Upper Gan Yu River and Veal Thom Grasslands Camera-Trapping Expedition

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February 12th 2014
Published: February 20th 2014
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This was my fifth consecutive winter vacation trek in Cambodia's Virachey National Park. I published a book about my first 3 treks (you can read a Taipei Times review of the book here , and bird ace Howie Nielsen who joined me for my fourth trek to the ultra-remote Yak Yeuk Grasslands on the Lao border penned a fabulous trip report on Mongabay .com. So what was this fifth trip about? Virachey NP has become part of my life, and I've established lasting friendships with the Park rangers, with the Brao, Kavet, Kreung, and Tampuan minority porters and guides who helped bring me into the jungle and taught me about the various spirit mountains (such as Haling-Halang, Krang, Kreung-Yeum, Der Mon, and Mera Mountain, to name just a few) and the power and legends associated with them. Now I wanted to do something different, and some friends back in the States who share my passion for endangered wildlife and tropical forest habitats suggested that we form a group to help protect them, so we established Habitat ID. I also did an interviewabout Virachey NP with Mongabay a couple of years ago.

Habitat ID's mandate is to go into currently neglected or abandoned national parks and protected areas in Southeast Asia -places better known as "paper parks"- and set up motion-triggered camera-traps to prove that important wildlife populations still exist in these ignored forests. On this most recent trip, which lasted from January 25th - February 7th, 2014, we set up 11 camera traps: 4 of these are in swampy areas of the Veal Thom Grasslands, while another 7 are located along the Gan Yu River going all the way up to the Laos border, a no-man's land where a mysterious Annamite Yeti known as the "tek-tek" is said to live (interestingly, in Vietnam this mysterious creature is known as the Batutut , and both Vietcong soldiers and American GI's claim to have fired on them during the war). When we were up in the barrier mountains that separate Cambodia and Laos we were not permitted to call out to one another when we became separated on the trail because this "forest man" appparently has the ability to imitate human voices and would lure us away and eat us!

So, 11 camera-traps are now placed in excellent positions in Virachey, and 3 additional cameras were left behind with the Park staff to be installed in another area (on the eastern side near Vietnam) in the coming weeks. We are hoping to get photographic confirmation of: tigers, elephants, leopards, clouded leopards, Asian golden cat, small-clawed otter, douc langur, Sun bear, Asiatic black bear, gaur, banteng....and....and yes I know this is a long shot, but, we are hoping to get photographs of Javan rhinocoeros. Rumors persist that they are still present in the park. Heck, if we obtained a photo of a rhino I don't think even Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen could ignore it! I asked villagers about Saola and Kouprey and they said that the former had never been seen in the mountains, and that the last Kouprey spotted was sometime in the 1990s. Both Brao and Kavet villagers are adamant that rhinos still haunt the border mountains, and they claim that rhino dung is worth more than its weight in gold, being a cure for any disease or problem under the sun --to say nothing of the value of its horn to Chinese and Vietnamese traditional medicine consumers. Apparently the last photo of a rhino in Cambodia was back in the 1950s in Kratie province near the Mekong River, and horns were up for sale in Attapeu, Laos (on the other side of the Virachey mountains -which are known as the Kaseng Mountains in Laos) well into the 1970s. The fact remains -no matter what any old and embittered and embattled conservationists wants to admit- that there are huge streteches of highly remote mountains that separate Cambodia and Laos in Virachey that have never been scientifically surveyed and probably never will be. What's out there? Nobody knows. Nobody (at least nobody who has ever been interviewed, meaning a handful of hearty poachers and loggers).

Some highlights from the expedition: we heard 2 Sun bears engaged in a ferocious fight just 400 meters from the Laos border. We also found elephant tracks, loads of Sun bear claw marks on trees, we heard Sambar deer yelping in the nights, lots of gibbons in the morning, Great hornbills honking in the morning, Oriental Pied hornbills in flight over bamboo by the O-Pong River, we ate a Reticulated pythong for breakfast that had recently been killed by an eagle and happened to wash up on the shore of our Gan Yu River camp one morning. We found snakes, lizards, kingfishers, Changeable hawk eagles, what was probably a Blyth's Frogmouth, dhole prints, gaur, Sambar, muntjack, banteng, and wild pig prints, and we found a Chinese Water Dragon (I'm probably forgetting some critters too).

OK, but that's not the end of it. We need help now, and I'm not asking for money but for ecotourism. Anyone who joins the 6-night/7-day trek to the Veal Thom Grasslands will have opportunity to check up on our cameras placed there (4 of them). You will be able to download the photos onto your own devices if you please for your personal use, and you can help the ranger (try to use Ranger Sou -info at the bottom) change the memory cards and batteries and also to "re-arm" the camera traps. You will have the great opportunity not only to see conservation in action but contribute to it. This is, therefore, a personal plea for anyone who is pondering a trek to the Veal Thom Grasslands to contact Park Ranger Sou Soukern +855 97 333 4775) and to not only see the jaw-dropping Veal Thom Grasslands but get an inside look at what kind of rare wildlife still calls that place home.

And there is one more thing: a new extension on the Veal Thom Grasslands trek. Instead of camping in the grasslands itself (a true wonder of Southeast Asia but always very short on water) you can simply walk across the grasslands and camp out in the forests north of Veal Thom at a place known to the Brao people as D'dar Poom Chop (photos somewhere below). D'dar is a simply stunning swimming hole/waterfall and only 3 western people (myself included) have seen it to date -this is where the Reticulated python washed up on our camp shore. You could spend days here, and in fact, there is yet another camera trap located less than one kilometer from this gorgeous locale, and when we checked it on our way out we already had photos of a very large Civet cat. I insisted on setting up a cam upstream from D'dar Poom Chop because we found very fresh small-clawed otter dung there in 2012.

Please sign up for a trek to Veal Thom -it will be your highlight of your tour of Southeast Asia, and if it's not, I'll send you a free PDF copy of my book. In fact, show me just one photograph of yourself that shows you went there and I will email you a free PDF copy of my book. Virachey needs you.

If you are on Facebook, you can follow us on our Save Virachey National Park page, and if you'd like to donate money directly to our cause, I won't fight it! You can do so here at Habitat ID.

On a final note, while the overal situation concerning natural the environment in Cambodia (as well as in Laos and Vietnam and just about anywhere else in the tropics) remains grim, there are some signs of hope, and not insignificant ones at that. To begin with, Cambodia has appointed a new Minister of Environment, a very enthusiastic and intelligent Khmer man with a PhD from Australia, and he appears to be taking deforestation very seriously. His efforts are heartening! Furthermore, PM Hun Sen recently declared a large area of natural habitat to be a protected area to help the Giant Ibis survive in the Kingdom. Furthermore, my National Dong-Hwa University research partner Professor Hsu, Yi-Chung and I recently presented a paper at the First Asia Parks Congress in Japan, and our combined efforts recently got the Haling-Halang massif listed on the Sacred Natural Sites list.

Well, this is probably about all you really want to read off a blog post. If anyone has any questions about anything related to Virachey or Northeast Cambodia, please feel free to email me at: greg.mccann1@gmail.com And really, do that D'dar Poom Chop/Veal Thom Grasslands trek -it will be the highlight of your tour of Southeast Asia.

Many more photos down below, AND, I just published a Feature story on the new camera-trap trekking program in Virachey with the awesome Travelfish.org --check it out here.

Additional photos below
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