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Bears, cats, and mystery mammals: camera traps in ‘paper park’ prove it’s worth protecting

Camera traps catch endangered species in remote park in Cambodia



A rare Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) dashes past a camera trap in Virachey National Park. This species is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Photo by: Habitat ID.


Can a single photograph change the fate of a park? A new conservation group, HabitatID, believes so, and is putting this belief into action. Setting up camera traps in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park, the group hopes that photos of charismatic and endangered species will help reinvigorate protection for a park that has essentially been abandoned by other conservation groups and underfunded by the government. Already the first series of photos—over 11 weeks—has captured several stunning animals, including clouded leopard, the Asiatic black bear, and perhaps even a new species of mammal.



“Many parks across the region are being described as ’empty forests’—that is, relatively intact forest ecosystems that have been emptied of most large mammals and other animals due to intense hunting pressure,” Greg McCann, one of the co-founders of HabitatID, told mongabay.com. “Our camera trap results prove that Virachey is not an empty forest and is, in fact, full of wildlife. Our results show just how resilient wildlife is in Virachey and just how important it is that action is taken now to protect it.”



Virachey, which spreads over 300,000 hectares, is a part of a vast protected area network that is larger than Connecticut. But this region has been devastated by poaching, illegal logging, mining, and other industrial projects. Virachey is no exception, which has led many to write it off as a place still viable for big animals.



“The park is so huge and the threats seemingly so vast and complex that truly protecting Virachey seems like a daunting if not impossible task. This view is understandable,” said McCann. “The magnitude of the threats (economic land concessions, encroachment, logging, poaching) make it seem like only the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could foot the bill, and many NGOs don’t have the funding to take up a challenge of these proportions. Logistics and money are therefore two important reasons. Rumors abound about development plans, and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. However, with a dedicated staff, a vibrant ecotourism policy, mining concessions that have gone nowhere, and the unsuitability of Virachey’s steep terrain for agribusiness, I think there is reason to have some hope.”





A majestic sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) takes a morning mud bath. An important prey species for tiger, the sambar deer is listed as Vulnerable. Photo by: Habitat ID.



HabitatID has taken their distinct vision—of reigniting interest in parks through camera trap photography—one step further: the group has crafted the first-ever camera trap tourism venture. For a fee, hikers in Virachey, along with a range, now have the opportunity to be the first to check HabitatID’s remote camera traps, which McCann says allows the camera traps to be serviced frequently.



“Everyone huddles around just dying to see what’s in [the camera],” says McCann. “It’s thrilling, especially when there is a real chance of finding leopards, bears, gaur, elephants, and other large and rare mammals. And in addition to having the cameras serviced, tourists are also paying for a ranger patrol (rangers always accompany tourists), so this activity also puts more boots on the ground, giving loggers and poachers something to think about.”



He hopes other wildlife groups and tourism outfits start similar camera-trapping tourism efforts, allowing eco-tourists a glimpse into conservation efforts.



McCann is also hopeful for a few big surprises down the roads, telling mongabay.com that locals say Javan rhinos may still be found in the park’s remotest parts (even though they are considered extinct in mainland Asia). Tigers may also hang on in remote portions of the park. And something even more spectacle is said to haunt the mountains’ forests: Southeast Asia’s bigfoot.



“The tek-tek, or Annamite Mountain Yeti! Locals are adamant that this cryptic species, which goes by the name of Orang Pendak in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia, haunts the remote sacred peaks that separate Cambodia and Laos. Both U.S. servicemen and Viet Cong soldiers claim to have seen and fired on them during the war,” he says.



In a June 2014 interview, Greg McCann discusses the discoveries from Habitat ID’s first round of photos and the parks the groups hopes to work in next.



McCann is also the author of, Called Away by a Mountain Spirit, which details his travels in Virachey National Park. The book has recently been re-released with updates concerning camera-trapping and other developments.



INTERVIEW WITH GREG McCANN





Mera Mountains rising from the Yak Yeuk Grasslands in Virachey. Photo by: Howie Nielsen.



Mongabay: Why did you start Habitat ID?



Greg McCann: Some friends and I started up this organization because there are many national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Southeast Asia that are just “paper parks,” meaning their protected status is merely paperwork. Yet these parks are set in magnificent rainforests and rumors abound that rare wildlife holds on deep in their rugged interiors. When you see how beautiful and huge some of these places are—parks like Virachey in Cambodia and Gunung Leuser in Sumatra—it really gets the imagination firing. Local people often say that whatever is left of the wildlife is way, way back in the mountains. I wanted to discover if it’s true, and if rare wildlife really does hang on back in the hinterlands, to try to convince the government and others to better protect it by proving that these parks are truly valuable based on our camera-trap images.



Mongabay: What makes Virachey National Park in Cambodia so special?



Greg McCann: For starters, its location, its beauty, and its size. Virachey comprises the southern half of a mysterious western arm of the Annamite Cordillera, and fauna and flora from both the Annamite Mountains and the Cambodian plains can be found there. Furthermore, there are several spectacular grasslands, such as Phnom Veal Thom and Yak Yeuk, which create large upland savannah areas amidst lush tropical forest. It’s simply stunning to behold.



Wedged up into the northeastern corner of Cambodia, Virachey is contiguous with four other “protected” areas: Voen Sai-Siem Pang Protected Forest (55,000 hectares in Cambodia), Nam Kong Provincial Protected Area (100,000 hectares in Laos), Dong Amphan National Protected Area (197,500 hectares in Laos), and Chu Mom Ray National Park (56,000 hectares in Vietnam). Virachey itself is 325,000 hectares, so taken together you have over 700,000 hectares of parks and protected areas, with Virachey at the core. That’s gargantuan for mainland Southeast Asia.





A clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) photographed in daylight in remote Virachey. This species is also considered Vulnerable. Photo by: Habitat ID.



Unfortunately, all of these protected areas are under threat and some of the links adjoining them have been compromised, especially with Chu Mom Ray and Dong Amphan. And the park, as you can see by looking at the photos in this article, is still brimming with wildlife. In addition, the Park rangers and indigenous guides put together outstanding treks for ecotourists—the best in Southeast Asia as far as I’m concerned. Finally, there are still many remote canyons and mountains that conservationists have never been to.



Mongabay: Many conservation groups have simply abandoned working in Virachey. Why?



Greg McCann: The park is so huge and the threats seemingly so vast and complex that truly protecting Virachey seems like a daunting if not impossible task. This view is understandable. The magnitude of the threats (economic land concessions, encroachment, logging, poaching) make it seem like only the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could foot the bill, and many NGOs don’t have the funding to take up a challenge of these proportions. Logistics and money are therefore two important reasons. Rumors abound about development plans, and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. However, with a dedicated staff, a vibrant ecotourism policy, mining concessions that have gone nowhere, and the unsuitability of Virachey’s steep terrain for agribusiness, I think there is reason to have some hope.



ANIMALS ON CAMERA



Mongabay: Will you share with us the preliminary results of your camera trap findings?





An as-yet-unidentified civet cat from Virachey. Photo by: Habitat ID.



Greg McCann: We were thrilled to get pictures of clouded leopard, leopard cat, an as-yet unidentified cat (possibly marbled or fishing cat), gaur, Asiatic black bear, sun bear, Chinese serow (possibly the first record for Northeast Cambodia), yellow-throated marten, and what might be a new species of civet cat (see photo below—and if anyone can ID it, write it in the comments below!), among others.



Mongabay: How many species have you recorded on this first round?



Greg McCann: We got 18 species of mammals and one bird, the Siamese fireback (Lophura diardi). In addition, when we were in the field we found elephant tracks, heard gibbons almost every day, heard hornbills, and found a Chinese water dragon.



Mongabay: What animals have you been most surprised to discover on the camera trap?



Greg McCann: I didn’t think we’d get a clouded leopard in just a few weeks of shooting and in daylight. That was a treat. I was also surprised by the Asiatic black bear and the gaur. Black bears are not common in Cambodia and we hadn’t encountered any gaur dung in the area where we set up our cameras.



Mongabay: Any species on camera trap that were uncertain or not known to occur in Virachey?





This photo may be the first documented proof that the Chinese serow (Capricornis milneedwardsii) is found in northeast Cambodia. A strange mammal, the Chinese serow is in the goat-antelope or caprid family. This species is considered Near Threatened. Photo by: Habitat ID.



Greg McCann: The Chinese serow may not have been documented before, though hunters said they were present. And we have that mysterious civet cat with the single white ring near the tail to ponder.



Mongabay: I know you can’t tell us if you have photos of certain sensitive species, such as tigers or Javan rhinos, the latter which has been officially deemed extinct in mainland Southeast Asia. But how hopeful are you that you might record these?



Greg McCann: I am hopeful. Locals say there are still some rhinos left. They say the Javan rhino’s dung is worth its weight in gold and can cure any disease—now that’s a reason to have them alive instead of hunted out! As far as tigers go, the habitat is there and there is certainly a substantial prey base of deer and pigs. Locals are unsure of the tiger’s status, but they claim to have seen a large leopard chasing a pig fairly recently.



Virachey still holds some surprises, among them the tek-tek, or Annamite Mountain Yeti! Locals are adamant that this cryptic species, which goes by the name of Orang Pendak in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia, haunts the remote sacred peaks that separate Cambodia and Laos. Both U.S. servicemen and Viet Cong soldiers claim to have seen and fired on them during the war. The creature goes by the name of batutut in Vietnam (oddly, it goes by the same name in Borneo), briau in Laos, and tua yeua in Thailand. We’d love to have a tek-tek show up in one of our cameras!



Also, supposedly there is a Siamese Crocodile pool on the upper reaches of the O Lai Lai River. The only confirmed breeding population of Siamese crocs is in the Cardamom Mountains in the southwestern part of the country. Confirmation of a viable population in Virachey would be a big deal.



Mongabay: Why should evidence from even these first camera traps renew interest in Virachey as more than just a ‘paper park’?





A sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), considered Vulnerable, roaming Virachey at night. Photo by: Habitat ID.



Greg McCann: Many parks across the region are being described as “empty forests”—that is, relatively intact forest ecosystems that have been emptied of most large mammals and other animals due to intense hunting pressure. Our camera trap results prove that Virachey is not an empty forest and is, in fact, full of wildlife. Our results show just how resilient wildlife is in Virachey and just how important it is that action is taken now to protect it. And remember that all these photos were obtained in just 11 weeks.



Mongabay: Do any camera traps currently remain unchecked and how long will these camera traps remain in the field?



Greg McCann: No, they were all checked at the beginning of May, but the exciting thing is that the cameras will be filming all summer long, and we’ll be installing more in January 2015.



ECOTOURISM AND CAMERA TRAPS



Mongabay: Will you tell us about your unique program in employing eco-tourists to help check camera traps more frequently?





A massive gaur in a forest clearing. This species is also Vulnerable. Photo by: Habitat ID.



Greg McCann: Our plan is to help create a sustainable way for camera-traps to be serviced. Batteries need to be changed, memory cards switched, and foliage cleared, among other things. Unfortunately, the Park does not have a budget to send rangers in to do these tasks (the same is true for most parks in Southeast Asia). So the idea is to have ecotourists pay for the experience.



Trekkers visit the Veal Thom Grasslands as they normally would on the seven-day circuit, only instead of just crashing out at camp they go out and service our camera traps. This is a lot more exciting than it might sound. There is a palpable feeling of excitement for the whole crew as those cards are pulled out of the camera trap and stuck into a hand held camera for an immediate check of the images. Everyone huddles around just dying to see what’s in there. It’s thrilling, especially when there is a real chance of finding leopards, bears, gaur, elephants, and other large and rare mammals. And in addition to having the cameras serviced, tourists are also paying for a ranger patrol (rangers always accompany tourists), so this activity also puts more boots on the ground, giving loggers and poachers something to think about.



We also set up a new camping spot at a stunning pool in the upper Gan Yu River called D’dar Poom Chop. Tourists can check the cameras there and swim in a lovely stretch of this river.



Mongabay: How successful has this program been to date?





A yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula) checks out the camera trap. This species is Least Concern. Photo by: Habitat ID.



Greg McCann: Even though only one group has tried it, I’m calling it a roaring success! We set up the cameras in early February, and within a few weeks we organized the first “camera-trap ecotourism trek” in Virachey. Cambodia is now well into the rainy season so there are basically no treks at this time (only short ones), but we expect to have many groups and individuals participating in this program in the fall and winter.



Mongabay: Do you think this is a program that other wildlife groups or eco-tourism companies could replicate?



Greg McCann: Absolutely. In fact, that’s what we’re hoping for. One extra incentive could be to allow ecotourists to download some of the images onto their own personal devices. Again, if we obtained images of Critically Endangered species such as tigers or rhinos, then we wouldn’t offer those, but ecotourists can share the others with friends and family.



FUTURE



Mongabay: Any plans to add more camera traps to Virachey?



Greg McCann: The plan is to have two expeditions in January 2015: one to the Yak Yeuk Grasslands, which I visited with birder Howie Nielsen in 2013, and the other to the same area we visited this year but going even farther to even more remote peaks.



Mongabay: Do you have plans to do similar camera trap ventures in other parks?





A boar (Sus scrofa) entering a mud hole. This species is also Least Concern. Photo by: Habitat ID.



Greg McCann: I would love to get up into Nam Kong Provincial Protected Area in Laos, which is contiguous with Virachey directly to the north. Absolutely nobody is working in there, and to the best of my knowledge, no one ever has. There is a lot of forest destruction in Attapeu province in Laos, but as with Virachey there are very remote areas along the border (with Virachey) that take many days to hike to. In fact, nearly all of the high peaks which serve as the natural border between Laos and Cambodia are considered to be “spirit mountains” by the local people, and these mountains, which all have names, lay half in Virachey and half in Nam Kong PPA. A “magic woman” from Virachey’s buffer zone once told me that “wild animals make the spirits stronger.” Our camera that recorded our best images was placed on one such mountain, so I think she’s on to something. I’d also like to work in Chu Mom Ray National Park in Vietnam.



Mongabay: How can people help Habitat ID?



Greg McCann: If you live in the Chicago area we will be having our annual fundraising party on Saturday June 21st at Maserati Gold Coast, 834 N Rush St., Chicago, IL. And if you can’t make the party, you can help us out online at: HabitatID Fundraiser.



You can also find us on Facebook at: HabitatID Facebook page and Save Virachey National Park.



Habitat ID would also like to thank the following people for their participation and support for our first camera-trapping project: Andreas Neunert, Kurt Johnson, Keith Pawlowski, Vuykeo Nhuy, Thon Soukhon, and Sou Soukern.






Map of Virachey. Image by Google Earth.





A red muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) in the morning. This species is Least Concern. Photo by: Habitat ID.





Remote Virachey National Park could still maintain a lot of wildlife secrets. Photo by: Habitat ID.





One of several cat species in the park: the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), considered Least Concern. Photo by: Habitat ID.





Cooking up a fish dinner in Virachey. Photo by: Habitat ID.





Camp at D’darr Poom Chop. Photo by: Habitat ID.





Resting during a trek in Virachey. Photo by: Habitat ID.









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