Into Pu Mat

I’m back from a great trip to a protected area called Pu Mat National Park. I went there with a group of biologists from Vinh University. Dr. Cao Tien Trung, Dean of Zoology at the university, facilitated the trip, and I’d like to start off by thanking him his help. I’ll write about this trip over the next several postings. Pu Mat is located in Nghe An Province and is one of the most important sites for mammal conservation in Vietnam. Past surveys have confirmed the presence of Annamite dark muntjac, Large-antlered muntjac, Saola, and Annamite striped rabbit. (In later posts I’ll write about these species and include pictures so that you have some idea of what I’m talking about. Put a name to a face—quite literally, for the primates.) It also has one of the only viable populations of northern white-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) in the world.

Location of Pu Mat National Park
Location of Pu Mat National Park

As with any field expedition this one had its ups and downs. It took some time to get into the forest. Let me give some unasked-for advice. One of the most important traits for a field biologist to develop: Patience. It took several days to obtain the necessary permissions to travel into the protected area, which, because it borders Laos, is a politically sensitive zone. But Trung handled the situation very efficiently. By mid-week we were at a remote army outpost and ready to head into the field. Our team consisted of two students from Vinh University and two local guides. After an initial false start―we were told by our guides that our planned route was unfeasible because we couldn’t cross one of the rivers that had recently flooded—we set off on a long hike into the jungle. Our goal from the outset was to get into lower elevation wet broadleaf primary forest. The topographical complexity of Pu Mat (it is very mountainous) and its extensive past-use history (it has experienced varying levels of deforestation) gives rise to diverse habitat types. We knew that finding what we were looking for would take some effort. We hiked all day along a stream for the first day and then made a camp. The forest seemed mid-succession secondary to me: not bad, not great. But after 8 hours of walking with heavy packs and night approaching quickly we were ready to call it a day.

The next morning we continued our hike along the stream. The term “hike” is somewhat misleading―there was a lot of climbing involved. Gradually the forest changed. Instead of dense stands of medium-sized bamboo sticking out of the hills like clumps of overgrown pipe-cleaners we saw more and more trees. Tall trees that formed a closed-canopy overhead. When we stepped off the stream into the forest you noticed that it was dark: little light reached the forest floor through the canopy. The few stands of bamboo we did come across were larger, taller, more impressive. Some would have easily shaded a two-story building. We continued hiking and the forest continued to improve. After another hour we were in what looked like primary forest—or very close to it. By lunchtime we had stumbled upon a softshell turtle. Because turtles are so heavily hunted in Vietnam this was a rare site. (I haven’t identified it to species yet, but will try to do that at some point. If you have suggestions please let me know!) I took it as a sign that we should stop here. Aching legs helped make the decision. Our guides agreed that this would be a good place for large mammals. Wild pig tracks along the riverbank showed that at least Sus scrofa was present. And the icing on the cake: leeches climbing our legs.

Macaque self-portrait from Pu Mat
Macaque self-portrait from Pu Mat

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