Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ratanakiri re-visited

The team that visited the Ratanakiri gibbons, outside the ranger station gates
I have failed miserably, with so much football taking place, to give you a run-down on my recent wildlife encounter in Ratanakiri. I apologise. I wrote the following for my company newsletter which sums up the experience, so here it is.
Wildlife in Cambodia is becoming increasingly scarce, so it’s great news when a wildlife agency discovers a new population they didn’t know existed. One such discovery is the endangered gibbons of Ratanakiri, the northern buffed-cheeked crested gibbons to be precise, about 1,500 of them, and under the umbrella of Conservation International, an exciting opportunity now exists to see them in their natural habitat. Cue my recent visit to Banlung in Cambodia’s northeast province of Ratanakiri. My destination was the Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area where a small group of habituated gibbons have been the subject of research for the past couple of years. Habituated means they don’t run away from humans, which makes early morning viewing a real possibility. To reach their stretch of evergreen jungle required a 4WD trip of 35kms, a boat ride along the Sesan River and then a two-hour bicycle ride punctuated by a lunch stop before arriving at the ranger-research station. After a shower and a rest we had an early dinner. The gibbons themselves are another 2kms away but the best time to see them is around dawn, so we took an hour-long night-time (8pm) hike through the forest with head-lamps in the hope of spotting pygmy-loris or civet, though we were out of luck this time around. Our guide was disappointed that we didn't see anything so he took us further into the forest, which wasn't a great idea as it got thicker and thicker before we finally turned back. The end of a tough day.
The next morning, it was a 4am departure from camp for the 2km walk to the home of the gibbons and right on cue, as we arrived, their mesmerizing whooping call literally took the roof off the forest in front of us. A few steps under the canopy and the family of four were directly above us, playing, resting, fighting, eating, with the male and female (who is beige in colour) sending their piercing call across the forest canopy. It was a magical moment. After twenty minutes, the local guide told us to be ready to move, and again on cue, the family (dad, mum, a juvenile and a minor, all black in colour except mum) began swinging from tree to tree, high over our heads but easy enough to spot, as we followed our expert tracker who knew instinctively which direction the family was heading. Every few minutes we would pause on the forest floor as the family stopped to eat and inspect their own patch of forest. It was tough-going on the forest floor, there is no path to follow but our group size (no more than six at a time to limit the impact on the gibbons) means it’s straightforward enough to follow the guide and to keep a look-out for the gibbons overhead. It got a bit tense when the family encountered two red-shanked douc langurs, something the guide hadn’t seen before, but after a few moments, both groups went their separate ways without incident, to the relief of all present. We carried on shadowing the family for more than an hour before letting them carry on without further interruption. Then unexpectedly, we spotted a troupe of fifteen douc langurs high in the tree-tops and their different way of traversing the jungle, jumping from tree to tree feet-first instead of the languid swinging of the gibbons with their long arms, was an unexpected pleasure to see. Two hours after our arrival we emerged from the jungle for a well-deserved rest, invigorated by our adventures and experiences.
Back at the ranger station, we had brunch before getting back on our bikes for the ride back to civilization at the town of Veun Sai, on the banks of the Sesan and a ferry ride to meet up with our 4WD back to Banlung and a welcome splash in the pool at the Terres Rouge Hotel. It was a fabulous experience, seeing these rare and at risk gibbons in their natural habitat, and the added bonus of the douc langurs as well. It’s refreshing to know that the work of Conservation International and the park rangers are preserving this pristine environment and allowing new experiences like this to be made possible. I went over the top of my handle-bars on the bike ride back, which just goes you have to be on-guard at all times. Fortunately I only suffered a dent in my pride. The reason I took my eye off the track was that four large red ants (ang krang in Khmer) had gotten onto my hand and I was trying to prise them off my skin. Next time I'll simply stop.
Our send-off committee on the riverbank

Riding the boat on the Sesan River

The forest trail close to the ranger station

This bridge leads to the gates of the ranger station

My hammock

Our less than luxurious bedroom accommodation
The route through a bamboo forest

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Anonymous Nola Lee Kelsey said...

Thank you for the great report Andy. I also enjoyed my gibbon spotting trek, but must confess I am a bit jealous over your fifteen douc langurs encounter - okay, I am very jelous. I hope many more people join this program, experience Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area for themselves and help support preservation of Northern buff-cheeked crested gibbons along the way.

May 16, 2012 at 10:19 AM  

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