Monday, November 30, 2009

Survival of forest ox in the Kingdom

Protection, conservation awareness and financial support are key to the future of these hoofed animals and heritage habitat sites

About 20 million years ago, the first ungulates evolved from small, hornless deer-like ancestors. Cattle, sheep, antelopes and goats are grouped together in the family Bovidae, and the most common hoofed grazing animal seen today. Sometime during the Pleistocene Epoch 1.8 million years ago, the genus Bos evolved in Asia and spread to Europe, Africa and eventually to North America. Gaur Bos gaurus is a descendent of Bos Bibos, a wild cattle that lived on the great plains of Asia. Saber-toothed cats were one of the top carnivores at the time, and evolved alongside the ancient herbivores.

Gaur, the largest bovid in the world, is threatened with extinction and deserves much greater attention. The tiger and elephant have taken most of the conservation spotlight but gaur, like all the other wild animals need just as much protection, research and concern. Unfortunately, these wild forest ox continue to vanish from the wilderness areas in the Kingdom. After years of poor protective management and neglect, poaching and trophy hunting, plus a disappearing habitat suitable for these enormous creatures once found throughout Thailand, is the main reason for the decline.

Over their entire range, they are classified as internationally threatened. But not all is lost as gaur still survive quite well in a few of Thailand's top protected areas in fair numbers, and where there are true safe havens, the species has actually made a comeback. It is now estimated that more than 1,000 individuals remain in Thai forests. This number is up from the 500 recorded in Dr Boonsong Lekagul and Jeffery McNeely's book, Mammals of Thailand (1977). Dr Sompoad Srikosamatara and Varavudh Suteethorn published a paper in the Siam Society's Natural History Bulletin in 1995 about gaur and banteng. Their estimate then was about 1,000 gaur were surviving so the number is basically stable and most likely on the rise. Dr Naris Bhumpakpan from Kasetsart University published a paper in 1997 about the ecology of gaur in Huai Kha Khaeng and Khlong Saeng wildlife sanctuaries for his doctorate. He also put out a draft report on gaur and banteng in the region in 2008.

In Southeast Asia and India, gaur is found in scattered and splintered habitats. Other large wild bovine are banteng and wild water buffalo of Southeast and Southern Asia, the yak of Central Asia, the cape buffalo of Africa and the bison of North America and Europe. In recent times, the number of these wild creatures has dwindled as humans continue to hunt them for meat and trophies, and destroy and encroach on their habitat in some places. The American Bison came close to extinction but was saved in the nick of time. Thousands of wild bison now survive due to conservation efforts initiated by many people, including the late former US president Teddy Roosevelt.

Gaur is Thailand's second largest terrestrial animal after the elephant, and tends to inhibit deep mountainous terrain far from humans. They survive in dry and moist evergreen forest and mixed deciduous forests and therefore, have fared better than their cousin, the banteng, which live in more open lowland forest. Gaur occasionally mixes with banteng that has been documented in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, Uthai Thani province. Gaur will also shadow elephant herds using the same trails made by the larger mammals.

My favourite photographic wildlife subject is gaur. In Thailand, these majestic ungulates can still be found in the following places: the Western Forest Complex and Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, both in the west; the Khao Ang Rue Nai Forest Complex in the east; the Dong Payayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex and the Phu Khieo-Nam Nao Forest Complex, both in the northeast; and down south in the Khlong Saeng-Khao Sok Forest Complex. Due to the serious instability in the deep South, very few surveys have been carried out and there is no consensus on gaur, but they do survive in the Hala-Bala Forest Complex situated along the border with Malaysia. It is doubtful if any gaur survive in the North but the Omgoy-Mae Tuen Forest Complex might have a few left.

Gaur has a keen sense of smell and hearing, and is always alert for danger. As a result, they can be tough to spot in the dense forests of Asia. However, luck does come sometimes, and the following accounts describe the few times I have had the great fortune to observe these magnificent beasts in the wild.

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