Friday, January 30, 2009

Clouded Leopard Summit Draws to a Close
It’s hard to believe, but it is really over. We wrapped up the Summit today with what might have been the most hectic day yet. Our working groups hammered out the goals and action steps we wanted to undertake to move forward in addressing the issues we identified yesterday. This was the real meat of the meeting; all the work so far led up to being able to get this done. I will provide much more information on the process and actual results of the Summit once I return to the U.S. next week. It really was a fascinating process to see the evolution of not only our conservation strategy, but also to see how the working groups coalesced after spending so much time working together on issues of such great concern to us all. As the lone educator in my Borneo working group I learned a ton from my field biologist colleagues. For instance, I never realized how excited researchers get about a newly discovered satellite map detailing Borneo’s forest cover: (Note: this is not a posed photo!)
I was really pretty na├»ve about the amount of work this Summit would entail. I had been working non-stop on preparations for several months prior to the meeting and thought that once we began, I would devote all my attention to being a participant. This was definitely NOT the case. I had a million details to attend to which unfortunately precluded my ability to really get to know some of our participants better. However, I’m comforted by the fact that they all had many opportunities to network among themselves and I could tell that the meeting really helped facilitate the forging of connections that I’m sure will be long-lasting. This was one of the primary goals of the Summit so we can be very pleased that this was achieved.

Speaking of being busy, in the midst of frantically trying to help our working group complete our tasks, I had to break for a midday press conference. We really wanted to invite the press to hear the results of the meeting in order to publicize the plight of clouded leopards and other small cats. Press conferences here in Thailand are fairly formal affairs with a panel presenting information to the media. Our panel had representatives from Kasetsart University, the Department of National Parks, the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand, one of our facilitators Christine Breitenmoser from the IUCN, and both JoGayle Howard and I. We weren’t sure if anyone would show up, so we were pleased to welcome reporters from eleven different media, including four television stations. It was an interesting experience trying to appear fascinated with the proceedings when it was all in Thai!
The event wrapped up with more group reporting and a brief closing ceremony where participants received lovely certificates. We then adjourned to the patio for one more amazing dinner and last conversations with new friends. As usual, our host Dr. Naris had arranged for more of his talented students to entertain us – this time fire spinners! It was pretty cool.
Andreas complained that I hadn't posted any photos of him yet (even though he gets prominent coverage in this space due to our support of his Borneo research project!) so here he is enjoying a Singha beer with Carl Traeholt.Tomorrow morning a group of about twenty of us are heading off on our field trip to Phu Kheow Wildlife Sanctuary. We’ll stay two nights, touring and hearing presentations about research efforts in the Sanctuary. Afterwards we head straight to Khao Kheow Open Zoo to visit the clouded leopard breeding project. We’ll be checking in on the cubs born in November – we can’t wait! I won’t be able to report back until returning to Bangkok for one night before heading home. I’ll provide much more information about everything in the upcoming weeks so stay tuned!

Oh, I forgot to introduce our meeting’s mascot. This is a newly discovered tiger/clouded leopard hybrid:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cat Conservation is Hard Work!

Wow, what a day. Did we ever WORK! We spent most of the day in our working groups identifying the issues and threats facing the felids in our region. Once we teased out the details, my working group, Borneo, identified over 20 different threats and issues influencing cat conservation. Since it is unrealistic to think that this group has the power to actually impact all of those issues, we prioritized using two different criteria: what issues negatively impact cats the most (i.e. conversion of forest to oil palm plantations vs. direct hunting for trade) and which are issues we can actually do something about (filling gaps in scientific knowledge of cats vs. increasing law enforcement.) We want our final recommendations and action steps to be real and achievable by the members of this workshop – mostly field biologists with an educator (me!) thrown in for good measure. If we had a contingent of government representatives who have the power to influence legislation, our priority issues might have been different.

Cracking the whip to keep all the working groups on task all day was Onnie. Here she is in action!

As soon as work ended today, our hosts once again whisked us off for another Thai adventure, this time a dinner cruise along the Chao Praya River. This proved to be another great bonding opportunity for the group, with the added bonus of some great scenery of Bangkok at night. As is standard practice for any celebration in Southeast Asia, the karaoke machine was broken out almost immediately, with the first tune being the ever-popular Country Roads. There definitely must be a Thailand branch of the John Denver fan club as I have heard this number performed at every karaoke event I have attended (several) over my years visiting here. I do have video proof and will insert it when I have more time.

As we pulled up to the restaurant that operates our dinner cruise (The Dairy Queen!), I spied a fruit vendor on the corner and to my complete amazement and delight they had both mangosteens and mangoes for sale! These are my two very favorite fruits and I had been told that they were out of season and had not seen them anywhere. I had to pay a bit, but I was a very happy camper… I must wrap up so I can go enjoy my three kilos of fruit!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

All Work and No Play...

Everything they say about Thai hospitality is absolutely true. Dr. Naris and his staff continue to surprise us with their incredible attention to every detail. With no prompting from us, they arranged a fantastic welcome dinner for us all immediately after our opening day of the meeting today. We had a tour of the KU Forestry museum to learn about some of their research and then it was on to a full Thai banquet, complete with entertainment by traditional Thai musicians and dancers. Making the performance extra special was the news that some of the performers were actually Forestry Dept. students! These folks just keep amazing us…

One of the most important goals of this meeting is to facilitate the creation of a network for biologists working in the field throughout the region. Such networking happens while completing the working group tasks, but the real bonding occurs over beers (or juice/coffee/tea) during breaks. So having this icebreaker went a long way in helping to forge relationships between participants that we hope will continue into the future.

And, for full disclosure, Dr. Naris conspired with the dancers to get me to show off my best Thai dance moves. As someone completely bereft of both the grace and rhythm genes, this had turn of events had catastrophic potential. Luckily, it didn’t go as badly as I feared as I tried to Gumby my fingers into the impossibly elegant poses of my instructor. Don’t worry, I won’t be giving up my day job!

The Clouded Leopard Summit Begins!

Hurray! The big day arrived and we actually got through everything without a hitch. It was a wonderful, but draining first day of the workshop. I think all the stress of planning that I was trying to ignore finally emerged as complete exhaustion this evening. I really just want to collapse into bed, but I know that many of you are waiting to hear how things went. So bear with me…this post won’t be my most scintillating, but hopefully it will give you a flavor of the day.

We started off with all the ceremony befitting such an auspicious event with welcome remarks by the Vice President of the University and the Dean of the Faculty of Forest. Following that, JoGayle and I also offered our welcome – mine with a bit of a shaky voice as I struggled with the emotions of finally realizing a moment that began years ago as what I thought was just a crazy dream! Then we were underway. Our facilitator Onnie had us begin with brief introductions of ourselves. We ended up with 70 participants starting off in the morning – we had expected just over 50! Many of these folks were faculty and some students of the University who were only attending briefly. Later in the day we were reduced in number to a much more manageable 55 or so. As the primary wrangler of participants through the invitation, registration, and logistical process over the last many months, it was wonderful to finally put faces to all the names I had come to know so well. I hope I get time to get to know all these folks who are giving their time and energy to attend this meeting.

After introductions, the first order of business was for Dr. David Reed of the University of Mississippi to give an overview of the preliminary results of the data collection he undertook prior to the meeting. We had asked participants to contribute their data and complete a survey on clouded leopards and the other small cats being studied ahead of time so we could have some idea of the species’ status and threats.

After breaking for lunch and enjoying our first opportunity to meet our fellow participants, we dove into the real work of the meeting – assessment of cat populations and threats by region. We broke into 5 working groups based on our areas of expertise and based on the numbers of participants from each region. The working groups were: Borneo, Sumatra, Lao/Cambodia/Vietnam, Northern Thailand, Southern Thailand/Peninsular Malaysia. I joined the Borneo group and Karen G. joined Northern Thailand. As I am not a field biologist, I didn’t have too much to contribute to this portion of the meeting, but it was fascinating to watch the process – especially the spirited debate about estimating population status. (More on that for a future post.)

We spent all afternoon hashing out the reporting forms and noting cat habitat on our maps. This was a REALLY tedious process for all the groups, but everyone worked really hard to get the work done. It was amazing to see this information coming together in a form that will later be used to identify gaps in our knowledge about our focal species. For example, in many of the locations identified as being suitable cat habitat, there is no knowledge at all on whether or not any of the species are even present, let alone knowing what their population size is. Many other questions remain such as the stability of populations, impacts of various threats, and potential for connectivity between suitable habitat patches to accommodate increased population sizes.

Tomorrow morning we return to a single group for a plenary session to discuss the findings of each working group before re-grouping to take on the next task.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dinner With a Diplomat
We capped off our busy day with a dinner meeting with Hal Howard, the Southeast Asia Environmental Affairs Officer with the U.S. State Department. We met with Hal to learn about how the Embassy can provide assistance with our conservation efforts. We explored a number of ways that we might be able to collaborate to advance clouded leopard and felid conservation. In fact, Hal will be meeting next month with teachers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to talk about environmental education in the region and may be able to provide contacts to explore new opportunities to share our educational materials.

We really enjoyed hearing about Hal’s life in the diplomatic services – a fascinating life of rotating three-year postings around the world. He recently joined the Thailand Embassy after postings in Iraq and Peru. We especially enjoyed our “small world” moment with Hal when we learned that he once worked as a paramedic in Tacoma and Gig Harbor, CLP’s home base! We were supposed to wrap up dinner with my sought after sticky rice, but they were all out for the night so we enjoyed some coconut ice cream instead. Not sticky rice, but not bad.
Final Preparations for the Summit

Well, after a year of conceptualizing and another year of planning our big meeting is nearly here. Today was a busy day of final arrangements and greeting some of the first-arriving participants. We were thrilled to wake up this morning to find that two of our facilitators had arrived: Our good friends Onnie Byers and Kathy Traylor-Holzer from the IUCN Conservation Breeding Specialist Group. These two intrepid women travel the world facilitating similar meetings and

have a great approach for fostering a team atmosphere to achieve a meeting’s goals. I was lucky enough to be a participant in a prior planning meeting with them and was very impressed with their strategy. Arriving tonight to complete the facilitation team will be Christine Breitenmoser from the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. We are so happy that these three conservation professionals will be at the helm of the Summit.

The Amazing Onnie in action!

First thing this morning we met with Damrong Sripraram, the Dean of Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Forestry to go over the Summit agenda and related details. He will be on hand to give opening remarks tomorrow. It’s great to see the faculty’s interest in the meeting and to hear their plans for future small felid research in Thailand. We were also hosted by the Director General of the Department of National Parks, Mr. Chatchawan Pitdamkham. He was very interested in hearing the details of the meeting and stressed his goal of doing whatever he can to protect Thailand’s wildlife. We also anticipate his appearance at our opening or closing ceremony and the participation of some of his staff members.

In between meetings we collated maps and data sheets, stuffed participant gift bags, reviewed the budget, revised the press release, and attended to numerous other small details. Our organizing work has been made extremely easy due to the work of our primary Kasetsart University liaison, Nat. Nat is attending to all the details of participant lodging, registration, transportation, and running all manner of errands. He is a lifesaver! I’ll post a photo of him tomorrow.

We did get a quick break for lunch and enjoyed a great meal of chicken and rice in the open air student cafeteria – a heaping plateful for under $1! It’s nice to have gotten away from the tourist areas to enjoy real Thai prices. The last two nights we ate at a great restaurant with entrees for about $4. The same type of food (but not as good!) was $10 in the tourist area of Bangkok. Sadly, I haven’t had sticky rice in two days. This is an untenable situation and something that needs prompt attention! I better get to work…

Monday, January 26, 2009

Thailand Zoo Association Visit
Today we were hosted by the wonderful folks at The Zoological Park Organization. This group oversees the five government zoos in Thailand. These facilities are leaders in wildlife conservation and research in the region and have an impressive staff complement of experts in these fields. This is the organization that hosts the clouded leopard breeding project managed by Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Nashville Zoo. The ZPO’s headquarters is at Dusit Zoo, located in the heart of Bangkok. (Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to actually see much of the zoo due to our busy work agenda.)

This meeting was arranged by JoGayle Howard from the National Zoo to touch base about the breeding project with the leaders of the ZPO, especially its Director General Mr. Sophon. JoGayle has long-term relationships with Mr. Sophon and many other ZPO staff members so everyone enjoyed the chance to re-connect in person. Also joining us was Rick Passaro, the breeding project manager. Rick and JoGayle provided a review of the breeding program and discussed the potential of identifying additional opportunities to collaborate for keeper training and the development of promotional and educational opportunities regarding the project. This project has been supported for many years by the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, both financially and by sending a relief manager Andy Goldfarb to provide Rick with vacation time. We also may be providing additional assistance with the staff training and education components of the project in the future.

We also apprised Mr. Sophon and the ZPO’s Assistant Director, Mr. Boripat of the Felid Summit. They generously offered the ZPO’s public relations office to distribute a news release about the meeting to gain media coverage of our press event on the final evening of the Summit. We are very grateful for this as they have an established network of press contacts that will hopefully result in significant coverage of the meeting, thereby promoting the importance of our conservation efforts and the action plan for cat conservation in the region.

As we have quickly come to expect during our time in Thailand, Mr. Sophon and his staff were amazing and generous hosts, sharing a fantastic meal of never-ending taste treat sensations for our lunch break. As a very small thank you, I gave Mr. Sophon a CLP cap – I think he liked his gift!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Suwadee From Thailand
After seventeen hours of flight time, a stopover at Tokyo's Narita Airport, and transition through who-knows-how-many time zones, we've arrived in Bangkok. We had a great flight - you gotta love Northwest's video-on-demand system. With all those movies at our fingertips we didn't even have to waste time being jealous of the comfort-pod-travellers up in Business Class. Traveling with me is Dr. Karen Goodrowe Beck, Point Defiance Zoo's General Curator. Karen has been a huge supporter of both the CLP and my conservation efforts at the Zoo so I am thrilled she is able to attend and help facilitate the Felid Summit.

Caution: Product Placement Ahead... Please bear with me a minute as this blog takes a brief promotional break. My wonderful husband gave me an Amazon Kindle for my birthday recently. If you aren't familiar with this little gem, it is incredible! It is an electronic book reading device that holds hundreds of titles in a machine that is smaller than most paperbacks. As someone who becomes very fretty with the prospect of running out of reading material on international trips, this is a lifesaver as well as a backsaver. No longer do I tote 87 pounds of books. Instead, I just download them wirelessly from Amazon and carry them with me in my purse! This was my first long trip with the Kindle and boy, am I sold! It is easy to use, and getting use to it compared to a real book is a breeze. I HIGHLY recommend it for avid readers. (Amazon, I think the CLP deserves a donation for that little plug!)

We spent the day following our arrival (at 2am) acclimating and doing a bit of sightseeing. This is my fourth visit to Bangkok, but Karen's first so we did a few required stops to the Grand Palace, Reclining Buddha, and a boat ride on the Chao Praya River. So far the weather here is great - just warm instead of roasting - with even a coolish breeze. It's a very pleasant surprise for me as I tend to melt in the tropics.

Today we met with our hosts at Kasetsart University, Dr. Naris and Nat, to touch base about plans for the Summit and visit the meeting spaces. We are very impressed with the preparations they have made to welcome the participants and organize things for us. Their efforts will make this a very well-orchestrated event. Tomorrow we are meeting with the Director of the Zoological Parks Organization. This is the association of Thai zoos, similar to North America's Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The ZPO is a sponsor of the meeting and is host to the clouded leopard breeding project at Khao Kheow Open Zoo. We'll be visiting the zoo at the end of the trip.

Tonight the mission is to find some noodles for dinner. I've not wasted any time locating my favorite Thai food. I've already had sticky rice twice, coconut ice cream, banana shake, and yummy grilled pork from a street vendor. I love Thailand!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thailand Wild Cat Summit Draws Near
This morning I am off to Thailand for our long-anticipated Clouded Leopard and Small Felid Conservation Summit. A great deal of planning on the part of multiple collaborators has brought this all together for what will hopefully be a successful event for wild cat conservation. Attending the meeting will be over fifty wild cat conservationists working in all the Southeast Asian clouded leopard range countries. The meeting starts on the 28th, but we will be arriving early for planning and some ancillary meetings. We want to extend our extreme gratitude to all our sponsors and donors who have made it possible to bring participants to the meeting who would not otherwise be able to attend. I will be providing frequent updates as the meeting progresses, so stay tuned to learn more about the action as it unfolds!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Tigers Gain Increased Protection in Malaysia
In response to the recent case of tiger poaching in Malaysia that I reported here earlier this week (a clouded leopard carcass was part of the seizure by Thai custom officials), Malaysia has stepped up a plan to not only protect, but increase the tiger population in that country. Currently only 500 tigers are thought to remain there and officials pledge to take action to increase that number to 1000 by 2020. This will be achieved though a partnership of government agencies and wildlife conservation organizations and includes increased action to bust and prosecute poachers, protect prey species, and increase sustainable forestry practices. If the program succeeds it will enhance not only tiger populations but protect other species, such as the clouded leopard, that shares the ever-shrinking forest habitat in Malaysia.
For more on the story: Lifeline for Tigers

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Master of Camouflage
Thanks to Dolly Priatna, Luser Management Unit, for sharing this great camera trap photo taken in Gunung Lueser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia. It is amazing to see that camouflage in action!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Clouded Leopard Elicits Primate Mobbing Behavior

We've recently been in touch with Andreas Koenig, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University. He and his team plan to conduct a study to observe the reaction of Phayre's leaf monkeys in Thailand to the recorded vocalizations of clouded leopards. We plan to send Andreas recordings of our male clouded leopard that he will play back to observe the monkeys' response to what is assumed to be a chief natural predator.

Researchers have twice previously observed a group of Phayre's demonstrating mobbing behavior. In these instances, the appearance of a clouded leopard in a tree occupied by a group of monkeys caused most of the group to flee some distance. However, four individuals remained relatively near the cat, vocalizing continuously for up to two hours. Mobbing behavior is seen in many species (although has rarely been recorded in primates) and is thought to draw attention to a predator as well as prompt it to leave the area after having its presence exposed.
Phayre's leaf monkey photo by Carola Borries

For details on the observation see: Lloyd, et. al. Observation of Phayre’s leaf monkeys mobbing a clouded leopard at Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary (Thailand) Mammalia (2006): 158–159

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fun with Bones
Nothing brings out the beast like bone day...well in Josie, at least. Today I feature a study in contrasts between our two cats, personality-wise. First, Josie scores her bone:

For those of you who might think that a cute clouded leopard would make a cuddly pet, check out Josie in bone mode. Remember, this is our sweet, hand-reared, handleable cat guarding her "kill."

But wait...there's more... Bear in mind her bone is two enclosures away and I am not going anywhere near it!

Now, let's go just across the hall from Josie, but miles down the spectrum of clouded leopard demeanor. Observe placid Raja with his bone. Our mellow boy is always ready with a chuffed greeting, even when indulging his carnivorous passions. No snarling, lunging, or other over-reactions to our presence so close to his precious bone.

And this is the cat that we no longer handle! Go figure...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Poachers Busted, Too Late for Clouded Leopard
Police in Thailand arrested two poachers after seizing the remains of tigers from a truck passing through a tourist area. The tigers were believed to be smuggled from Malaysia and were on the way to China. In the photo below from The Daily Mail Online, note that there is also a clouded leopard carcass although its presence was not mentioned in the article. This photo is shocking, but important to see to understand the real-life impact of the endangered wildlife trade.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Studying Cats in Sumatra

Jennifer McCarthy, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amhearst has recently begun her research project studying the cats of Indonesia's Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park on the island of Sumatra. The goal of the project is to capture clouded leopards, marbled cats, and golden cats and fit them with VHS or GPS collars for tracking. Trapping efforts in one site within the park yielded no felids, so they have now moved to another site where camera trap images indicate a high felid density. On December 13 after only thirteen days of trapping in the new site they captured a female golden cat! The cat is now being tracked using a VHS collar. She is the first golden cat collared in Indonesia and only the third Asiatic golden cat ever collared. The data gathered through tracking her movements and activity will provide much-needed information about this little known cat. We wish Jennifer and her team well and hope they will be successful in catching a clouded leopard soon!

Thanks to Jennifer for sharing her field report. Check it out if you'd like more detail on the project.