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Entries about wildlife

Wildlife blog #4: Little critters


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The wildlife blogs seem to have been popular, so I thought I'd do one final entry in the series which focusses on some of the cast of little critters we saw crawling, scuttling and skulking around this part of the world.

Turtle hatchling, Koh Adang

Turtle hatchling, Koh Adang

This turtle hatchling is a lucky fellow, the last of a dozen to be released back to the sea after hatching from a nest of 106 eggs. I happened upon two rangers from Tarutao National Park digging out the nest after an early-evening snorkel off Koh Adang. The location of the nest was no secret – the park staff had relocated the eggs here to prevent them ending up in a fisherman’s omelette. And what of the other eggs? Most of those unearthed had already hatched; tragically, about 30 hatchlings died before they made it down to the sea.

Mudskipper, Koh Lanta

Mudskipper, Koh Lanta

I was preoccupied with photographing the scenic fishing boats of Lanta Old Town when a soft plopping noise alerted me to this strange-looking creature. It’s a mudskipper, able to breathe air on land like an amphibian and underwater like a fish. Mudskippers live in mangrove forests and use their strong fins to gain a grip on rocks and tree trunks, hauling themselves out of the water at low tide. This one posed obligingly for a few seconds, then with a plop it was gone.

Tree frog, Khao Sok National Park

Tree frog, Khao Sok National Park

Fruit bat, Khao Sok National Park

Fruit bat, Khao Sok National Park

The welcome brochure in our Khao Sok jungle resort took great pains to explain that we would not not be alone in our wooden bungalow. It was normal to find lodgers in the nooks and crannies, geckos, spiders and frogs among them. Well, we were delighted to find all three, of which the orange frogs were the cutest. In the evening they were joined by a bat hanging beneath the verandah, which would have remained unnoticed were it not for the pile of bat poo on the wooden decking.

Tokay gecko, Koh Adang

Tokay gecko, Koh Adang

Striped Lizard, Ta Prohm temple ruins

Striped Lizard, Ta Prohm temple ruins

Lizards and geckos are camera-friendly, and few are more photogenic than the colourful chap I found clambering over the temple carvings in Cambodia. The coolest lizards were the gliding variety. A dozy individual was nimbly caught for us by our jungle guide in Khao Sok. To demonstrate its party trick, he tossed it high into the air. The lizard unfurled the flaps of skin between its front and back legs and sailed smoothly down on to a neighbouring tree trunk. Geckos famously stick to any surface, and can be quite endearing as you watch them clambering around your room. The big tokay geckos are most impressive, but my goodness me, they don’t half make a racket!

Clark's anemonefish on a coral reef in Tarutao National Park

Clark's anemonefish on a coral reef in Tarutao National Park


Christmas tree worm, Tarutao National Park

Christmas tree worm, Tarutao National Park


Pipefish, Tarutao National Park

Pipefish, Tarutao National Park

When I’m snorkelling over coral reefs I’m normally keeping an eye out for the big prizes – moray eels or giant groupers lurking under outcrops, trevallies and tuna flashing by or a turtle munching away on the algae at the bottom of the reef. These creatures are all impressive to behold, but there is just as much to look at within a single mound of coral. Dazzlingly colourful nudibranches and Christmas tree worms, tiny anthias and anemonefish flitting in and out of the reef and cleaner shrimp lurking in holes.

Hermit Crab, Koh Dong

Hermit Crab, Koh Dong

Our longtail boat beached itself on the idyllic white sands of Koh Dong, and we waded ashore with our picnic lunch of fried rice and chicken. No sooner had we sat down than it seemed as though every shell on the beach was on the march towards us. Each was home to a hermit crab. Pick one up and it would tuck itself neatly inside. A few seconds later it would bravely emerge again and give you a tickle with its claws, causing you to drop it back on the beach.

Chris with a millipede in Koh Lanta National Park

Chris with a millipede in Koh Lanta National Park


Butterfly, Khao Sok National Park

Butterfly, Khao Sok National Park

In the tropics, the bugs are big. Cicadas sound like chainsaws, bees like flying lawnmowers. Tiger leeches loop along zombie-like, beetles fly like malfunctioning helicopters, ants infest everything including rucksacks), spiders look like aliens and butterflies the size of birds flit silently through the undergrowth. It really is a jungle out there!

Posted by Chris Parsons 17:50 Archived in Thailand Tagged wildlife cambodia thailand Comments (0)

Wildlife blog #3: The wild side of Thailand


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Thailand is known more for its wild parties than wild animals, but away from the fleshpots of Bangkok and Phuket the country is blessed with some extraordinary natural treasures. We planned our fortnight in southern Thailand to include some of the area's wildlife hotspots, and we weren't disappointed.

The chain of karst mountains that we had seen earlier in our travels in Vietnam and Laos raise their heads again in southern Thailand. They stretch all the way from Guilin in China to Sarawak in Borneo, and are the eroded remains of an ancient coral sea that was thrust up when the Indian and Eurasian plates collided. The limestone peaks are at their loftiest in Khao Sok National Park, reaching to more than 3000ft, and it was here that we spent New Year.

The park was created in the 1970s to protect the rich tropical forests that cloak the hills, a dense jungle older than the Amazon rainforest. Subsequently, the creation of more National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the surrounding areas mean that Khao Sok is now part of the largest tract of old-growth forest in Southeast Asia. So vast is this protected area that it still holds viable populations of wild elephants, tigers and gaur. I decided this was the place to watch wildlife in Thailand.

It was not cheap. I planned a four-day tailor-made trip with a local tour company. As it was during the busy New Year period, we needed to travel deep into the forest to escape the hordes of partying Thais. The invoice ended in lots of zeros and required three trips to an ATM before we had a sufficiently fat wad of baht to pay for it.

A longtail boat ride through Khao Sok, Thailand's Guilin

A longtail boat ride through Khao Sok, Thailand's Guilin

Our tour started with a longtail boat ride across Chiew Lan Reservoir. This huge lake was created by the construction of the Ratchaprapha Dam in the 1980s. The energy generated by the dam now powers most of southern Thailand, but it remains a controversial project. The lake flooded the lowland forests to a depth of 90m, resulting in devastating loss and fragmentation of forest habitat. Now, the remnants of once-mighty trees still break the lake's surface and the wildlife of the park is continuing to be affected by the changes.

The remnants of the flooded forest

The remnants of the flooded forest

On a map, Chiew Lan looks like one of the fractal patterns you find in a maths textbook, each branch of the lake dividing into sub-branches and then sub-sub-branches, many of which remain untouched by human hand. One benefit of the lake's creation was to allow easier access to far reaches of the jungle. In turn, some local fishing families have turned their hands to ecotourism, building floating rafthouses to accommodate visitors. These allowed us to stay three nights on the lake and explore the Khlong Seang Wildlife Sanctuary, less visited than Khao Sok. Our guide was Kiem, a real character who could spot a monkey a mile off and tell you all about it in his unique brand of self-taught, "Me Tarzan, you Jane" English.

The Khlong Seang raft houses at sunset

The Khlong Seang raft houses at sunset

"Looking, looking! Monkey! Me not sure which. Him on ground near water. Now climbing. Climbing on bamboo. You see? Left from big-leaf tree. Now more! Sitting, watching on big branch. Him look at me. Now climbing, now jumping! Him jump in tree behind. Next one coming and jumping also. Now one left. You see him now? Also jumping, jumping! Now gone behind. Me no see him now."

Long-tailed macaque on the beach

Long-tailed macaque on the beach

Kiem was a star. On our daily boat safaris, morning and evening, we saw so much wildlife that Kiem’s monologues were played out again and again as he went into a spotting frenzy. But the forest was dense and primeval, and picking out the animals was not easy. Monkeys were amongst the most conspicuous. Both long-tailed macaques and dusky langurs came to the water’s edge to feed on fresh bamboo shoots. They are easy to tell apart – the langurs look as though they have fallen for the old comic-book joke of using binoculars with wet paint on the eyepieces, thanks to the white rings around their eyes. They also have endearing orange babies. I’m surprised a certain mobile phone company hasn’t cottoned on to them yet.

Hornbills are here too, and we saw four different kinds. The most majestic are the great hornbills. We watched one feeding on a fig tree, tossing the fruit into his huge beak and flapping from branch to branch. When they launch their heavy bodies into the air, their wing beats make a characteristic whooshing sound like a gaucho whirling a lasso round his head.

Great hornbill in a fruiting fig tree

Great hornbill in a fruiting fig tree

By far the most evocative noise in the forest is the haunting cry of gibbons, which carries for miles over the canopy each morning. Gibbons live in family groups and are monogamous; their calls are part of a daily ritual of singing and swinging to reinforce the pair bond. On our third morning we finally saw wild gibbons with our own eyes, doing what gibbons do best: hanging around, swinging and walking upright along branches, Man on Wire style.

The gibbons were a personal highlight, but our first night safari ran them a close second. The technique is to search the forest from the boat with a powerful spotlight, looking for eyeshine. Then the engine is cut and the light used to try to keep the animal frozen until the boat is close enough for us to see what it is. The biggest prize was a small wildcat (probably a leopard cat, though even Kiem was not certain). We also got a surprise when the boat drew up to the bank so Kiem could catch us a frog, only for him to discover a python climbing out of the water. Seconds later he spotted second python right behind it, and this one was a monster. Kiem leapt backwards and grabbed a paddle, leaving me in the line of attack and without a weapon. The python turned and started swimming towards us. We could see the whole of its body just under the surface, and I do not exaggerate when I say it was about 5m long. Fortunately it lost interest in us; I think python lovemaking was top of its agenda that night. I don't know how pythons do it but I presume there's quite a lot of squeezing involved.

Jungle Jen demostrates how to use binoculars

Jungle Jen demostrates how to use binoculars


And that's why they call him Parsons of the Apes

And that's why they call him Parsons of the Apes

Another of Thailand's natural wonders are its coral reefs, particularly those on the Andaman coast. The reefs are another ancient ecosystem, but have taken a battering in recent years due to coral bleaching and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. On the day after the seventh anniversary of that disaster, we left the harbour at Khao Lak on a boat bound for the Similan Islands for three days of snorkelling.

The female Parsonsfish approaches her quarry

The female Parsonsfish approaches her quarry

The reefs are now in a pretty bad state, and it will take decades for them to recover (assuming global warming doesn't kill them off completely), but other marine life around the islands is still abundant. Jumping off our boat at each site was like entering a giant aquarium. There is so much life here that it can be difficult to take it all in. Your eyes have to constantly roam the water ahead and to each side, as well as scanning the reef below.

Green turtle in the Similan Islands National Park

Green turtle in the Similan Islands National Park

We had the pleasure of swimming with sea turtles three days in a row, an experience that would have been worth the price of the trip alone. But we saw much else besides! Cuttlefish, squid, stingrays, sea snakes, giant morays, tuna, giant grouper and a whole smorgasbord of reef fish. The icing on the cake for me was seeing a blacktip reef shark. I was snorkelling so far from the boat that nobody else was with me, so I made sure to get a photo as proof. It’s probably the worst photo of a shark you’ll ever see, but I have to confess I wasn’t totally in control of my senses when I took it!

My shark photo - taken under stressful circumstances

My shark photo - taken under stressful circumstances


Pacific lionfish at Koh Lipe

Pacific lionfish at Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:39 Archived in Thailand Tagged wildlife thailand Comments (8)

Wildlife blog #2: Big trouble in Indochina


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The wildlife of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) is fascinating. This region lies at the crossroads between the Indian, Chinese and Sundaic ecological zones, and the fauna and flora is likewise transitional. There are representatives from all three neighbouring regions, plus some rare endemics (species unique to Indochina) with mysterious names. Ever heard of a kouprey? How about a saola?

Sadly, much of this incredible biodiversity is in peril. The all-too-familiar causes are poaching and habitat loss, driven by uncontrolled development in Vietnam and the sinister black market in trafficking animals to China. As if that weren't bad enough, dam construction on the Mekong River threatens to disrupt the ecology of the most important natural waterway in Southeast Asia.

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede

One of the region's most bizarre creatures, the giant long-legged cave centipede


The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

The dramatic karst scenery of Van Long Nature Reserve, North Vietnam

In Cuc Phuong National Park, a few hours' drive from Hanoi, we visited two conservation facilities which are fighting a losing battle to save species on the road to extinction. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center takes in monkeys and gibbons saved from the illegal wildlife trade, studies and breeds them in captivity and rehabilitates them for release back to the wild. The neighbouring Turtle Conservation Center does the equivalent for freshwater turtles, a prized delicacy on Chinese dinner tables. Both centres have collections of astonishingly rare animals, so valuable that they're targeted by the traffickers, and round-the-clock security is required.

Our tour of the primate centre was conducted by an impatient local guide, and was unfortunately over in 20 minutes. In that time we (very briefly) saw some of the world's rarest monkeys – Francois' langurs, Cat Ba langurs, black-, grey- and red-shanked douc langurs and gibbons. There's nothing pretty about the cage enclosures, but there is a two-hectare "semi-wild" enclosure (currently occupied by a group of Delacour's langurs) which is the monkeys' final home before release back to the wild.

The turtle tour was much better, thanks to our effervescent German volunteer guide. (Both centres are part-funded by Frankfurt Zoological Society, an example of the valuable contribution zoos can make to wildlife conservation.) We learned that there are just four known living specimens of the Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (a giant freshwater species weighing up to 200kg) left in the world. One lives in Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi and is revered by the locals. A Chinese zoo houses a breeding pair but they are producing infertile eggs. A fourth individual was recently caught in a reservoir in central Vietnam. Conservationists raced to the scene and persuaded the jubilant fisherman to release it, which was no mean feat as it was worth a minor fortune to him. Thanks to an intensive education programme, local villages now jealously guard "their" turtle. It may all be in vain as the only realistic prognosis for this species is extinction.

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

Jen handles one of the lucky guests at the Turtle Conservation Center

For some creatures, it's already too late. After we left the UK in September, it was reported that the last Javan rhino in Vietnam had been shot by poachers. A tiny population of rhinos clings on in a single Javanese national park. There are unconfirmed reports that Sumatran rhinos (the world's next rarest species) still inhabit Vietnam's forests, but the likelihood is that they became locally extinct in the early twentieth century.

Having blasted most of their wildlife out of the forests, the Vietnamese poachers are now moving into Laos and Cambodia (where habitat and wildlife is still recovering after being ravaged by the USA’s napalm bombing during the Vietnam War). A Laotian king once called his realm the "Land of a Million Elephants" – now there are only a thousand or so wild elephants left. Cambodia is blessed not only with verdant forests, but some of the world's most important wetlands. We had planned to visit one, the Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary near Siem Reap, which is home to millions of overwintering herons, storks and pelicans. That is, until we heard the price for a day trip. US$150 each? I like my birds, but even I balked at that!

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

The wildest thing we saw in Laos

More often than not, the animals we did see turned up in the least wild places – in our bedrooms, bathrooms and on our dinner table (see Food Blog #3). Local markets are also good places to come across wildlife that has met, or is about to meet, a sticky end. Luang Prabang had a morning food market where we found squirrels, frogs, caged birds and a monkey alongside the usual chickens, ducks and fish. There's a craze for keeping songbirds in cages in Southeast Asia. At the holy wats of Luang Prabang, you can purchase small birds in bamboo cages for instant release into the wild, which is believed to bestow good luck. It might be good luck for the bird which regains its freedom, and good business for the impoverished trader who maintains her livelihood this way, but by trying to help you are perpetuating a cruel trade and condemning many more birds to trapping in the future. We stopped for a photograph, but that was all.

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Caged birds for sale in Luang Prabang

Having said all this, there were places in Indochina where we saw real wildlife in the wild. In Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam, we ventured into a limestone cave and were freaked out by the giant cave crickets, spiders and long-legged centipedes, not to mention the bats flying round our heads. We traveled extensively by boat through the waterways of north Vietnam's karst landscape, and got great sightings of kingfishers on the banks. And in Cambodia, the jungly islands off the south coast still hum with insects, and the seas with reef fish. The future may be bleak, but it's not entirely hopeless.

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Common kingfisher in Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam


Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Striped sea catfish in the waters off Koh Rong, Cambodia

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:28 Archived in Vietnam Tagged wildlife cambodia vietnam laos indochina Comments (0)

Wildlife blog #1: Encounters in the Himalayas


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Happy New Year one and all! As our trip draws to a close, we are furiously cranking out the last few blogs - today you get three for the price of one.

I wrote about zoos in my previous blog, but there's no substitute for seeing an animal in the wild. In the Himalayas, there's always the chance of an animal encounter, and we've had some memorable ones on our previous trips to Nepal and India: seeing griffon vultures at close range as we climbed to a ridge on which they perched, glimpsing musk deer and colourful pheasants in the forests around Namche, tracking a group of tahr (a wild goat) up a steep hillside and finding langur monkeys in the rhododendron forests of the Annapurna Sanctuary. This trip provided many more such moments.

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

There are two species of monkey in the Nepal Himalaya, and both are relatively easy to spot. Rhesus macaques are bold opportunists and they happily live alongside people, even in major cities like Kathmandu and Agra. We saw a large group on the first night of our trek and a lone individual at about 2,500m in the Tsum Valley, which is about as high as they venture. Further up the same valley we came across a troupe of grey langurs sunbathing on the roof of an abandoned stone hut, and they posed obligingly for photographs. The monkeys here have an uneasy coexistence with the local farmers, for they come down from the trees to raid the fields of millet and tsampa (a local cereal crop). In response, the farmers build elevated wooden platforms overlooking the crops and post their children as sentries to watch for marauding monkeys. Any animal that comes within range gets scared off with a well-aimed rock. If ever we heard a high-pitched, disembodied voice crying "Namaste!" it was sure to be one of the local kids on monkey watch.

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Higher still, the pine and juniper forests peter out and one enters a realm of windswept pastures and rock debris. Other mammal species inhabit these high, inaccessible valleys. Marmots are usually heard before they are seen, betraying their whereabouts with a piercing alarm call. They are the same species as can be seen in the European Alps, only they seem fatter here. Mustelids - Himalayan weasels and yellow martens - also patrol these valleys, hunting small rodents like the pika and Himalayan rat. In the UK you have to be very lucky to see a wild weasel, but I've seen their Himalayan cousins on several occasions. We surprised one individual who had just caught a mouse, causing him to drop his dinner and scamper into the bushes. We waited patiently and sure enough he emerged a short while later, scampered back to his kill, grabbed it, stared at us for a few seconds and scarpered.

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

The aforementioned tahr is one of a number of large herbivores which graze the scrub and kharkas. The one most commonly encountered is the blue sheep or bharal. It is not a true sheep, but rather one of those strange-looking hybrid animals that appears to have been designed by a committee. Males grow large curved horns and look most impressive when they engage in combat on the precipitous mountainsides.

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

The blue sheep is curiously named
For its blueness is falsely claimed
If I were a ewe
I'd paint us all blue
To stop us from feeling ashamed

Baby blue sheep and fat marmots are the favourite prey of eagles. Our trekking guides pronounced any large bird of prey in the sky as an eagle, but most are in fact vultures. Griffon vultures are the highest fliers and are commonly seen in small groups, circling on thermal updraughts to great altitudes. Lammergeiers, or bearded vultures, are usually seen in pairs and track up and down valleys below the mountain summits. I watched a solitary lammergeier wheeling and swooping around the outcrop on which the village of Phu is constructed, and as we got closer it buzzed us several times, flying so low that I could make out its eyes and the mane of golden feathers around its nape. A large, solitary raptor is more likely to be an eagle, always flying purposefully. In the Himalayas, we saw a fair number of golden eagles, the species we know from the UK.

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La


Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

You have to be extremely fortunate to catch sight of other large predators in these mountains. They are rare, wary of humans and mostly nocturnal. But my most memorable wildlife moment on the Himalayan leg of our trip involved one such predator, and I didn't even see the animal in question. It was above the treeline in Sikkim, at an altitude of nearly 5,000m, that my guide and I came across fresh tracks in the snow. The lower forests harbour leopards, Asiatic black bears and red pandas, but the extreme altitude ruled out any of these candidates. They were the tracks of a Himalayan wolf, a rare subspecies of the grey wolf restricted to the remote corners of Nepal, northern India, Tibet and Pakistan. As if this were not exciting enough, further along the path we came across yet more tracks, this time a trail of much larger pawprints with a shallow groove running between them: tracks left by a snow leopard. The groove was created by the snow leopard's long tail trailing through the deep snow. An actual sighting of a snow leopard must count as the ultimate animal encounter, because of its inaccessible habitat, its beauty and scarcity and the fact that it almost exclusively hunts at night. In Nepal we trekked through the Annapurna and Manaslu Conservation Areas, both prime snow leopard habitat, but even here there are thought to be no more than five snow leopards per 100km2. To illustrate the difficulty of seeing one, even the experts at the BBC Natural History Unit took a year to locate a snow leopard, and a further year to obtain some decent footage of it, when they decided to film the species for Planet Earth. I would settle happily for a set of fresh tracks!

There is one creature of the Himalayas even more mythical and elusive than the snow leopard. Legends speak of a dark, human-like shape moving swiftly over ridges, huge footprints in the snow and eerie moaning cries in the night. It is of course the yeti. Did I see dark shapes moving swiftly over ridges, or huge footprints in the snow? I did not, more's the pity, though I was once woken with a start in the middle of the night by a strange moaning sound outside the tent. A yeti, perhaps? Chance would be a fine thing - it was only Jen bringing up her dinner.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:04 Archived in Nepal Tagged wildlife india himalayas nepal Comments (0)

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