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Doucs And Dong: Chlidonias Goes To Asia, part four (2015)

Discussion in 'Asia - General' started by Chlidonias, 29 Aug 2015.

  1. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    Preamble

    When A Guide to the Mammals of Southeast Asia by Charles Francis came out in 2008 I was immediately struck by how many endemic and near-endemic primates are found in Vietnam, and I had a plan germinate in my brain about trying to see all of them in one trip. I figured three months would make that do-able, allowing me time to just wander about aimlessly as I do and spend time on the most difficult species. This trip isn't quite what I had in mind, with time and finances giving me only three weeks, but I figure I can look upon it as a starter trip - a pre-exploration if you will. At some future date, hopefully soon, I can return to visit the north of the country while with this current trip I would concentrate on the south and centre. Three weeks is a disgustingly short length of time so I just aimed for a few sites, namely Cat Tien (home to Black-shanked Doucs), Mang Den (home to Grey-shanked Doucs) and a couple of places near and north of Danang, Bach Ma and Phong Nha-Ke Bang (both home to Red-shanked Doucs). After Vietnam I stopped off at Bukit Fraser in Malaysia for a couple of days.

    I had read often about how difficult bird-watching is in Vietnam, and so it proved to be. Outside the protected areas there is almost no life at all, and even within them it is jolly hard work. To illustrate, I didn't see a single cattle egret or little egret the entire time I was in Vietnam. In any other part of southeast Asia these are pretty much omnipresent. In Vietnam any white things in fields or rice-paddies were either domestic ducks or flags on sticks (I assume to scare away non-existent birds from eating the crops). I barely saw any mynahs anywhere, which frankly was just bizarre. Even Tree Sparrows seemed thin on the ground.

    Because this was only a short trip I will do a day-to-day thread - each day will be a separate post - otherwise the thread will be over before it's even begun! Sometimes I will make reference to later days if necessary. At the end of each post I will put a list of all the birds and mammals seen that day; lifers will be in bold (there aren't many of them). The numbers will be the totalling of species seen on the trip.

    I had seen trip reports from bird tour companies who would cover the whole country in three or four weeks and see 350-ish species. I figured that because I wasn't visiting any wader sites or the delta, and I don't use tapes or guides - I just see what I see - I'd probably only get between 100 and 150 species which was actually correct (I ended up with 114 bird species, about half of which were at the start of the trip in Cat Tien; only 15 of the total were lifers). I had a guesstimate of 20 mammal species, and ended up on 18 (6 of them lifers), and I missed most of the primates I was hoping to find!
     
  2. devilfish

    devilfish Well-Known Member

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    Brilliant! I look forward to reading about your new adventure in detail. :D
     
  3. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    nobody likes details more than me, so you better be prepared for details of details! :p
     
  4. DavidBrown

    DavidBrown Moderator Staff Member

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    Are there any megafauna like elephants, wild bovids, or big cats left in Vietnam?
     
  5. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    there are, but you'd have to be lucky to see them. Rhinos are extinct, elephants are almost gone, banteng and gaur are rare, still some tigers left, there are leopards and Asiatic black bears and sun bears. Sambar are still pretty common.
     
  6. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    Day One: travelling

    I like travelling, I just don't like the "getting there" part of travelling. The travelling to the travelling, if you see what I mean, especially when one is having to travel from New Zealand. The first option I looked at for getting to Vietnam was with Jetstar which has a single flight from Christchurch to Saigon. And by a single flight I really mean three separate flights. First you fly to Melbourne at 8.30pm (almost four hours flight, arriving at 10.15pm Australian-time), wait at the airport overnight for twelve hours, then fly to Singapore (almost eight hours), wait there for anywhere from four to thirteen hours depending on which flight you got, and then finally to Saigon (two and a half hours).

    That was rubbish, so I looked at some other options and chose a less-secure but quicker and significantly-cheaper route. First I took the 8.30pm Jetstar flight to Melbourne. There was an Air Asia flight leaving for Kuala Lumpur at 12.45am which would mean I'd have two and a half hours between landing with Jetstar and taking off with Air Asia. The check-in desk closes an hour before the flight, however, so I actually had only one and a half hours grace. This was a fingers-crossed sort of plan - if the Jetstar flight was delayed in New Zealand everything would fall apart. If I got held up at Immigration or Customs that could also be costly. There really were several things which could go wrong with my plan, but in reality the very worst that would happen if I missed the Air Asia flight would be either having to book onto a later flight or simply staying in Australia and looking for wildlife there instead. In the event, it all went according to plan and there were no issues at all.

    In Kuala Lumpur I had a seven hour wait before my next Air Asia flight to Saigon. This was basically because the earlier cheap flights were right when I was landing so I knew I wouldn't have time to catch them, and the midday flights were too expensive in comparison. Total time between leaving Christchurch and landing in Saigon was roughly 23 hours. Also I had gone to the airport straight after work, so all of that made about 37 hours of being awake (I generally don't sleep well on planes).

    Total return flight costs for the trip were NZ$1076 (about 451 UK pounds; US$695; 622 Euros).

    First order of business on getting to Vietnam is getting the visa in your passport. Vietnam has a handy electronic visa system where you apply online and get sent a confirmation letter which you take with you to Vietnam. At the airport you hand over the letter, an application form, a passport photo, your passport and the US$45 fee, then you sit down and wait for ten or twenty minutes. It is all very simple and orderly, the only thing you need to worry about being that the person calling out the names cannot pronounce them properly.

    From the airport I took the local bus to De Tham Street, off Pham Ngu Lao, which is where most of the backpackers end up. I had pre-booked a guesthouse there, the Kim Ngan Guesthouse, because I knew that when I arrived all I would want to do was go to sleep.

    Tomorrow I go to Cat Tien National Park and the animals will start making an appearance in the story.


    Birds seen today:

    At the airport in Kuala Lumpur:
    1) Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
    2) Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis
    3) House Crow Corvus splendens

    In Saigon:
    Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
     
  7. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    Another wonderful travel thread is in the works...no wonder you temporarily disappeared from this site. I was beginning to worry!
     
  8. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    Day Two: Cat Tien National Park

    Cat Tien National Park lies north of Saigon. It is dead easy to get to. From De Tham Street the tourist buses heading to Dalat will drop you at the town of Tan Phu three hours away, and from there you get a motorbike for 45 minutes to the park. The local name for the park is Nam Cat Tien - there is apparently a town further away which is called Cat Tien so best to add the "Nam" to avoid confusion! My pre-trip researches, such as they were, had told me that the bus from De Tham Street would be 220,000 Vietnamese Dong (there are about 14,500 Dong to one NZ Dollar, so roughly NZ$15) but the one I got was 120,000. However the motorbike should have been 120,000 but I ended up paying 200,000 so it actually worked out nearly the same total amount. When I was coming back from Cat Tien to Saigon I discovered there is also a local bus which goes direct from the Mien Dong bus station in the city to the park, which takes about the same journey time but costs a third or half the price. It should be easy to find at the station - it has "BX Nam Cat Tien - Mien Dong" written in big letters across the top of the windshield.

    The entire three hour bus ride from Saigon to Tan Phu was almost devoid of wild birds. I think I saw four individual birds. Even roadside pools which in Thailand or Malaysia would have had egrets and pond herons were completely empty of anything but white ducks.

    There was a Swiss couple on the bus, going to Dalat. They said they had thought about going to Cat Tien but had been put off by the bad reviews written on Tripadvisor. I suggested that the people who write those sort of things are idiots and to just go see for themselves, but they declined. I had read one particularly funny one before (it was posted September 2014) and I'll just quote the whole thing below to show how stupid backpackers are. All the responses to the post were along the lines of "Thanks for letting us know. I was going to go but now I won't bother".

    Yeah.... I guess if it keeps the numpties like that out of the National Parks then job well done.


    Anyway, on with my story.

    Before going to Vietnam I had emailed the park to organise my stay there. Vietnam is quite a cheap country, but like anywhere the National Parks tend to be more expensive places to stay than if you're in the cities. At Cat Tien I had been told that the HQ accommodation was 480,000 per night (about NZ$33) and at Crocodile Lake 350,000 per night (about NZ$24), so those were what I booked. When I got there I discovered that there were much cheaper rooms at the HQ, namely 200,000 for a fan room and 250,000 for a room with air-conditioning; they are cheaper because the toilets are separate from the rooms. Those cheaper rooms were full that first night, but for my last two nights after coming back from the lake I got a 200,000 room which represented quite a saving.

    After checking in at reception, putting my bag in my room (the 480,000 Dong one, which was sort of like a woodland cabin and had a Tokay Gecko somewhere in the roof who I would hear calling at night but couldn't see) and then getting some lunch, I headed out to look for animals. It was around midday and swelteringly hot and humid so I wasn't expecting much, but if you don't look then you don't find. August is probably the worst time to visit Vietnam. It is the hottest month of the year and also the middle of the rainy season, although as it happened I only had one day (at Mang Den later in the trip) when rain caused a problem. Most of the time if it rained at all it was only for half an hour or so. Also there were a few times when night-time rain curtailed spot-lighting efforts but overall there were no real issues. There were a surprisingly large number of tourists at Cat Tien though, including an Australian who was going back to Saigon because "there's not much to do here" (he had been to Crocodile Lake "for half an hour and I didn't see a thing"). I think most of the tourists, judging from what I saw, stay at most for one or two nights at the HQ, make a day-trip to Crocodile Lake, and then leave. Generally you only see them either around the HQ area or cycling along the road.

    The park is bordered by a narrow river (with a little ferry taking visitors back and forth) and the HQ area is right by the jetty. A sealed road leads north and south of the HQ, parallel to the river, and there are various trails leading off the road into the forest. I walked up the north road for a kilometre or so to a ford (which I suspect is dry when most birders visit because I hadn't read anything about birders having to walk through it when birding the road) but there wasn't much around in the heat. On the way back I tried out the trail to the Ancient Tung Tree, mainly because right inside the entrance I had spotted a group of Green-billed Malkohas with an accompanying Red And Black Broadbill. After those first sightings I did not see a single other bird in the forest there, but I did (too my complete astonishment) find a Black-shanked Douc! I had only been at the park for three hours and had already found my first target primate there. That had to be a good omen.

    The douc was a male, all alone, and he did not seem terribly concerned at my presence. He was very much larger than I had been expecting. I have seen Red-shanked Doucs in zoos and I didn't remember them being that big. The Southeast Asian mammals field guide gives the same measurements for both species, so I'm not sure if this was just a particularly big individual or if it is one of those situations where it just seems much bigger because it is being seen in the wild. The photos I took were all rubbish unfortunately. It is so hot and humid there that when you lift your camera the viewfinder immediately fogs up, so I had it on auto-focus. But the camera doesn't realise that the monkey is what you want to take the photo of, and instead stubbornly focuses on everything except the monkey. In retrospect, given that this monkey was relatively placid and every other monkey I saw in Vietnam took off like it had been shot out of a cannon, I have a suspicion this one may have been a released animal from the park's rehabilitation programme. But it was a good start, and I ended up seeing doucs on every day I was at Cat Tien.

    In contrast, I met almost no leeches at Cat Tien. Even in the leechiest parts I came across there wouldn't have been more than a handful. I had expected in the rainy season the place would be teeming with them, but no. On the Ancient Tung Tree trail I saw just one leech. On the next two days on the Crocodile Lake trail I didn't see even that number!

    South of the HQ the road leads through grasslands. Birds are a lot easier to see here than in the forest, although the heat is a lot more intense out in the open. Not far along the south road was a fruiting fig tree which was collecting a number of birds, including Oriental Pied Hornbills, Lineated Barbets, Stripe-throated Bulbuls and fruit pigeons. I thought the latter were Pompadour Pigeons but later started second-guessing myself that they might have been Thick-billed Pigeons and ended up thoroughly confusing myself, so in the end I left them off the list entirely.

    The best bird of the day were the Racket-tailed Treepies which are like all-black magpies but the long tail spatulates out at the end like a spoonbill's beak. Really cool birds.

    At night I saw only a Lesser Mouse Deer while spot-lighting. They have night-drives at the park which head south into the grasslands area to look for Sambar and Gaur, but I was told there were none going out that night.


    Birds seen today:
    Tree Sparrow Passer montanus
    4) Spot-necked Dove Streptopelia chinensis
    5) White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis
    6) Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo Dicrurus paradiseus
    7) Oriental Pied Hornbill Anthracoceros albirostris
    8) Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
    9) White-rumped Shama Copsychus malabaricus
    10) Red And Black Broadbill Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchus
    11) Green-billed Malkoha Phaenicophaeus tristis
    12) Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis
    13) Blue-bearded Bee-eater Nyctyornis athertoni
    14) Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
    15) Lineated Barbet Megalaima lineata
    16) Stripe-throated Bulbul Pycnonotus finlaysoni
    17) Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus
    18) Great Iora Aegithina lafresnayei
    19) Racket-tailed Treepie Crypsirina temia
    20) Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis
    21) Black-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus atriceps
    22) Oriental Darter Anhinga melanogaster
    23) Chestnut-headed Bee-eater Merops leschenaulti


    Mammals seen today:
    1) Pallas' (Red-bellied) Squirrel Callosciurus erythraeus
    2) Black-shanked Douc Pygathrix nigripes
    3) Lesser Mouse Deer Tragulus kanchil
     
    Last edited: 5 Sep 2015
  9. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    Couple of photos of the douc:

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     
  10. LaughingDove

    LaughingDove Well-Known Member

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    Great posts so far, I look forward to reading more!
     
  11. PAT

    PAT Well-Known Member

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    Preamble was only posted ten hours ago. I need time to prepare myself for a Chlidonias' travel thread and now we're already on day two.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to the rest of it.
     
  12. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    I am planning on posting one day each day, so that it lasts a little longer (there will be 21 days in all). However the Preamble doesn't count because it is just an introductory offering, and Day One is only travel notes so also doesn't count. Day Two is the real Day One, in a manner of speaking.

    From now on, there will be breathing space between posts. Also I have only written the first four days, so future days will depend on how much time I have.
     
  13. zooman

    zooman Well-Known Member

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  14. Brum

    Brum Well-Known Member

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    Woo hoo, I've had no internet access for a while and imagine my joy at finding this thread! Made my day! :D
     
  15. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    ...and you will be pleased to note that I was overseas on my birthday, as predicted. :p

    By the way Day One was August the First, conveniently enough, so whichever number day it is that is the equivalent date of August.
     
  16. savethelephant

    savethelephant Well-Known Member

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    And he's back!:D

    I am so excited!:cool:;):rolleyes:
     
  17. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    Day Three: Cat Tien National Park (Crocodile Lake)


    On my second day at Cat Tien I set off for Crocodile Lake, or Bau Sau to the Vietnamese. In 2005 this was named as Vietnam's second Ramsar site (the first being the Xuan Thuy Wetland Reserve in 1989; there are now six Ramsar sites in the country, the latest being Con Dao National Park in 2014). Crocodile Lake is somewhat ephemeral, shrinking and growing depending on the rains, and as I was there in the rainy season it was in its extensive phase with the water almost up to the watch-tower at the ranger post.

    To get to the lake from the HQ there is first 9km of road and then a 5km trail. When I was emailing the park before going to Vietnam I was told that a jeep to the trailhead would cost 500,000 Dong (about NZ$35). You can also rent a bicycle which would cost 240,000 overnight, so only half the price of the jeep, but I was staying at the lake for two nights so they didn't want me to do that. Luckily there was a couple going to the lake for a day-trip on the same morning that I was going, so I just shared their jeep and it only cost me 150,000. I'd heard from a few reports that a guide was a definite requirement if using the Crocodile Lake trail but this is complete nonsense, and in fact the trail is now entirely concreted so not even a blind person could get lost when on it.

    The road from the HQ is sealed for the first 3km, then it turns to earth for the next 6km. There were lots of broadbill nests dangling from trees along the route, and twice I saw pittas bouncing off the road - I didn't see either of them well but thought they might be Blue-rumped Pittas, however a guide I talked to later said that if they were on the road they must have been Blue-winged Pittas. Whichever they were, they were the only pittas I saw while at Cat Tien. Stupid pittas. The trailhead is at a small shelter - the road keeps on going to somewhere further - and the trail itself is formed from volcanic rocks in-filled with concrete. It looks like it was done fairly recently. Perhaps tourists were complaining about leeches. I myself didn't see a single leech anywhere over the next two days. There are gaps between the rocks along the sides of the trail, and in these dwell a lot of freakin' scary Scutigerids. They mostly come out at night, mostly, but sometimes in the day one would shoot out across my feet and make me jump. I don't mind them really, it is just their sudden appearance and lightning speed which creeps me out. Not as freaky, though, as one morning in the watch-tower when I must have brushed against the web of a giant orb-weaver without noticing; I'm just sitting there and suddenly a mass of legs comes over the brim of my cap, just at that distance from your eyes when you can't see what it is, just that it's huge and far too close to your face!

    Nothing noteworthy was seen on the walk to the lake, only White-rumped Shama, Streaked Spiderhunter and Crimson Sunbird.

    At the lake there is the ranger post containing the accommodation, which connects via a raised boardwalk to a watch-tower. The rooms there are perfectly fine, and they have solar panels for 24-hour electricity. The food is cooked by the rangers and is excellent. Mostly it is based around fish from the lake but on my second night was (domestic) duck. After the first meal, when they saw I knew how to use chopsticks proficiently, they stopped giving me western utensils and I ate communally with them rather than alone as a tourist. Only one of the rangers spoke any English.

    The lake's surface is a bit of a mosaic of open water, reed beds, and mats of water hyacinth. It turned out that the reed beds are actually floating, not rooted. On one morning after a patch of heavy rain accompanied by some fairly stiff wind, I came back to the watch-tower and saw that the entire lake had changed, with all the nearest reed beds having been shunted across the lake and merged into islands. The reeds were a hive of birdy activity. Asian Golden Weavers were constantly zooming back and forth collecting nest material, Purple Swamphens and White-breasted Waterhens popped up here and there, a few Bronze-winged Jacanas looked preposterous as they flew about, Lesser Coucals were ever-present, and bitterns were also very active. Cinnamon Bitterns seemed to spend all their waking moments chasing one another back and forth between the reed beds, once I saw a Yellow Bittern (on the second day), and there were Black Bitterns too, either a lot of them or just a few very mobile ones. I wouldn't have to sit more than five minutes before a Black or Cinnamon Bittern flew past. The Black Bitterns were the first ones I had seen and I wasn't even sure what they were at first. The Robson field guide just says they are "recorded" in Cochinchina so I was a bit unsure, but I saw them often enough and close enough that I could be definite on them. I just had a look while writing this and they are on the Cat Tien bird list, so that's good. At just around midday, a pair of Green Peafowl made an appearance at the edge of the forest over on the left side of the lake and spent a bit of time walking about before leaving, and in the late afternoon I saw a Lesser Adjutant as well.

    There are, of course, crocodiles in the lake. The species here is the Siamese Crocodile, of which about 60 were reintroduced over several years from 2001. The number of juveniles seen by rangers attests to the successful establishment of the population. They are quite easy to see from the watch-tower. In fact the first animal I saw from the tower was a crocodile, even before any of the birds. On the first evening I watched one trying to swallow something, probably a catfish, which was either too large or too feisty to go down without a struggle. Usually there would only be one croc visible, but sometimes two or three could be seen at once, and at night a torch swept across the lake would show up numerous glowing red orbs.

    In the afternoon I walked back along the trail but it was just as dead bird-wise as before. I did see a troop of Black-shanked Doucs, albeit very poorly through several layers of trees. The typical primate sighting in Cat Tien seemed to be trees crashing as monkeys jumped, more trees crashing as you tried to see them, then if you were lucky one or two individuals would pause briefly in an open patch just long enough for you to see which species they were, and then they would all disappear. Just around 4.30pm I had a bit better luck with another group of monkeys which I thought were going to be more doucs but turned out to be the sought-after Annamese Silvered Langurs. This was a large group, more than ten animals, and they afforded me some fine views. I didn't even try to get any photos of them because they were moving about too much and I already knew from trying to get douc photos that all I would end up with was shots of leaves and blurry dark things in the background, but with the binoculars I watched them easily. They were moving around a lot, but I probably had somewhere between five and ten minutes viewing altogether. One of the guides I met later didn't believe that I had seen them because he had never managed to do so.

    I tried some spot-lighting that night, seeing a Common Palm Civet as soon as I had left the ranger post, but about two minutes later the rain suddenly came hammering down out of nowhere. I waited for a while but it didn't look like it was going to stop any time soon, so I just went to bed.


    Birds seen today:
    Oriental Magpie-robin Copsychus saularis
    White-rumped Shama Copsychus malabaricus
    24) Streaked Spiderhunter Arachnothera magna
    25) Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja
    26) Asian Golden Weaver Ploceus hypoxanthus
    27) Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus
    28) Black Bittern Dupetor flavicollis
    29) Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker Dicaeum cruentatum
    30) White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata
    Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
    Oriental Darter Anhinga melanogaster
    31) White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus
    32) Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio
    33) Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis
    34) Green Peafowl Pavo muticus
    Stripe-throated Bulbul Pycnonotus finlaysoni
    Green-billed Malkoha Phaenicophaeus tristis
    35) Blue-winged Leafbird Chloropsis cochinchinensis
    36) Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus
    37) Bronze-winged Jacana Metopidius indicus
    38) Purple Heron Ardea purpurea


    Mammals seen today:
    Pallas' (Red-bellied) Squirrel Callosciurus erythraeus
    Black-shanked Douc Pygathrix nigripes
    4) Annamese Silvered Langur Trachypithecus margarita
    5) Common Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus
     
  18. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    I forgot to add a couple of photos. Firstly Crocodile Lake (showing the end viewable from the watch-tower - the lake stretches waaaaaay off to the right out of sight) and secondly a Siamese Crocodile.

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
     
  19. DavidBrown

    DavidBrown Moderator Staff Member

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    In your experience where is the best place in Asia to see the giant orb-weaver spiders? Are they ubiquitous?

    What happened to the original population of crocodiles in Crocodile Lake? Were they poached out?
     
  20. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    yep, pretty much ubiquitous. I have seen them throughout southeast Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands. They even reach New Zealand occasionally (as wind-blown babies which grow up to monstrous adult females) but I haven't seen them here. I like them because they are completely harmless, but I don't like them when they are on my face!

    Siamese Crocodiles were extirpated over their entire range in Vietnam, largely through poaching and I guess in earlier times through wetland destruction as well. They are probably entirely extinct in the country apart for the reintroduced ones at Cat Tien. What was supposedly the last true wild one was found dead in 2012, strangled by steel wires (see Last Wild Siamese Crocodile in Vietnam Found Strangled to Death [Updated] - Extinction Countdown - Scientific American Blog Network).

    The ones at Cat Tien were released between 2001 and 2004, with 60 individuals in total. They all came from crocodile farms and were DNA tested to make sure they weren't hybrids with Saltwater Crocodiles. A survey in 2011 estimated between 100 and 150 are now at the lake.

    Just as an aside, this is only the second species of crocodylian I have seen in the wild, after Saltwater Crocodiles in Australia and Borneo. I want to see a Gharial though!