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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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:
Have another gander:
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
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
Asian black bear
common palm civet
Red-shanked douc langur (though it appears much more black to me)
red muntjac (barking deer)
Lesser mouse deer
tree shrew (or rat, still trying to ID it)
Squirrel (still trying to ID it)
You can also see Howie Nielsen’s bird list, which tops 170 birds recorded from this expedition.