan Yu River, north of the Veal Thom Grasslands. Photo: Greg McCann

We will soon be having a fundraising party in Chicago so that we can have all of our Virachey cameras serviced at least one time before the start of the rainy season. And the money that we raise will also go to a new project that will want to begin in Thailand (more details about that project will be published in the coming months).

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Dusky langur in Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand. Photo: Greg McCann

The wildlife of Southeast Asia is suffering under unprecedented pressure from habitat loss, hunting, logging, and human encroachment, but now is not the time to give up. In fact, it’s now or never for wildlife of this region. Help Habitat ID make this year become a turning point for the region.

Preliminary Report on Virachey Camera-trapping

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Virachey rangers setting up a camera-trap deep in the jungle

Virachey rangers setting up a camera-trap deep in the jungle

Preliminary Report: Upper Gan-Yu River and Veal Thom Grasslands Camera-Trapping Project and Potentials

Written by Gregory McCann of Habitat ID

March 1st, 2014

Current project

On January 25th 2014 we (Gregory McCann, Keith Pawlowski, Kurt Johnson, and several members of the Virachey Park staff as well as Brao and Kavet porters) embarked on a 12-day camera-trapping expedition into the interior of Virachey National Park. Four cameras were placed in what we deemed to be highly advantageous vantage points in the Veal Thom Grasslands (wallowing holes with numerous animal tracks near permanent swamps or springs, as well as known mammal paths), while 7 cameras were placed in the Upper Gan Yu River Valley north the of the Veal Thom Grasslands in the foothills of the sacred Haling Mountain.

The GPS (UTM) coordinates have been given to Park Ranger Sou, as well as all of the keys for the python locks and the padlocks for the protective casings. 14 32g memory cards and ample replacement batteries have also been left with the Park so that the camera batteries and cards can be changed.

It is our hope that the 4 cameras set up in the Veal Thom Grasslands can be serviced with ecotourists who join ranger Sou on trips to the Veal Thom Grasslands. It is our conviction that ecotourists will see the checking of cameras to be a very exciting addition to their wilderness experience.

As for the 7 cameras placed in the forest north of Veal Thom, we –Greg McCann (Habitat ID), Keith Pawlowski, Kurt Johnson, and Andreas Neunert- will raise funds to pay for the DSA (daily supply allowance) so that rangers can go into the forests to change the memory cards and batteries.

We believe that all cameras are strategically placed for optimal wildlife captures, and our hopes of acquiring images of Sun bear, Clouded leopard, leopard, elephants, and tigers are high.

Additional observations

This was my fifth trip to Virachey National Park and I noticed a dramatic decrease in the presence of loggers and poachers in the area between the villages of Tavang District along the Sesan River and the Veal Thom Grasslands, although I could still hear chain saws in the distance. To put it in better perspective, when I trekked there in 2012 I met approximately 24 loggers/poachers in the area between Piang Village and Veal Thom, whereas this time we encountered only 4.

We did not see any people in Veal Thom Grasslands itself, where by contrast in 2012 I witnessed a poacher butchering a Sambar deer in broad daylight in a tourist camp –a most disturbing sight. Nothing like that this time in 2014!

We did not encounter any people in the forests north of Veal Thom along the Gan Yu River. There were some old traps (several years old), although I did find one fairly new empty pack of cigarettes, so I think it can be assumed that this remote area is still penetrated by hearty poachers and loggers.

Wildlife highlights

We heard 2 Sun bears engaged in a ferocious fight close to the Laos border (we were within 400 meters of the border at that position), and we also found elephant footprints (approximately 1 year old), heard numerous gibbons, heard Great hornbills, Sambar deer, found a dead python, and found ample signs of Sun bear presence (see photo below). Kurt Johnson also suspects that he found evidence of dhole prints, and one of our camera traps turned up images (within just 4 days) of a large Civet cat on the Gan Yu River near D’dar Poom Chop waterfall (we strongly suggest setting up D’dar Poom Chop as a new ecotourism site for its remarkable beauty and swimming possibilities; kingfishers were also spotted in this pretty location –see photo below of D’dar Poom Chop). Bird life was also abundant, and we noted several species of eagles, drongos, barbets and other avifauna. Footprints near the wallowing holes suggest populations of Sambar deer, Gaur, wild pig, barking deer, and possibly other species.

Concerns

On the way out of the park we found a new logging road well within the park boundary beyond the main tourist waterfall on the O-Pong River. Young men were observed clearing forest with impunity in broad daylight. If this illegal road is not promptly shut down we fear that many of the larger trees in the riparian forests inside Veal Thom will be cut down and transported out of the park. If this happens Virachey will lose a significant portion of its beauty and it will be unappealing to tourists. We understand that combating such problems is very complex and difficult, but this particular road –which Sou Soukern and ranger Bon are now aware of- poses and very serious threat to the integrity of the park and its existence is simply shocking and obnoxious and it flies in the face of law enforcement.

D'dar Poom Chop river camp. The potential for ecotourism here is excellent

D’dar Poom Chop river camp. The potential for ecotourism here is excellent

The Next Steps

Habitat ID will hold a fundraiser in March or April (the exact date has not yet been determined) with the goal of raising enough money to pay for VNP staff to do a maintenance check of all cameras in the park, changing batteries and memory cards (a replacement set of batteries and memory cards has already been left with the Park office). Specifically, we will endeavor to cover the Daily Supply Allowance (DSA) costs of the VNP staff who check the cameras. We hope that a camera-check can be done before the onset of the rainy season, meaning we hope that it can be done before the end of April. Therefore, I (Greg McCann) will push to have the fundraising party arranged as soon as possible. The party will be held in the city of Chicago in the USA.

Habitat ID will also help promote ecotourism in VNP. I recently published an article promoting the concept of “camera-trap ecotourism” in which visitors who trek to the Veal Thom Grasslands (where four of our cameras are strategically placed) can assist ranger Sou Soukern in checking the cameras. The article can be read on the Travelfish web site at: http://www.travelfish.org/feature/324

 

We believe that having ecotourists pay for camera-checks can lead to a sustainable way of doing these checks; the camera placed near D’dar Poom Chop river camp can also be checked with the help of ecotourists if they are brought to this camp (again, we highly recommend it due to the location’s extraordinary beauty). However, the cameras placed closer to the Laos border might only be able to be serviced with DSA money that has been raised as most trekkers probably do not want to go so deep into the park. On a final note regarding ecotourism promotion, Mongabay.com –one of the most popular environmental news sites on the Internet, as invited me to write an article for their Blog page, and I will do this in the coming weeks (Mongabay’s blog can be viewed here: http://blog.mongabay.com/). I will also continue to promote VNP ecotourism on Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forum as well as on Travelfish’ forum.

Sun bear claw mark

Sun bear claw mark

Setting up another camera in the Veal Thom Grasslands near a permanent swamp

Setting up another camera in the Veal Thom Grasslands near a permanent swamp

a jungle meeting just 400 meters from the Laos border. Several cameras were placed in strategic positions in this highly remote area.

a jungle meeting just 400 meters from the Laos border. Several cameras were placed in strategic positions in this highly remote area.

Our crew at the end of the  trek in Kompong Commune on the Sesan River.

Our crew at the end of the trek in Kompong Commune on the Sesan River.

 

 

 

 

Expedition on the horizon!

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There is less than 2 months to go till our Virachey National Park expedition in Cambodia, and the good news just keeps rolling in. Pierre-Yves Clais, who works at Ban Lung’s most exquisite resort, Lodge Terres Rouge, will be joining us. Pierre-Yves is a strong voice for conservation in Ratanakiri, and he recently penned a gripping article in The Cambodia Daily titled “The Temple at the Heart of a Dying Forest“. If you have a couple of minutes I highly, highly recommend reading that piece.

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The Sesan River with the mountains of Virachey NP in the distance

Our Indiegogo fundraiser has wrapped up, and we want to express our sincere thanks to all who donated and supported this effort. If anyone would still like to donate, you can do so right here on our web site at any time. We are still hoping to acquire several more cameras, GPS handsets, memory cards, and other essential tools for conservation in the jungle.

Bamboo pit viper

locked and loaded, a Chinese bamboo pit viper assumes attack formation

Anecdotal evidence about megafauna in Virachey continues to come in, but for the time being, something to fire the imagination! We will be posting another pre-trip update soon, so stayed tuned in! blog-1