Monday, October 27, 2008

postheadericon Helicopter search for Aly

On the 7th October 2008, Jo, Daniel and I climbed aboard a helicopter, with the aim of tracking down our missing clouded leopard. For a few months we had tried in vain to locate her. On foot we climbed all the highest peaks and ridges in the area, and in our trusty Toyota Hylux we drove along old abandoned logging roads, far from where we had previously located her, in the hope that she may have moved to a new area. It soon became clear that the only way we could find her was to search from the air.
After several months we raised the funds to hire a helicopter to search for her, thanks primarily to a generous grant from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, and so in October we took to the skies. Before departing the flight engineer removed the two rear doors to enable Dan and I to hang our radio antennas out each side, with us safely strapped in courtesy of a ‘monkey harness’; Jo was positioned up front, helping to guide our flight path and record any potential signals. We had previously arranged a flight pattern with our pilot, Captain Francis, which would take us over Aly’s old range and then to the north and east, where we had a hunch she was now dwelling.

We took off from the small boggy grassland that serves as Danum Valley Field Centre’s well-used football pitch and began to soar over the rainforest canopy. We headed for the areas of forest where we had previously picked up Ally’s signal, but we heard nothing. Acting on a hunch we headed North of this area and after a few minutes we began to approach the hard edge of the Ulu Segama, where disturbed forest meets oil palm plantation. Still nothing, with each costly minute ticking by. Then I thought I heard a weak beeping sound on the receiver and informed the others. There was no repeat beep, and I began to think that I had imagined it when Daniel informed everyone that he had the signal. We definitely had a signal, but something was wrong. Instead of being a clear high-pitched beep the sound was dull, but the time between beeps appeared to be correct. We tried to re-tune the receiver, as sometimes radio collars frequencies ‘walk’ or change slightly over time, but that did not help. We were fairly confidant that it was Ally’s collar; if it was, the collar had malfunctioned, and we would find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find it on foot.

There was nothing more we could do, and so we headed south to try and find two of our collared leopard cats that had also been alluding us. As we approached the main logging road the sound of one of our male leopard cat’s radio collar announced itself on the receiver. This time the signal was strong and clear, and we were able to get a usable approximate location. The next day we would go in on foot to try and get a more accurate location, and we would get a surprise –but that is another story. Time was running out, and we were forced to return to the DVFC with mixed emotions. We had located LCM4, a 2.3 kg leopard cat, which was great news, but we had also discovered that we probably would be unable to locate Ally again.

postheadericon Clouded leopard captured

One morning in January 2008 Jo and I were met by an excited friend of ours who had news of a captured clouded leopard! Wong, who had been studying sun bears and beared pigs in Danum for over 10 years, informed us that his team had accidentally captured the cloudie in one of their traps set for pigs. This was fantastic news for us, as one of the primary aspects of our research was to learn how these threatened wild cats use their habitat, such as how much space do they need to survive? It turned out that the clouded leopard was a subadult female. After sedating her we fitted a radio collar to her to enable us to track her movements in the dense Ulu Segama forest. We named her Alumis, or Aly for short, which in the local Kadasan-Dusan language means beautiful. This was the first time this species of cat had been tagged. For several months afterward we successfully tracked Aly, although she frequently disappeared for a week or so. Then in March ’08, she vanished, despite our considerable efforts to find her.
Sunday, September 14, 2008

postheadericon Rare Sumatran Rhino captured by camera trap

After running camera traps almost continuously over two years we have just captured our first photos of the critically endangered Sumatran Rhino!! These two images of a young female rhino confirm the continued presence of this species within Sabah. However, the fact that these remain to be the only photos we have obtained, and that this is only the second time a rhino has been photographed in this region, highlights the severity of the threat to the rhinos’ continued existence.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

postheadericon Project Update August 2008

(i) Camera trapping:
Phase 1 of camera trapping in the primary forest of the Danum Valley Conservation area revealed the presence of the apparently extremely rare Bornean bay cat, the first confirmed record of this species in this protected area, and the forth ever photograph of this felid in the wild. No other felids were photo captured during this 6 month operation.

Phase 2 involved camera trapping along abandoned logging roads and trails within an area of good quality selectively logged forest –the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve. Felid photo captures included bay cat, marbled cat, leopard cat and clouded leopard, although the capture rates of the bay and marbled cats proved to be too low to conduct any quantitative density analysis. Photo capture rates of Bornean clouded leopards, however, proved to be sufficiently high to enable the implementation of a density estimation utilising a capture-mark-recapture framework. This has provided the first scientifically robust density estimate for clouded leopards on Borneo and
indeed the first for this species.

During Phase 3 we have returned to the primary forest to re-attempt to conduct a density estimate survey of the clouded leopard. With a greater number of camera traps, thanks in part to the International Trust for Nature Conservation, we have been able to survey at a significantly higher camera density and over a wider area than Phase 1. To date we have collected a further 3 photo capture events of the bay cat and a further 3 of the marbled cat, which is helping us to build a picture of these felid’s activity and habitat use. We photo-captured 3 individual clouded leopards in this area, on several occasions; however, the photo-capture rate is again too low to
perform a capture-recapture analysis.

In the forthcoming stages of camera trapping we plan to move the cameras to an area of heavily logged forest, in which the logging operation has only recently ceased (Dec ’07). This area is much more representative of Borneo’s remaining logged forest, and will provide an excellent area in which to conduct a clouded leopard density estimate. Later phases will entail camera trapping within the Ulu Segama forest (as in Phase 2) at a much higher camera density, which will enable us to conduct a density estimate of the leopard cat and other small individually identifiable mammalian carnivores. Density estimates for these species will also be obtained using molecular scatology techniques, which will enable us to investigate the relative efficacy of these two techniques.

(ii) Live trapping and radio tracking.
Live trapping has now begun in earnest and on 31st January 2008 we successfully trapped and radio collared a female sub-adult Sundaland (Bornean) clouded leopard; this is the first time this species has been radio collared. VHF radio-tracking has proved to be difficult but possible in this heavily forested and rugged terrain. After several months of tracking the female clouded leopard home range had exceeded 20 km2 (100% MCP), although the increase in range size following sequential locations has not reached an asymptote, suggesting that the actually home range is larger. The female began to move in a northerly direction until the signal was lost. To date we have been unable to locate this female and we are now preparing to conduct an aerial search using a helicopter.

In the last 2 months we have also been successful in capturing and tagging 6 leopard cats (4 males, 2 females), and we are successfully collecting excellent data on four of these individuals. Two individuals are proving to be difficult to locate, but these have only been collared for a few weeks.

The live trapping operation has now closed, and it is envisaged that we will reopen the traps in September ’08.
Thursday, July 17, 2008

postheadericon Project Update July '08

Camera trapping
Most of July has been spent mapping and assessing the new survey area – Malua Forest Reserve. It seems feasible that an area of at least 80 km2 can be effectively surveyed with paired camera traps. From initial surveys here looking for scat and prints it seems that there are several different carnivore species present and also elephant and banteng. A single leopard cat was also sighted here. At the beginning of July the cameras from around Borneo Rainforest Lodge were brought in and we found that we have finally been successful in obtaining a photo-capture of a clouded leopard from one of these sites. The individual photo-trapped is a juvenile who had been sighted on one of the trails a few days before the photo. This brings our total number of individual clouded leopards from the Conservation Area to three and unfortunately with such a low hit rate and re-captures of only one animal we will not be able to quantify these data. We also have recorded marbled cat and have several more bay cat photos from this area of primary forest, but again sample sizes are too small to quantify the data. The new chips in the cameras that allow a higher sensitivity setting are proving very useful, we are capturing more small mammals and small birds, compared to the cameras with the old chips.

Radio tracking
We continue to obtain useful data on the collared leopard cats and our knowledge about their ranges continues to increase. The female remains more difficult to track than the males, but we are managing to get useful data on all the leopard cats. Daniel has been co-ordinating the field work whilst Andy and I have been in the UK and has been sending regular updates with details of radio tracking, however the data will not be fully analysed until our return to Sabah.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

postheadericon Project Update June '08

Camera trapping
Throughout June the cameras from the Conservation Area have been brought in, assessed for damage, and repaired where possible; a few cameras remain in the Conservation Area to be brought in at a later date. The new survey area is the old Malua Forest Reserve, now part of the new Ulu Segama-Malua Forest Reserve in which a sustainable forest management scheme is being run. Logging ceased in this area in December 2007 with logs being removed until April 2008. This area of forest has a low, relatively open canopy and is much more disturbed than the Infapro area where the first density survey was conducted. Before positions for the cameras are chosen the area will be mapped with the GPS to ensure there is an adequate road network and trails, skids and roads will be carefully chosen to guarantee the optimum camera layout.

Live trapping
Live trapping ceased on June 10th as our volunteer vet had to return to the UK. However, before this date we were successful in trapping a further two male leopard cats, male 3 on June 4th and male 4 on June 6th. Both cats were healthy adults and free from trap injuries. Both immobilisations went very well, with smooth recoveries and both cats were fitted with radio collars. The live traps are now all closed and have been brought in from the field. They will be repaired or replaced where necessary and stored ready for the next phase of live-trapping in September/October.

Radio tracking
Radio tracking the leopard cats is going well. Male 3 has moved several kilometres from his trap site to the field centre and most of the locations we have for him are around the buildings here. As female 1 seems to stay away from the larger roads she is more challenging to keep track of, but we are managing to obtain locations for her. We have the most locations for male 1 and his home range so far is about 3 km2, which is comparable with the findings from the only other leopard cat study on Borneo: Rajaratnam’s study at Tabin Wildlife Reserve. There is also some overlap between the home ranges of male 1 and male 2. Unfortunately we are still unable to relocate Ally. We are making plans to use a helicopter for a one hour aerial search of the forest.

Our volunteer vet Rosalie has now left the project and returned to the UK, we wish her the best of luck in finding a new job there. Todd, who will volunteer with us for the next few months has recently joined us and is a welcome new member of the team. We will, however, need to have a new vet on the team for the next phase of live trapping.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

postheadericon Project Update May 2008

Camera trapping
After running 16 pairs of cameras in the Conservation Area for the last few months it has become apparent that the capture probability for clouded leopards in this forest type is too low to analyse the data in a capture-mark-recapture framework. This is not to say that there are fewer clouded leopards in the primary forest, simply that it is much more difficult to identify the areas through which clouded leopards will move and so it is more challenging to place the cameras in areas that will result in high numbers of photo-captures. Therefore we plan to move the cameras from the Conservation Area and onto the next phase – a mark-recapture study in very recently logged forest.

Live trapping
Throughout May 20 small live traps baited with live rats, electronic sound lures or a combination of the two were deployed in the logged forest of the INFAPRO area. The first leopard cat, a healthy male, was trapped on 12th May and this was followed by 2 females on the 21st May and a second male on the 26th May. All leopard cats were healthy and free from trap injuries. All immobilisations went very smoothly and all animals were fitted with radio collars. In addition to the success of the leopard cats several Malay civets have been trapped, a monitor lizard, a common porcupine, a binturong and a mouse deer. All non-target animals have been free from trap injuries and quickly released at the trap site.

Radio tracking
We are still unable to obtain a signal for Ally despite trying all the usual places and also some new areas. Tracking of the leopard cats has proved successful to date, despite being unable to re-locate female 2 so far. Although data are few to date, it appears that the males often use the roads and have day-time rest sites at the edge of the forest close to the road. The female seems to use forest areas and very overgrown old roads preferentially to the more open roads.

As always, project activities are hindered by only having one vehicle available to us. Checking the live traps has to be the first priority for the day, however, as this takes the use of the car the radio tracking of all animals is impeded and becomes biased towards the afternoon locations and activity of the collared animals. We are still investigating the feasibility of using motorbikes or a quad bike for checking traps and radio tracking.