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Where it all starts... - 4th of September 2012

It’s a funny old thing, really, but there is one part of the work of just about every field conservationist anywhere in the world, that sort of doesn’t get talked about. Not in polite company anyway.

We’ll talk about frequency-of-encounter and  tiger densities, about prey base-to-tiger ratios and human-wildlife conflict mitigation techniques and things we’ve done or plan to do to get people or government agencies ‘on side.’

Camera trappers can only, with the greatest difficulty, be stopped from going on about how porcupine/pig-tailed macaque/snotty-nosed-lesser weasely-thing (endemic, Data Deficient of course) specialize in messing up camera trap placements so resulting in losing anticipated images of the Resident tiger (but getting a jolly fine shot of a snotty-nosed lesser weasely-thing which exhibits an interesting colour morph).   

We’ll talk, enthusiastically, about the esoteric tropical diseases (especially if mildly disgusting or with a significant risk of shuffling off the mortal wotsit) that may be encountered in the remote and rather obscure places where we work or, rather less enthusiastically, but in great detail, about the joys of organising work or research permits.

But of course, all the adventures, the successes and failures, the joy and the tears that are part and parcel of working in ‘’the field’’ all start with something quite different…The ummm  I don’t think I ever wrote this word in public …the umm Proposal. 

This is a Word which is frequently accompanied by a little pause and rolling of the eyes….a word associated with late nights and calculators and frantic phone calls and web searches to check current costs of some of the more esoteric tools of the trade (dart needles? How much is a dart needle?   A GPS satellite collar?  You WHATHOW much?)  while trying to work out how many patrols will be conducted and where and costing out a friendly lunch with deputy head of police or other person whose nice lunch-inspired goodwill can be subsequently exploited - whoops I mean leveraged - for tiger conservation purposes (I say Sir, we think your staff are wonderful and wonder if you might like to…’’)

Because, of course, patrol jeeps don’t run on good wishes and rangers need boots to go to the forest and all the ideas you have developed over late-night sessions with colleagues  have to be practical and achievable….

So the real hard work involved in planning what you hope to accomplish in the year ahead starts with an Excel spreadsheet,  a calculator,  maps and, in my case, copious supplies of strong coffee as I  prepare to write The Proposal for Grant Aid.

What do we want to do over the next year and how are we going to do it?  Who are the people who are going to help us do it?  And where? And what do they need to do it…and what is it going to cost? .

There are routine activities like anti poaching patrols, investigations, team training and (deep sigh) repairing project jeeps.  And then there are the activities which are not so routine such as human-tiger conflict mitigations or law enforcement actions against tiger traders and poachers– but which can be sort of predicted on the basis of past experience. 

And then there are the Unpredictables which might happen ..or might not…but certainly will if you don’t prepare accordingly;  wildlife emergencies ranging from a snared tiger to a leopard cat in the post office and little mishaps like a ranger discovering that gravity tends to win over optimism when you are riding a motor bike too fast on a dirt road and then hit the brakes.   

And when you have worked out all of those costs and are sitting back feeling smug you think ‘Yikes! Inflation’ and somebody says they heard the government is going to have another try at reducing petrol price subsidies next year and you start all over again.

And then comes the real fun…the bit where you actually need something a little stronger than black coffee  (but cant get it because that nice deputy head of police has raided the local bootleg hootch supplier) because our activities are conducted and budgeted for in Indonesian rupiah …But the grants we request from the brilliant people and organizations who support us are made in different currencies.  

Not one currency but four. And they umm fluctuate. Not just against the Indonesian rupiah but against each other and you have to try to work out an average safe exchange rate for four different currencies against each other  and against the Indonesia rupiah for a whole year, months in advance..

Field work?  Undercover investigations into the illegal wildlife trade, fielding frantic radio messages from rangers with ‘a problem’ 12km into the forest, training new rangers and planning and supporting field patrols and conflict mitigations, those tense minutes when you waiting to hear if a law enforcement operation against a tiger trader was successful – and safe… That’s the easy bit.  It’s the Proposal …where it all starts, that’s the real hard work!



How to join The Tiger Team. Or Not. - 2nd of April 2012

There have been a fair few personnel changes over the last few months. New faces in the Mess and in the Field, candidates competing for a handful of full-time positions in the Tiger Protection & Conservation Units...

They are the ones who got this far. For every ‘trainee’ accepted, there are others who did not get past that first informal ‘chat’ over a cup of coffee and even more who don’t even get to that stage.

On the other hand there are a few old-hand members of the team who remember getting invitations to pop into the Mess for ‘coffee and a chat’ and next thing they know they’ve been head-hunted.

I know that our approach to recruiting Tiger Protection & Conservation Unit rangers sometimes seems a little confusing to our national park partners and even other For a start, we try to avoid letting it be publicly known that we are looking for new rangers. We don’t demand school leaving certificates or a minimum education standard (though we do hope that they can read and write) either while we would rather have National Park rangers newly posted to the reserve than old hands, however accomplished.

Nor do we have specific age range guidelines (hint - you probably stand a better chance if you are in your mid-twenties).

On the other hand, yes, would-be team members will be from this area of Sumatra (if for no other reason than you wont be able to understand mess (and field) banter if you don’t know at least two local dialects, Bai ).

But even the rule that prospective ranger members of the team will be from forest-edge communities is as flexible as the rest of the recruitment criteria (as Iswadi can attest) ..

There are however some rules, spoken or unspoken, that do guide the process, Ex-poachers aren’t invited and need not apply (how ex is ex? And even if ‘you’ are an ex-poacher, how about your brother-in-law? Your old school friend? Your uncle?) though some are valued friends and sources of information and advice.

But we do love people who have worked as non-timber forest products collectors, gaharu (Aquillaria) or jernang in particular, because they understand how things work and are used to spending long periods in the forest. And yes, some of the team might perhaps have once known one end of a chainsaw from the other.

On the other hand, a record of environmental activism in a local NGO is actually often a negative, rather than a plus, we aren’t here to ‘debate’ or assign blame ..polemic is for plonkers…

Experience in the forest is good but most anybody can learn to use a GPS, a compass and read a topographic map. Given time and a patient ranger mentor they can also learn to ‘’read’’ the forest from secondary signs (footprints of what, when? How many people, when, where…).

They can learn to build a pondok (forest shelter) for four men in 10 minutes flat and get a fire lit with damp wood even after two days of straight rain and be trained to respond to and mitigate human-wildlife conflicts.

Following their patrol leader and more experienced rangers, they can learn how to move through the forest swiftly and safely and, under their TPCU Leader’s command (he is the one who will be responsible), to respond to wildlife and forest crime. .

Team work - A helping hand in the floodBut in the end, there is one key quality that underpins the whole thing, that can’t be learned and, if it is missing, they don’t make the grade.

It can be as simple as never moving faster than the slowest member of the unit or moving into position, without being asked, to help in a river crossing where a fellow ranger can’t swim.

Its called working in a team. And if you cant do that, you don’t get to join Team Tiger.


Kerinci April 2012

Into the Jungle - 3rd of March 2012

Tigers, despite being one of the world’s most revered species, are struggling to receive the protection they need in the wild. This is especially true for areas where knowledge about tiger populations is lacking. After all, how can we leverage support for tigers if we aren’t even sure where they are and how many exist in an area? This is one of the primary concerns for tigers in Thailand’s Eastern Forest Complex. 

Located only a two hour drive from the bustling streets of Bangkok, the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex (DPKY) contains a number of protected areas, including the world famous Khao Yai National Park. However, while places like the Western Forest Complex receive a considerable amount of attention and financial support from international conservation groups, attention paid to this forest complex has been somewhat lacking. Organizations like FREELAND have taken a stand to give this area a closer look, document its wildlife and ensure that it is protected through the support of enforcement patrols.

Tiger captured by camera trapThe purpose of the trip to the Eastern Forest Complex was to help collect, maintain and set up camera traps as a means to document wildlife in the area. This entails using a special type of camera that is triggered when an animal comes into view. In some areas, this can be used to estimate a population of tigers through individual identification (using a tiger’s unique stripe pattern); however, in this initial stage of research, the goal is to simply see what animals are using certain areas. Naturally, it is the hope of everyone that the cameras will photograph tigers, which are not only important as a species, but also as an indication of a healthy ecosystem.

Prior to the trip, I assisted FREELAND staff by helping maintain the hearty metal boxes that would house the cameras, protecting them from angry or curious elephants. I also made sure to pack enough supplies to take with me on the two day treks into the forest.

Myself (far right) with the team.I was an eager participant and somewhat nervous by the new experience. Along with another from FREELAND, we joined rangers that had been given patrol and wildlife monitoring training by the organization. One carried an automatic weapon, a must in a line of work that has the potential to clash with armed poachers willing to kill more than animals for their ill-gotten gains. One ranger years prior was killed in such a conflict and more have been injured. These rangers are on the front lines in a war for wildlife; without such ground-level protection, species like tigers don’t stand a chance.

With two 20km , two day routes through the forest, the trek certainly wasn’t just a walk in the park. While elephant trails and old logging roads provided some relief, we often found ourselves walking through thorny scrub. It wasn’t uncommon to get snagged on a stray branch or tripped up by a vine or root which left their mark with torn clothes and the occasional bloody scratch.

Equipped with a GPS, compass and map, we navigated to cameras that had been placed months prior and left to capture wildlife that wandered past. Upon arriving at a camera and removing it from the tree, details about the location, camera functionality and number of photos taken were documented on data sheets. In some cases, we were able to see the results on the spot with a typical camera. Together with the rangers, we crowded around excitedly to see what animals were in the area. It provided an opportunity to rest and refuel before moving on to the next camera.

One problem with the cameras is that some of the animals move too fast and create blurred images. Rangers would opportunistically spread fish sauce in front of the camera in the hopes animals would pause to investigate the scent. When fish sauce was not available, I instead offered my own urine. I am eager to see if it attracted any tigers.

The morning sun illuminated the forest mist and we had a quick breakfast before packing up. We retrieved the remainder of the camera traps and began the journey back to the starting point. Unfortunately, this meant much of the day’s walking was an uphill journey including a fairly sizable mountain made even more arduous by thick bamboo and a diminished water supply. Burdened by a lack of experience and heavy hiking bag, I found myself struggling in what was likely the most physically exhausting undertaking I have ever experienced. I didn’t give up and finished the first route intact, save for my pride. At least the rangers had a good laugh about it. 

A camera trap successfully set to capture local wildlife.The next day, I embarked along another route of cameras. These were to be maintained or replaced with a handful more to be set in new locations. Although this was a far easier task given that much of the route consisted of established trails, we had the misfortune of being soaked by a substantial rainstorm. It not only made changing the delicate cameras a tricky operation, but it also managed to flood my waterproof boots. This was a disastrous journey for my feet, but was nonetheless a productive one as we continued to collect camera trap data. Camp on this trip was eventually established in a beautiful, but particularly pointy bamboo forest where the dog-like howl of the colugo (a type of mammal not unlike a flying squirrel) could be heard echoing in the night.

One of the more unfortunate things I observed in the forest was the presence of garbage, particularly near the edges of the forest where poachers could gain access. It’s a discouraging sign of encroachment that is important to document, particularly to see if it is increasing.

The remaining journey was damped somewhat by more rain, which again made a home in my boots. Some of the trees in the forest were awe-inspiring in height, the kind one would conjure when the word ‘jungle’ comes to mind. While conducting a shaky journey across a stream on a felled tree, a flock of greater hornbills flying overhead, making for a lovely conclusion to the day. My FREELAND friend and I were quite tired by the end and took with us some rather large blisters on our feet, but I felt inspired.

Despite it being a fun trip, it was nonetheless an important part of FREELAND’s conservation activities. The cameras documented a wide variety of species including, elephant, clouded leopard, gaur, wild pig and, to the delight of the teams, tigers as well. The results are currently being analyzed and, with the help of myself, will be incorporated into documents that will paint a more accurate picture of wildlife in the forest complex. Once this is established, more intensive activities such as wildlife population estimation could potentially follow. It is a crucial part of the conservation of important wildlife species here in Thailand and your support means you are a part of it. 

A tiger and I photographed by a camera-trap at the same location

Originally published by Eric Ash on 'He who walks with tigers' BlogSpot.


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