Wednesday, December 9, 2009

postheadericon New clouded leopard identified from Tabin!

The latest cloudie to be identified at Tabin - Clouded leopard Male 4. 
Although the photograph is a little blurry it is good  enough to enable
unequivocal identifiaction.

We’re delighted to announce that our hard work at Tabin appears to be paying off, with the exciting discovery of some new clouded leopard photographs. The latest check of cameras has revealed a new, previously unknown, clouded leopard male, and yet more photographs of our far from camera shy Male 3. The new photographs come as somewhat of a relief to our team as not only is it a pleasure to see these spectacular animals but it is also essential to get as many photographs as possible during our survey period in order for us
to do some real conservation science and to generate a robust estimate of the density of these little known cats.

Male 3 posing for the camera.

The new male was photographed along ‘Jalan Raya Bagus’, the old abandoned logging road, which, as mentioned in an earlier post, was one of our most promising camera locations. We now know that at least three different clouded leopard males are using this trail.

We’ve also obtained photographs of Male 3, who is proving to be a bit of a star and has now been photographed at 5 different locations over a range of approximately 25 square kilometres. Male 3 must have been in a particularly curious mood as he decided to hang around the camera station for about two minutes and was snapped a total of eight times

Friday, October 23, 2009

postheadericon Bears, elephants, and thieves

Camera trappers around the world will be familiar with the feeling of nervous anticipation each and every time they go to check a camera trap in the field. Thoughts race through your head as you reach the final bend in the trail before setting sight on the camera trap.... are the batteries still OK, has it been damaged, is it even still there?

And so it was this week when we arrived to check camera site 22, situated uncomfortably close to the main road along Tabin’s western border, which is frequented by plantation workers and the occasional poacher alike. To our dismay both cameras were gone, presumably stolen by poachers. Pieces of plastic from one of the cameras littered the floor, but otherwise there was no trace of the cameras and the invaluable data they contained. The tree that one of the cameras was attached to had been cut down with a parang (local machete).

Poaching – Borneo style. The main quarry targeted are Samba deer, muntjac, and bearded pig. Thankfully the number of poachers using the core road appears low, but the threat remains.

The loss of a single pair of cameras, although frustrating, should not have too detrimental an affect on our survey, but the loss of further cameras could be a real problem. We also recently photographed poachers on the main core road (photo above) that runs through the centre of Tabin. An individual can be seen standing in the back of a Toyota Hylux, spotlight in hand. Thankfully these guys left the cameras alone.

Borneo’s wildlife also give us sleepless nights when it comes to causing havoc with the cameras. The ubiquitous elephants are a frequent thorn in our side, typically knocking cameras over, but also on occasion ripping them out of the ground and walking away with them. Over the years we’ve developed a number of anti elephant-damage measures, of varying success, but thankfully Tabin’s elephants have been relatively kind so far. In a previous survey of Malua Forest Reserve the elephants were particularly aggressive, frequently knocking over, and occasionally “stealing” cameras!

One of Tabin’s elephants; we arrived 20 mins after this photo was taken to check the camera.

And now a new contender for the No.1 nuisance animal may be emerging – the sun bear. In the past we’ve had little trouble from the world’s smallest bear species, but just recently a bear took a dislike to two of our cameras and ripped them off their respective trees, resulting in a large hole in the casings, and then preceded to chew on the box, despite the metal spikes that jut out from the case at multiple angles. He returned days later to finish off what he started and to destroy the remaining camera. Let’s just hope that this is a one-off, and that he was just having a bad day.

The sun bear spots the camera and immediately makes a bee-line for it.

Bear-cam….. Good night Vienna!  The final photographs from the camera as it is mauled by the irate sun bear.

The bear returns days later and has his fun with the broken camera before taking-out the remaining camera.

The cameras didn’t stand a chance! These two will likely be winging their way to the new clouded leopard exhibit at Point Defiance Zoo, as part of the Clouded leopard Project’s (CLP) education display.


Since writing this blog it seems as though the bear-trashed cameras may in fact pull through, despite both being full of water for several days. The exposure seems to be affected, but they may be fine during the night and as a back-up? Sorry Karen (CLP), but we have many more broken cameras!

Monday, October 19, 2009

postheadericon First wild cat photos from Tabin!

After two months of seriously tough work setting up the first block of camera traps we are delighted to inform you that we are beginning to see results, including photos of leopard cats, marbled cats and clouded leopards!

As expected, the first wild cat photograph that we captured at Tabin was of a leopard cat. Since then we have captured a further 19 Leopard cats on camera, mainly along the core road, but also along some of the abandoned logging roads and some of our freshly cut trails.

Leopard cat photographed on the core road at 7:25 pm.

To date we have captured five independent (i.e. taken at different times) photographs of clouded leopards, two from the core road that runs through the reserve, two from an old logging road (jalan Raya bagus). Unfortunately, on all occasions only one camera out of the pair photographed the cat, meaning that we have only either left or right sided photos – not both – as we desperately need in order to identify individual animals unambiguously. Nevertheless, from comparing only left sides we can tell that that we have at least three different animals – all males.

Clouded leopard Male 2 or Mr Fish (Jo thinks he has a fish shape marking or cloud, on his side)

Surprisingly, we have captured four independent photos of two individual marbled cats, both female. I say surprisingly because it is very rare to get this species on camera. These two were photographed at a single site along a trail that we created from new. On all but one occasion the marbled cats were walking directly along the path that we had previously swept clean, leading us to tentatively assume that our trail cutting and sweeping have encouraged these cats to use the trail.

A female marbled cat photographed along a “purpose-built” trail.

This is a great start to the survey, let’s hope that the good luck continues!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

postheadericon Finding 74 needles in a haystack - the search for camera sites is on

An understatement….. estimating the density of Sunda clouded leopards using camera traps isn't easy!

In addition to the physical challenges of deploying and repeatedly checking the network of cameras the statistical framework to estimate density requires that several (ideally at least 10) different cloudies are photo-trapped on more than one occasion (as many as possible). However, getting a cloudie on camera can be a rare event, requiring as much as 200 camera trap nights* to get a single photograph. Randomly placing your cameras will almost certainly result in zero photo-captures!

Clearly, finding the best locations to situate the cameras is of vital importance, and, ultimately will make the difference between a successful or unsuccessful density survey. A sobering thought! The problem is, finding the perfect camera site is like looking for a needle in a rather large haystack, and finding 74 such sites is a real challenge.

The Bornean Wild Cat Team, after a hard day cutting trails. Left to right: Jo, Sajaril (Itoi),
Remy, and Jasmi (Jas), (Andy -taking photograph).

Fortunately we have nearly 3 years of experience to help guide us, and there are certain tricks that we’ve learned along the way. For starters, when surveying for Sunda clouded leopards in Bornean forest old logging roads are like gold-dust. We’ve found that they can be prime locations to photo-trap cloudies and, in addition, they provide us (and, unfortunately, poachers) with much needed access to the forest interior. We’ve discovered that cloudies tend to favour travel routes that require less effort; natural ridgelines and well worn existing human trails (ideally relatively dry underfoot) can be hot-spots for cloudie activity, although these associations may also be related to hunting success.

Thus, on arrival in Tabin our first priority was to survey the area for existing (i.e. still drivable) and abandoned (i.e, not drivable and swathed in recovering forest) logging roads. We discovered two existing roads, one running north-south along Tabin’s western border and one running west-east for about 10 km through the centre of Tabin. The first road is used extensively by plantation contractors, and so the risk of theft would be too high to deploy cameras here, but it will provide much needed access along the Western border. Despite also posing a theft risk (although to a lesser degree) the second “Core Area” road will almost certainly be a clouded leopard hotspot and will thus be of such intrinsic value, in terms of getting photo-captures, that we will have to run the risk and have decided to place six camera pairs along its ca 10km length.

The search for abandoned logging roads is very much more a hit or miss affair, requiring plenty of guesswork and a lot of luck. We start by looking at a very course-scale topographic map of Tabin and try to guess where the old logging roads were built, typically along flat areas, ridges etc. and we then go out on foot and try to locate them. Frequently our searches come up empty handed, and we simply try to plot a course through the forest to the approximate area that we need a camera. We then search the area for the best location, set up the cameras, and then cut a 200m section of trail, centred on the cameras. We even sweep the trail clear of leaf litter and other debris, in an attempt to “persuade” the cloudies to use the trail.

Four wheeled drive vehicles and ATVs are a must for survey work in Borneo.
New team member, Jas (L) and Sajaril (R).

So how are we getting on? Well, as of the end of September we have already finished setting the first 37 camera sites – which required cutting over 60km of trail! We have been successful in finding several old logging roads, some good (e.g. one we’ve named Jalan Raya bagus = great logging road) and some not so good. We’ve found several very promising ridglines and are very optimistic. Watch this space for news of how we get on!

*A camera trap night is a unit of trapping effort. One camera trap night is equal to one camera operating for a 24hr period; so 10 cameras operating for 10 days equals 100 camera trap nights.
Thursday, September 17, 2009

postheadericon Felid survey of Tabin Wildlife Reserve underway

Having successfully completed felid surveys of the Danum Valley, Ulu Segama and Malua Forest Reserves, and the Danum Palm plantation, we are now focusing our attention to the wild cats within the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Tabin is a large (1205.2 km2) area of predominantly logged over lowland Dipterocarp forest (logging ceased in 1989) with a central primary forest area of approximately 20.1 km2.

Map of Eastern Sabah, showing the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and commercial forest reserves to the north.

What makes Tabin particularly interesting is that it is almost* completely surrounded by a vast area of oil palm and cocoa plantations, and there are a number of human settlements in the immediate vicinity. All five species of Bornean wild cat are believed to be found in Tabin, although we know very little about the status of these felids in this reserve. Thus, Tabin serves as an ideal location in which to investigate wild cat status and use of these altered habitats.

Our base at Tabin; kindly provided by the Sabah Wildlife Department

A primary aim of our research in Tabin will be to estimate the density of the reserve’s Sunda clouded leopard population, and we will tailor our camera surveys to address this question whilst simultaneously gathering information about the other wild cats and wider mammal community. Following survey protocols developed for tigers in India we will deploy a network of camera traps over at least 120km2 of Tabin’s forest and attempt to photograph or photo-trap as many individual clouded leopards as possible within a four-month period.

An area of this size presents huge logistical challenges and so we will need to split the survey into two discrete sub-areas of around 60km2. Within each sub area we will deploy 37 pairs of camera traps, located so as to maximise the chance of a successful photo-trap. The last three years have taught us much about the best locations to place the camera traps, and we will need to draw on all of this experience as the favoured camera locations –old logging roads –are few and far between in Tabin, and so much the cameras will require extensive trail cutting and hiking in order to set and check the cameras.

We will keep you informed of our progress.... wish us luck!

* A small narrow corridor still connects Tabin to the forest reserves along the coastline.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

postheadericon Mammals residing in the oil palm plantations

In March 2009 the camera traps were moved to an oil palm plantation to investigate to what extent the Bornean wild cats, and indeed the wider mammal community, use plantations, and to estimate the density of leopard cats, which are thought to do well in this habitat. Our study site, the Danum Palm plantation is the southernmost tip of a vast contiguous plantation area, and is sandwiched between the Segama river, to the east, and the Ulu Segama and Malua Forests Reserves, to the West.

During the survey we recorded over 23 species of mammal that were using the plantation, although, importantly, some species such as the sambar deer and mouse deer were only recorded at the forest-plantation boundary. Bornean yellow muntjac and red muntjac were recorded in some areas, however, photo-capture rates of these species are lower than that from our forest surveys, which suggests that they may be found at lower densities in plantations. Bearded pigs, porcupines and Pig-tailed macaques were found in good numbers throughout the plantation, whereas long-tailed macaques tended to be associated with the camera sites adjacent to the Segama river.

Leopard cats were the most commonly recorded carnivore, although Malay civets and common palm civets were also frequently recorded. On several occasions photographs were also obtained of mongooses and yellow-throated martens. It’s likely that the high densities of rodents found in these plantations are being exploited to differing degrees by these particular carnivores. In addition to leopard cats we also photo-trapped a single male marbled cat, on 4 separate occasions, which is extremely rare, even for forest surveys. Crucially, as with the Samba and mousedeer, this marbled cat was only detected on the very edge (literally) of the forest. We found no evidence of the clouded leopard, bay cat or flat-headed cat using the plantation, although it should be highlighted that survey was too brief to conclude that these felids are not using the plantation.

Leopard cat photographed along one of the palm terraces (Top). 
Yellow throated marten photographed along a gravel road(Bottom)

We have now removed all the cameras from the plantation, where they will be sadly missed by the local children who found them an endless source of fascination!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

postheadericon Mystery of missing leopard cats solved!

In May 2008 we captured our first leopard cat, an adult male, along the gravel road that leads to the Danum Valley Field Centre. LC M1, aka ‘Eddie’, was radio-tagged and tracked successfully over the next 4 months in the dense secondary forest of the Ulu Segama FR, moving a few hundreds metres each day and exhibiting a homerange of around 2km2, typical of our leopard cats. On the 13th of September 2008 we located Eddie resting close to an old logging road, but, as it would turn out, this would be the last day we would find him.

In January 2009 we captured our 5th male leopard cat, with the help of Zara, from the Felidae Conservation Fund (FCF), and Paloma, our temporary vet from Peru. LC M5 became the first leopard cat ever to be collared with a (rather expensive) GPS collar, courtesy of FCF. This collar consists of a radio transmitter, but unlike standard radio collars this collar also records its position at predefined periods using the on-board GPS receiver, storing the data on the collar itself. To access the data we need to track the cat using the on-board standard radio transmitter, wait for the collar to fall off (via a fabricated weak point in the collar material), and then manually download the data to a PC. LC M5 was located near to the trap site the following day, but thereafter we have been unable to locate him…… until this week that is!

Earlier this year we moved our camera traps into an area of oil palm plantation located around 25 km from our main forest field site. In the 7 weeks that the cameras have been running we’ve accumulated over 400 leopard cat photos. You’ll understand our absolute astonishment when, whilst reviewing the recent photos from the oil palm, we discovered photos of both Eddie and LC M5! Both cats are still in excellent physical condition and the collars appear to be undamaged. So it would appear that both these cats have upped sticks and travelled over 25 km to a completely new homerange, which explains our being unable to find them over the last few months. Sajaril has just this minute returned from the field and has great news…. he and Remmy have radiotracked both cats in the plantation. It’s fantastic to catch up with our old friends!
Monday, May 4, 2009

postheadericon First insights into the world’s least-known wild cat

The Bornean bay cat Pardofelis badia is a small endangered felid found only in the forests of Borneo. Arguably the world’s least known wild cat, this species was first photographed in the wild as recently as 2002! We know very little about this cat’s ecology –such as its population size or its habitat requirements – we don’t even know what this species eats. We do know that this cat is threatened from the rapid forest loss that is underway in Borneo, and that we need to increase our knowledge of the bay cat if we are to help conserve it.
For the last two and half years Jo, myself and our colleagues have been trying to answer some of these questions with the aid of radiotracking and camera traps. Whilst we’ve had little luck in catching these elusive cats our trusty camera traps have captured an amazing 23 images of bay cats (only 32 photos of this cat in the wild have ever been taken!) and are beginning to shed some light on the secret lives of these mysterious cats. We’re learning that although these cats can be active at night they exhibit a largely diurnal (daytime) activity cycle with a peak in activity at dawn. We’ve found that the two pelage colour phases (grey and red) can be present in the same population and that, at least in the Danum region, neither phase is dominant. We’re also getting a handle on minimum population densities, and, perhaps most importantly, we’re providing evidence that these cats can persist in recovering and recently selectively logged forests, but that their densities may be reduced from that found in primary forest.
Friday, May 1, 2009

postheadericon Preparations for field course

Preparations are now underway for our 4th “Mammal Field Research Techniques” training course. Aimed at encouraging local conservation biology undergraduates to conduct much-needed mammal field research in Borneo, the course provides grounding in the primary field techniques used to study mammals, such as camera trapping, radiotracking and habitat analysis. The course is conducted in collaboration with Dr Henry Bernard from the Institute for Tropical Biology & Conservation (ITBC) at the local UMS University. Following the end of the current Darwin Initiative programme the training course will be integrated into the ITBC’s Conservation Biology BSc syllabus. This May we will be working alongside ITBC staff and expanding our curriculum to include reptiles and amphibians, in a trial integration of this course and their existing field course programme.
Friday, January 23, 2009

postheadericon Flat-headed cat photographed in Danum

Last April we obtained our first (and to date only) photograph of a flat-headed cat. This is the first time this species has been photographed within the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve and this record means that the Ulu Segama is the first known forest on Borneo where there is definitive evidence of the existence of the entire 5-species Bornean felid guild. The flattie was photo-captured in an area of primary forest about 300m away from the Danum Valley Field Centre buildings. To date we have collected over a thousand leopard cat and over two hundred Sunda clouded leopard photos, which demonstrates just how rare this little cat is. The flattie’s conservation status was raised to endangered earlier this year by the IUCN: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/18148