We have been trying to collar a dhole for 7 days, but no luck. We are in Khao Yai National Park in Thailand and have set up traps in an area called Nong Pak Chi. I am familiar with the area from 2004 when I was an intern working in the park. I looked for dholes back then and I never saw them. There is one section of Nong Pak Chi in particular, a little trail through the high grass and into the forest, were we continue to catch civets of all kinds: Large Indian civets, small Indian civets, and palm civets. Our veterinarians collect blood and hair samples from these animals for disease and DNA testing, then safely release them. But, we are debating closing the traps because we don’t want to catch any more animals that are not dholes.
Our team decides to give the area one more night and my colleague, Dr. Nucharin (Nuch) Songsasen, from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute heads out to add more bait. The sun only dropped below the horizon an hour ago and at 7:30pm, it is prime dhole time!
Just as I am sitting down for a meal, we get a call that a trap is triggered. Since Nuch was already out, she drove to the site and crept carefully, slowly, and quietly through the grass to see what species of civet we caught again.
The rest of the support team rushes to jump into the standby truck with supplies. The night suddenly seems darker, the stars are almost visible, and we can’t make out the trail ahead clearly in the headlights. Is that a flashlight shining? Moving up and down rapidly? Is that Nuch’s headlamp? Yes! My brain quickly registers that she is jumping up and down in a sort of “happy dance” to give us a non-verbal clue that we captured another dhole! (Our plan as we approach any trap is to be as quiet as possible to not stress out any animals, hence Nuch’s dance instead of yelling for joy).
We all strap on our own headlamps and organize the team as we move fluidly through the bouncing shadows. Dr. Warissara (Sarah), the lead veterinarian, is always the first to approach any animal with a pair of staff from the park. They carefully and swiftly throw a net over the dhole to restrain it so it is safe for Sarah to approach. Then, she injects the dhole with drugs to anesthetize it (so it is sleeping). After the drugs take effect we are able to safely carry the dhole to the back of the truck to make space for us to work.
It is our second adult female dhole during this trip. Sarah makes sure that the breathing is regular and strong and that the dhole’s body temperature is not too high or too low. She checks for any injuries and examines the dhole’s ears, eyes, and teeth. Other team members begin their own jobs that we planned ahead of time. Veterinarians from the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation take samples of hair, saliva, and ticks. They are studying the presence of disease and mange in dholes. I frantically write down numbers in the dim light of my headlamp as Nuch takes various body measurements. Our volunteer, Jennifer, holds saline IV bags and takes pictures the best she can with her free hand. Another team member holds a flashlight and hands equipment to the vets. Other members already left to drive to our other trap sites and close them to make sure we don’t capture another animal while working on the dhole. The park staff masterfully creates a recovery pen from a net and wooden stakes. The final step is to place a GPS collar on the dhole. The collar is recording her location every six hours and sends the data to my email. So I can continue to track this dhole from back in Minnesota and monitor her pack’s movements and the space they use. This will help us estimate how many packs might be in the 840 square mile park.
The dhole is named “Pak Chi*” for the area where she was found—the Nong Pak Chi watch tower that I spent so many hours at, so many years ago, dreaming about dholes. It feels like coming full circle to me.
*Pak Chi in Thai also translates to cilantro.
Dr. Kate Jenks is a Conservation Biologist at the Minnesota Zoo. She was recently in Thailand leading the Zoo’s efforts to save endangered dholes. This work was initiated by Khao Yai National Park under the Thailand Department of National Parks, Plants, and Wildlife supported by the Minnesota Zoo, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Kasesart University in Bangkok, and the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand. We have an incredible team of vets, scientists, and park research staff that are working to successfully place GPS tracking collars on dholes.