Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) road cruising in Kaeng Krachan

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Crazy 4 hours in Kaeng Krachan

11 APR 2015, Kaeng Krachan national park

Luck is an important factor in wildlife watching. Some species are so elusive that a chance of an encounter is virtually zero. But how could it happen that we saw two such species in just 4 hours? Did our luck just exceed the million-dollar-lottery-winning luck? Maybe we should play more lotteries...

The first week of April 2015, we were supposed to do a wildlife safari in Kaeng Krachan. Hopefully, the guests who initially booked with us do not read this. They had to cancel last-minute due to sickness. We were already in the area when we were informed about the cancellation. A 5-hour drive from home (this time even more due to 2 hours traffic jam when finding our way through Bangkok...). We thought we'd better get the most out of it and just explore the park by ourselves.

Late afternoon, we were slowly driving the track that follows the mountain ridge deep in Thailand's largest national park. Slowly, the light started to fade. We had only a kilometre ahead before reaching camp. And then we turned around a corner, and there it is! A large black Malayan Sun Bear. Which apparently had the same plan as we had; following the road in the direction of the camp. Very cool!

The Green Trinket Snake, Gonyosoma prasinum. Also known as the Green Tree Racer, an uncommon snake from higher altitudes.
The Green Trinket Snake, Gonyosoma prasinum. Also known as the Green Tree Racer, an uncommon snake from higher altitudes.

However, it was probably our presence that made him decide to change his plan. This uncommonly encountered species quickly disappeared into the thick undergrowth on the road side. What a fantastic way to start our trip!

It was nearly dark, when we reached the camp where we pitched our tent. A quick dinner, and then back on the wildlife hunt. This time on foot. Little is more exciting than walking in the dark. Walking in a jungle home to big cats, bears, elephants, snakes and more, all on your own... The sounds are so intense. Probably, because all you rely on are your ears. The rustling of a mouse sounds as loud as you would expect the largest mammals to be. Every sound seems to be magnified. You can't but get annoyed by the sound of the fabric of your own pants while walking.

Vision is limited to the small light beam of the flashlight. Everything else is covered in pitch darkness. The only thing that gives you the slightest bit of comfort, is the fact that most of the nocturnal mammals like the bigger predators have strong eyeshine. Their eyes reflect the light of your flashlight. So, even if hidden in ambush to get ready for an attack on your fragile arteries, it should be possible to spot it before it makes the deadly attack. And hopefully by spotting it prior to the attack, you will be able to deter it somehow. Instead of ending up as juicy cat food. At least, that's just my thoughts when walking in the dark jungle on my own.

In between the spotlighting behind my back to spot a potential man-eater, the light of my torch does find its way over leaves and branches in search for smaller critters that are less likely to eat me alive. Something like that! In my light I see the coiled-up body of a green snake at about 3 metres above the forest floor, resting on a branch. The head is hidden behind a leaf. And at this point I am still unsure what I'm looking at. But from a different angle I get a strong feeling that this is something I haven't seen before. With a long stick I manage to lift the snake out of the tree. This went a lot easier than I expected it would. And indeed, as I thought, it turned out to be a Green Trinket Snake, Gonyosoma prasinum. A species that had so far always eluded me. In other words, what we would call: A lifer. A first-time-in-my-life - sighting. How cool is that!

Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) road cruising in Kaeng Krachan
Malayan Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) road cruising in Kaeng Krachan

After a bit of a photoshoot, I continue my night walk. Various cool gecko species cross my path, and so far no eyeshine behind my back of an ambushing big cat. It's time to turn back to camp. There was little mammal activity besides some mice. But what would you expect after a Sun Bear still so fresh in memory. And of course, the new lifer, Green Trinket Snake. Sometimes it just can not get any better. Or can it?

Just a couple hundred metres to go before reaching camp. The light of my flashlight is losing its strength, but still works fine on close range. But then there it is... the feared pair of bright, reflecting eyes staring at me... I freeze. The size of the creature tells me that it is not a tiger, and likely not even a leopard. That's a relief. But what is it? The animal turns and then the shape and muscular tail do reveal that in fact it is a big cat. But one of the smallest of the big cats. Not as big as the potential man-eaters. But certainly nothing less spectacular!

It had been 3 years, since my last sighting of this species. And honestly, with this species one can not be sure if one would ever have the pleasure and luck to encounter this species again. Those who are really into mammal watching and with a strong love for the big cats, know how special this is. For most of the big cats there are places where you can go and are almost guaranteed to get a sighting. For Lion you go to Africa, for Cheetah you go to Africa, for Jaquar you go to the Pantanal, for Leopard you go to Africa or Sri Lanka. Even for Snow Leopard there are places with fairly reasonable chances to see one. And in the right season in the right place you might even be able to track down a Mountain Lion. But where do you go to see the elusive Mainland Clouded Leopard? I guess, I have to say: Kaeng Krachan! Surely no guarantees, not even close to a reasonable chance, but with million-dollar-lottery-winning - luck everything seems possible. You might even see one just 4 hours after seeing a Malayan Sun Bear. Absolutely unbelievable! What a day!

The distance, and weakened light of my torch left my camera's autofocus hunting without being able to lock on the Clouded Leopard. And of course, it did not just wait there for me to get closer. It turned around, and just like the bear it chose the dense jungle to disappear, never to be seen again.

Again, I return home without an image of this amazing species. But well, I can't really complain, can I?

Comments on this post

  • 01 Jun 2023 at 19:46

    Jim France wrote:   "Wow, what an amazing night. Seeing a bear OR finding a lifer OR seeing the beautiful Clouded Leopard would have been so exciting but to have all of these experiences in one trek must have been absolutely amazing and totally unforgettable. I hope you have many more fantastic nights like this and the 2 magical nights we shared in Kaeng Krachan."

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