Leeches and cameras

After three days we had fallen into a regular pattern. To cover more ground we split the group up into two teams. I led one team. Khamhou, a Lao national working for WWF, led the second team. From our campsite we set out in daylong hikes that meandered towards the Vietnam border and then led back again to our campsite. We had two main goals: First, to collect as many leeches as possible, in the hope of detecting rare species in the area, which potentially included Saola. Second, to search for suitable camera trap locations. The objective of the camera trapping wasn’t to detect Saola—we had far too few cameras and too little time to attempt that. Rather, it would allow us insight into the general ungulate community, which could in turn give us insight into the likelihood that Saola persisted in this area. If, the thinking goes, there were other ungulates there, like Large-antlered muntjac and sambar, there might be Saola. A complete ungulate community would at least historically have included Saola. A trashed community might only contain a handful of the more common species. The camera traps would give us insight into this hidden aspect of Annamites jungle life. So, while snatching leeches from nearby vegetation—or from ourselves—we scoured the streams and hillsides for good camera trap locations. We looked for recent ungulate sign: hoofprints and bite marks on vegetation. Anything that would indicate that one of the elusive even-toed animals we were searching for had been at that spot.

The terrain was difficult. Not as hard as some of the worse parts of the Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve where I had worked in the past, but it wasn’t an easy stroll through the woods either. We clambered, hand over hand, up steep rocky chasms, sometimes going over near-vertical faces: steep cliff sides that were slippery-slick with rain and strewn with loose stones. I kicked myself for not having the foresight to bring climbing rope with me. Instead, we used organic climbing rope: thick vines that we cut from nearby trees and tossed up or lowered down the vertical places. I doubt that our “ropes” would have passes Stateside safety inspections. The going was tough, but that was OK with me because we were making progress. By hugging the small mountain streams that wound through this rocky landscape we were getting modest leech numbers: the leeches, it turned out, were not on the mountain trails, but they could be found on the vegetation near fast-flowing water. The numbers weren’t spectacular, but at almost two hundred leeches per day per team, it wasn’t a bad haul. Just as important, to me, was that we finding what appeared to be good camera trap locations: places where Annamite ungulates had stopped to tear into a juicy leaf or succulent shoot. I got goosebumps thinking about the photos we would get in the coming months from these cameras. On this trip perhaps more than any other I felt like I was going to get a glimpse of the mammals that roamed these dark jungles.

Kai setting a camera trap
Kai setting a camera trap
Going up steep terrain
Going up steep terrain

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