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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.

 

3 Responses to Expedition 2015: Virachey National Park Preliminary Report by Greg McCann

  1. The tree that you wanted a name for (the one with the flaking bark) is probably Dacrydium elatum, a member of the Podocarpaceae – did you see the foliage?
    In 2005 I spent a fortnight in NE Virachay (close to the Vietnam border) looking for conifers – I went with Thon Soukhon and others. Unfortunately I’ve never managed to get back there – wonderful place.

    • Philip,
      Thank you very much for the information. I did not get a look at the foliage. The canopy was pretty thick and the tree was tall and we didn’t linger around there very long. We’ll be going back in January 2016. You’re welcome to join us if you can.
      -Greg

  2. Hi Greg
    At the moment I’m probably going to be working in Nakai in Lao PDR next January.
    If you come across any unusual plants in flower/ fruit that you want identified, then feel free to send photos to me at the RBGE – there are a few people here interested in the flora of Cambodia and Lao who are usually willing to have a look.
    Good luck with the January trip

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