Glimpse into the secretive world of the Annamites

One of my favorite aspects of camera trapping is that you can get a snapshot of the complete mammalian community in an area: a camera trap doesn’t discriminate between species, but snaps a photo of anything warm-blooded that happens to move in front of the sensor, be it a rare species like Saola or striped rabbit or more commonplace but equally fascinating animals like masked palm civet or tree shrew. I’ve written about two of the rarer camera trap finds that we got in the eastern Xe Sap work: Annamite dark muntjac and striped rabbit. Both are found only in the narrow mountain range that divides Laos and Vietnam and almost nothing is known about them. And these were important finds. But discounting the rest of the Annamites mammal community is rather like skipping through the Louvre only to look at one or two of the more publicized paintings: it misses the wonder and beauty that makes the place so spectacular in the first place. Our cameras in Xe Sap snapped many images from other species. And even if they’re not Annamite endemics or rare mammals they are threads in the tapestry that forms one of the most intriguing biological communities on the planet. And these camera trap images deserve as much wondered gazing as the Mona Lisa or any striped rabbit photo.

I was pleased to learn that almost every camera that we set in eastern Xe Sap snapped ungulate shots. In addition to the ubiquitous wild pigs and the ever-elusive dark muntjacs, the cameras got numerous photos of serow, that shaggy goat-like animal that haunts the Annamites jungles. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of serow photos we got. It struck me as a hopeful sign: although a relatively common species, its populations have declined from decades of uncontrolled hunting in this region, and to find so many in such a small area meant, to me, that eastern Xe Sap might be promising for other large ungulates, including the rare Saola. It was a sign that the general ungulate community was healthier than other areas I’d surveyed in adjacent Vietnam. But ecological implications aside: it is always a pleasure to gaze at a clear camera trap photo of this even-toed ungulate. It’s one of the coolest creatures to roam these jungles.

Serow camera trap photo from Xe Sap
Serow camera trap photo
Serow camera trap photo from Xe Sap
Serow (bottom left) camera trap photo

Some of the most amusing photos came from stump-tailed macaque. Like the serow, this monkey is relatively common in the region, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a joy to camera trap. It strikes me as one of the most entertaining study subjects one could wish for. Often this group-living primate will masquerade in front of the camera for minutes or even hours, playing, feeding, grooming, mingling: it’s almost like a time-lapse movie that is not only delightful to see but also gives insights into fascinating social behavior. One of the nice things about photographing a common animal, and especially one that has the tendency to act like a ham in front of the camera, is that you get a series of shots. And the more you get the more likely you are to get “the one”: that one shot that you have been waiting and praying for. And I think I came pretty close with stump-tailed macaque. On one of our cameras a group of the monkeys hangs out in front of the camera for almost an hour and then, with evening falling, they move on. But just as the group moves out of frame a single baby macaque notices the camera and, his curiosity piqued, wanders up to the unit and peers into the odd-looking out-of-place electronic equipment. The expression on his face is one of human-like wonder. His pose, with one arm tucked cautiously under his body, is one of deliberation and hesitation. And best of all, his eyes shine pitch black, as if they were capturing and concentrating the fast-approaching darkness. This is the shot I was looking for: a treasure for any camera-trapper. It was stunning. And it gave us one more glimpse into the secretive world of the Annamites.

Baby stump-tailed macaque camera trap photo
Baby stump-tailed macaque camera trap photo
Mature male stump-tailed macaque
Mature male stump-tailed macaque
Group of stump-tailed macaques
Group of stump-tailed macaques
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