Wednesday, December 7, 2011

postheadericon Crocker's cloudies rolling in...

Yesterday was a good day – a very good day.  On Monday Gil, Gul and I packed our bags and headed to the village of Ulu Senagang, where the trail up onto the Senagang ridge rises, and where the last of our cameras to be checked awaited us.  The week before produced the first of our clouded leopard photos from Crocker Range, all of a single male clouded leopard, so we were excited to see whether this same animal, or indeed any of his friends, had also used the Senagang ridge.

It had originally taken us four days of camping to put the camera traps out along this ridge, so we thought we could shave some time off and do it in three.  We did it in two (very painful) days, just managing to leave the forest as night fell.  On arrival back at the house we were all exhausted, and so, despite our excitement, we agreed to look through the new photos in the morning.  But perhaps just one camera trap before bed… 

And that’s when the fun began! Camera after camera began to reveal more and more cool animals, including some Hose’s civet, a handful of leopard cat, yet another Malay weasel and even some more Linsang, and….. loads of clouded leopards!  

By 12:00am this morning we had finally finished going through all the photos; we knew we had some new animals, but final identification of the cloudies would have to wait.

Like I say, we knew we had some new animals, but having carefully cropped and compared all the images I was blown away to find that we now have SIX animals – 1 female and five males!!!!!  On one occasion, the female has walked past the camera, followed immediately by a new male, and later by another (perhaps young male).

This is an amazing start, and it bodes well for Crocker Range’s clouded leopard population.  If the photos keep coming in at this rate, I think we can do some useful science.  Stay tuned.

Caption: top to bottom, Male 1, Female 1, Male 2, Male 3, Male 4, Male 5. As you can see, camera trap images are not always pretty... but these are more than adequate to idenitify the animal to an individual. The shots are in black and white as this particulalr camera trap shoots in infrared at night. Although some animals can see this light quite clearly, it doesn't seem to bother most of them. 
Tuesday, November 29, 2011

postheadericon Amazing first results from Crocker Range

With the last camera trap finally in place, the fun phase has begun… time to check the cameras. And what a start; in addition to the usual crowd of pigs, muntjac, mousedeer, malay civet and the like, we’ve been getting a number of amazing results, including some species that we rarely ever encounter, and even a first for the project…. 

This is a wild cat project after all, so I'll start with the stars of the show.  After more than six months of cam trapping in Sepilok and the surrounding oil palm plantation, without even a hint of a clouded leopard, you can imagine how excited we all were last week when we returned to the house after a camping trip to check the cameras and a perfectly composed (see right) clouded leopard photo appeared on our screen. Since then we’ve picked up several more, and we now have 5 photo events from 4 camera sites. Careful scrutiny of the photos shows that they all belong to a single male, spread over 23km2!!  It’s still early days, but the reasonable encounter rate and the lack of any other individuals, hints at a low population density, which is not altogether surprising. It’s hard to say at this stage whether we’ll have enough data to conduct a density analysis – so fingers crossed the photos keep rolling in. We’ve also got confirmation of marbled cat (only 1 photo to date), and leopard cat (from 3 sites), but alas no Bay cat so far. Come on bay cat, where are you? 

Our extensive surveying of six forest sites in Sabah, over four years, resulted in a measly 3 banded linsang Prionodon linsang photographs.  Although little known, it’s generally thought that this little carnivore species is semi-arboreal, perhaps also skulking around in dense bushy vegetation, waiting to pounce on small mammals and other prey. So it’s not altogether surprising that these guys rarely show up in camera trap surveys. However, despite having only checked about half of our cameras so far we’ve already recorded linsang at 3 different ridgeline sites.  Amazing! Perhaps the lack of a contiguous canopy at these heights forces them to move more frequently along the ground? Who knows – anyway it’s great to see these guys on camera. 

Another great result is that of the Endangered Hose’s civet Diplogalehosei. This rarely detected Bornean endemic is thought to be associated with mossy forests at higher altitudes, although a handful of (questionable?) sightings in relatively low forest suggests that they may be more adaptable than previously thought. So far we’ve detected Hose’s civet at three relatively high level sites (867 -1280m), establishing the first confirmed record of this civet in Crocker Range!! Let’s hope these guys keep getting snapped, so that we can start piecing together some information regarding their ecology. Perhaps Crocker would be the perfect place to start some in depth studies of this beastie… any takers? 

Last, but certainly not least, is a personal favorite of mine, a tiny, brightly orange coloured carnivore with a white head – the Malay weasel Mustela nudipes.  Although thought to be relatively common throughout its range (southern Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra), and found in a range of habitats (we even recorded some in an oil palm plantation), it is yet another Bornean carnivore that is rarely camera trapped.  Why then are we recording them relatively frequently (3 different sites so far) in Crocker?  Although listed as Least Concern by the IUCN it has never been studied. 

Clearly a great start… I can’t wait to see what the remaining unchecked cameras reveal!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

postheadericon Yep, its pretty Steep! Research starts in Crocker Range

One month into our latest survey and I’m pleased to report that things are progressing very well.  After a number of meetings with Sabah Parks, the State authority who manage the Crocker Range National Park, we settled into our new home in the village of Ulu Senagang, nestled just within the park boundaries and walled in by high ridgelines. 

As usual, our first task was to begin planning where we will deploy the camera traps within the park, decisions which are ultimately based on maximizing the chances of capturing cloudeds and other wild cats on camera, as well by the logistics of physically getting there. Our plan is to spread 36 camera stations over 150km2 – no easy task even on relatively even forest, let alone a mountain range. From talking to Sabah Parks employees and local people it quickly became apparent that the Park is rarely accessed (at least on official/legal business) and thus established trails are therefore few and far between, particularly on the scale that we’ll be operating.  

Our strategy, then, was to determine ridgeline formations from basic topographic maps, features which aid our movement and which we have demonstrated are used extensively by wild cats, transfer the spatial info onto our GPS units, and then follow the routes deep into the park, setting up cameras as we go. At this stage we had little idea of what the travel routes would be like, how open the forest would be, and thus how far we could reasonably expect to move each day. 

So, loaded up with several days of food, camping gear, camera trapping gear and our trusty GPS the team headed up out of the village and climbed to the first of several ridgelines that would take us northwest, and into the park. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, this was no gentle introduction to Crocker’s forests, and after a slippery and relentless 400m ascent, and with burning muscles, we eventually reached the relatively even terrain of the ridgeline. Once there we were pleased by how relatively clear the forest was, and although the trekking was at times pretty tough, we moved swiftly and set eight camera stations and covered a distance of over 24km in 4 days. 

Great!  Well, kind of…  Our rapid movement through the forest is largely because the routes we have been following are also being used by local poachers from surrounding villages, hence the relative openness. One month in, we have now covered over 150km of routes, and on all occasions, regardless of how deep into the forest we have travelled, we have always found signs of people, their camps, and snares and their shot gun cartridges.  Clearly the use of the forest by poachers here, in terms of area, is extensive. What is less clear is how many people and how much poaching is occurring.  We have found some great camera sites and are very optimistic of getting some wild cat photo captures, but the threat of camera theft by the poachers is very much playing on my mind.  In the next few weeks we will begin checking our cameras… stay tuned for (eventual (-: )updates 

Friday, July 15, 2011

postheadericon Volunteer field assistants needed for a Clouded leopard survey of the Crocker Range National Park

Borneo’s Clouded Leopards Need You!

We are now busy preparing for what is arguably going to be the most exciting, yet toughest of our challenges to date, an intensive, clouded leopard focused camera trap survey of the mountainous Crocker Range National Park

To help us in our endeavour we are now offering volunteer placements for individuals to help us in the field starting September 2011. If you fancy experiencing the ‘real’ Bornean rainforest, learning new skills and helping us learn about the elusive Sunda clouded leopard, then read on...


Our work is focused on providing basic, yet scientifically sound information regarding the Sunda clouded leopard and other threatened felids in Sabah to help guide viable conservation strategies for these species. As such, one of the core questions that we are attempting to answer is:

What is the distribution and conservation status of Sunda clouded leopards and other felids throughout Sabah, and what factors affect their presence and abundance? 

To help address this question we have developed a research approach primarily constructed around multiple 6-month camera trap surveys designed to estimate clouded leopard densities and felid community structure in areas of forest exposed to different forest management strategies.  Few data exist regarding Bornean felid communities in higher altitude areas, and so from September onwards we will be deploying our camera traps in the hill Dipterocarp and lower montane forests of Sabah’s Crocker Range National Park.


We are looking for volunteers to start as early as the beginning of September 2011, but positions will be available throughout the survey – ending in February 2012.  You must be available to work on the project for a minimum of 1 month, although we will consider taking on candidates for shorter periods if they already have sufficient experience. Get in touch if you are interested and we’ll take it from there.


The Crocker Range National Park is located in the west coast of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. At approximately 75km in length and 15km in width, it is the largest protected area in Sabah, comprising an area of 139,919ha, which is about twice the size of Singapore!  Altitude across the park varies from around 100m to 2050m at the peak of Mt. Alab, and consequently the park is swathed in a dense blanket of primary hill Dipterocarp and lower montane forest, See the Sabah Park's website for further details. 


Volunteers will assist with all aspects of the project (see earlier posts on the blog for an idea of what we get up to), including, but not restricted to: mapping and creation of forest trails and incorporation of spatial data into a GIS, deploying and checking camera traps over an approximate area of 150km2 of forest, questionnaire surveys of local people, and photographic data management. 


We are ideally looking for candidates with (or currently undertaking) at least a first degree in an appropriate Natural Science, although this is by no means a prerequisite and we will happily consider keen individuals with a demonstrated interested in wildlife conservation.  Above all else candidates should have a high level of fitness and a willingness to work in a challenging environment.  The work will involve long and arduous hikes over difficult terrain, and will frequently necessitate camping for up to 6 nights at a time at remote locations, deep in the National Park. Volunteers must be able to carry 50+ litre rucksacks weighing upwards of 15kg. The ideal candidates will have some experience of the activities described above, although this is not essential as full training will be provided.  


We will not ask for any contribution towards project costs but you must be able to cover both your own transport costs to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and your subsistence costs (i.e., food and accommodation costs at field sites).  Contact me for more details of estimated costs. 

Further questions

For further information and to apply please email me

Thursday, July 14, 2011

postheadericon Are clouded leopards locally extinct in Sepilok?

The usual suspects... A female leopard cat and her kitten, photographed close to
 the border with an oil palm plantation.  Leopard cats were the only species of 
 wild cat recorded in this forest.

Rather worryingly our camera trap survey of the Kabili-Sepliok Forest Reserve has failed to detect the Sunda clouded leopard.  Is this a true reflection of the localised extinction of these felids in this small and relatively isolated forest block or simply our failure to detect what is actually there?
Camera trapping is undoubtedly a powerful research tool and can quickly produce indisputable evidence of a species’ presence in an area. Proving beyond doubt the absence of a species, however, is a rather more difficult affair, and the lack of any camera trap images obtained during a survey does not necessarily prove its absence.  This is particularly true of difficult to detect species such as clouded leopards.

Stray dogs were found at multiple sites across the whole of the forest. 
Could their presence be one causal factor in the absence of clouded leopards?  
Nevertheless, this was a relatively intensive survey involving a high density of 35 paired cameras sites coupled with an additional 14 sites at which video camera traps were operational. This effort resulted in over 39,000 images and video sequences, including the similarly difficult to detect sun bear. Given this effort, in my opinion, we probably would have detected clouded leopard had they been present, and thus I am strongly inclined to conclude that they are no longer found in Sepliok.  That is not to say that there are not any transient individuals moving through the area from time to time, but it seems unlikely to me that there is a resident population of animals living there.

Although unwelcome news, this is not altogether surprising given the fact that the forests in Sepliok have been reduced to about the size of a single clouded leopard’s home range – ca 40 km2.  Although unwelcome, this finding is another piece in the puzzle to understand what factors control the distribution of this felid on Borneo.

Whilst it's not great news for Sepliok's Sunda clouded leopards, a number of Bornean carnivores were detected in this forest, including leopard cats, sun bears, common and banded palm civets, and yellow throated martens (see video sequence above). Potential prey species including mouse deer, yellow muntjac, sambar deer and bearded pigs were present in apparently good numbers.

Our team will now conduct an extensive questionnaire survey of the Sabah Wildlife and Forestry Department officers working in this area, in an attempt to determine when this species was reliably last seen.  Meanwhile, we have recently moved our camera traps to an area of oil palm plantation immediately to the west of Sepilok, to investigate what species are using this highly modified habitat.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011

postheadericon Next up – The Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve

Taking a well-earned rest whilst out surveying for trails in Sepilok. L-R,
Jasz, Tom (volunteer) and me. Photo: Gilmore Belongon (on Tom's camera)
Our team cannot be accused of hanging around.  Having unloaded the last of our gear from the Danau Girang Field Centre’s boat to our trusty truck, we waved goodbye to the mighty Kinabatangan river and set off in search of our next survey site: The Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve

Map of the Sepilok region and surrounding area. Clearly Sepilok is rather
isolated, the only link to other forest areas being a tenuous link through
a narrow corridor of mangrove forest. 
The Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve and the adjacent Sepilok Forest Reserve (typically collectively referred to as Sepilok) is an incredibly interesting forest. Home to the world famous Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, and just a stone’s throw from Sabah’s second largest city, Sandakan, it is home to a diverse array of forest formations and wildlife. Hill Dipterocarp, riverine, Kerangas (heath), and mangrove forests all jostle for space in this relatively small (km2) and isolated forest fragment.  And therein lies the potential problem for its felid inhabitants. Surrounding this matrix of forest, and forming the northern, eastern and western borders, is an assortment  of anthropogenically modified habitats, predominated by oil palm, but also including orchards, industrial areas and housing (see below).  Beyond the mangroves to the south lies the Sepilok Sea, and in the far south west corner a narrow corridor of mangrove links the Sepilok fragment to an extensive area of mangrove that reaches, albeit broken in places, to the mouth of the lower Kinabatangan.

Does this mangrove constitute a corridor connecting wild felid populations between Sepilok and the Kinabatangan, and if not, is Sepilok large enough to support viable populations of clouded leopards and other felids?  What species of wild cat still persist here? Over the next few months we will attempt to shed light on these important questions.  Wish us luck!
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

postheadericon Insights from the Kinabatangan river

Danau Girang, one of several Ox-bow lakes in the region
and location  of the Danua Girang Field Centre - our home from home.

The opening days of 2011 witnessed the retrieval of the last of our camera traps from the forests of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve and the beginning of a new challenge – a camera trap survey of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. 

The survey of the Kinabatangan’s wild felids turned out to be a tough one; we suffered heavy losses of camera trap units – both as a result of people stealing them (presumably because they don’t want to be caught poaching), but also as a result of our aging camera population finally succumbing to the destructive (at least for electronics) powers of Borneo’s rain-forests (these particular cameras have been running since 2006 – so not a bad innings really).

Despite these challenges we were able to come away with some very useful insights into the lives of the Kinabatangan’s felids:

CLF3, one of three female clouded leopards detected in
the Kinabatangan
- The narrow corridors of forest along certain sections of the Kinabatangan are actively used by Bornean felids – extension and development of such corridors could thus be a useful tool in the conservation of these cats in this highly fragmented landscape.

- Initial analyses suggest that Sunda Clouded leopard and marbled cat likely exist at lower densities here than elsewhere in Sabah, such as the extensive and comparatively contiguous forests of the Yayasan Sabah Management Area.

- We have found no evidence of Bornean bay cat in these lowland forests.

- Whilst flat-headed cat have been recorded, low photographic capture rates suggest that even here, one of the areas highlighted as prime habitat for this species (Wilting et al 2010), these felids are found at low densities.

One of only two photo-captures of marbled cat. 
As ever though, our initial work in this unique area has raised more questions than answers, and we are now making steps to kick-off a study of the spatial ecology of these cats as part of a larger programme investigating Bornean Carnivore community ecology.  Stay tuned for more details in the near future.  Well OK, not too near, going by my previous history of updating this blog...

I'll end with a big thank you to the staff and PTY students at the Danau Girang Field Centre, who have been amazing at supporting our wild cat work here in the Kina.  Also a big thank you to to Drs David Macdonald and Luke Hunter for their invaluable advice, and all our project funders, and particularly to the Kaplan- Recanti family, Panthera, and the Clouded Leopard Project