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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Off to the Field
The morning after the Clouded Leopard Summit, a group of about 25 participants and Kasetsart University Forestry staff members set off on our post-workshop field trip to Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary. Phu Khieo is notable for many reasons, one of which is that it was the site of the first-ever radio collar tracking study of clouded leopards. This Sanctuary is the current site of a number of field studies as well as the site of a KU field course. Therefore, our KU hosts had a great deal of knowledge about its wildlife and ecology giving us a real insider’s perspective of the Sanctuary. In Thailand, National Parks are more highly developed for tourism; Phu Khieo sees very few visitors and those that do come require special permits. Instead, the primary purpose of Wildlife Sanctuaries is for the protection of wildlife so they are usual quite a bit more pristine than the National Parks.

So, after a fairly claustrophobic seven-hour van journey surrounded by a mountain of luggage constantly threatening to decapitate those of us in the back seat, we arrived for a couple of days of hiking and wildlife viewing. I was especially pleased to be able to do some birding – both Dr. Naris and Dr. Ronglarp are experts at identifying species, even by call. Given the wide array of birds in the Sanctuary (and in my field guide!) this was a huge help as I would never have been able to figure them out before they flew off. I made some great additions to my life list, including an orange-breasted trogon and scarlet minivet. We also learned quite a bit about some of the medicinal and culinary plants in the forest. Our group split up to take several hikes about which we compared notes afterward. Our group was lucky enough to spot a rarely-blooming relative of the giant rafflesia flower of Borneo. However, it was no contest which group was the “winner:” Bill experienced a leech “attack” and had the gruesome blood stain to prove it, much to the appreciation of the rest of his group.(This really isn’t leech season as it is now dry, so his interactive wildlife viewing scored even more points.) Our ranger was amazing at finding wildlife sign for us, including quite a few tracks of porcupines, civets, leopard cats, and possibly a clouded leopard. After our hike the ranger and Dr. Ronglarp gave us a tour of the small museum that houses quite a few specimens. They showed us a number of plaster casts of tracks of a wide variety of mammals in Phu Khieo, from the giant gaur (a wild type of cattle) to the tiny leopard cat. We also saw a cast of a track from what was likely the last Sumatran rhino living in Thailand, taken in 1992.
While at the museum, the Superintendant of the Sanctuary rode up on her bicycle to say “hi.” This is astounding for two reasons: one, she is the first female Superintendant of any of Thailand’s Wildlife Sanctuaries, and two, she rode up on her bicycle to say “hi!.” Can you imagine if the head of Yellowstone or Yosemite rolled up to chat with a group of foreign visitors? I was especially pleased to see her wearing her stylish Clouded Leopard Project hat that I gave her when we met our first day.
We learned quite a bit about the various projects in the Sanctuary while we were there. The Department of Parks has done significant work restoring the region, including the reintroduction of rare species such as the Siamese fireback pheasant and the hog deer. We were lucky enough to see a few hog deer, both during a hike and during a night spot-lighting outing. They are fairly small deer – quite a bit smaller than a sambar (largest deer in Thailand and very tame around the headquarters) but a bit larger than the barking deer. Hog deer had been eliminated in the park but reintroduced in the 1980s and now have a stable population. Around the Sanctuary’s headquarters is a large expanse of grassland that was created especially for the deer. This area is burned annually to limit forest encroachment and provide habitat for not only the deer, but a rich variety of other species that utilize the grasslands for foraging or hunting.

We learned that the Queen of Thailand participated in the hog deer release and to accommodate her visit they built a whole set of facilities, including a beautiful lodge called, appropriately enough, The Queen’s House. The Queen stayed there over twenty years ago during her visit and has not returned since. However, the house is keep immaculate for her and no one else is allowed to use it or stay there. If I were the Queen, I would be back for frequent visits as this is her view:
Like all wild places in Thailand, Phu Khieo is not immune to the threat of poaching. The Sanctuary serves as a training facility for ranger staff throughout the country, teaching rangers to locate and apprehend poachers illegally harvesting wood and wildlife from the forest. Hopefully with their continued vigilance, Phu Kheio will remain a haven for the rapidly disappearing wildlife of Southeast Asia.


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