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.