Psshhhhh—the sound of static tells me the VHF receiver is on.  204:  beep-pause-beep-pause-beep.  Fine.  446:  beep-pause-beep-pause-beep.  And on through our list of numbers.  We have listened to this pattern EVERY 15 minutes 24 hours a day for the past two weeks. (I swear I hear beeping in my sleep).  Why?  What does beeping have to do with dholes?

The numbers represent different VHF frequencies that are being transmitted from devices at locations where we hope to catch a dhole.  When a trap is sprung in the forest, it pulls on a network of fishing line that tugs the transmitter upside down.  In a normal undisturbed mode, the transmitter sends a VHF signal that we hear as a normal beep-pause-beep.  If something disturbs our site and the transmitter flips upside down, we hear instead a rapid beep, beep, beep, beep!  And it is that sequence that gets our adrenaline flowing as we jump quickly into the truck to race to the site!

What do we usually find?  Maybe a monitor lizard, mongoose, or civet.  Sometimes it is just the wind that jiggles our transmitter and causes a false alarm.  Other times nothing is caught, but our transmitters are bumped by bears or elephants.  Every time the entire team races to the site (always with a veterinarian in the lead) so that just in case an animal is caught, it is for the shortest amount of time possible.  And every time we have to take care and time to reset the area to be ready for our target.

What do we want to find?  A dhole (also known as an Asian wild dog)!

Dholes are an endangered species with fewer than 2,500 remaining in the wild.  Despite this status, and their suspected continued decline, some managers have suggested dhole numbers should be actively reduced.  We are in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand where some people perceive a drop in deer numbers and blame dholes.  There is also concern dholes may be dangerous to humans.  (Note, there are no recorded instances of dholes ever attacking a person).

We hope to make a case for the dholes with science.  If we can catch a dhole and place a GPS tracking collar on it, then we can track a pack’s movements and the space they use.  This will help us estimate how many packs might be in the 840 square mile park.  We might be able to show that dholes are not overpopulated.  For example, people might be seeing the same pack at different locations.  It is especially important to protect dhole numbers because they are the only remaining top carnivores in Khao Yai.  There were never leopards documented in the park and the tigers have disappeared as a result of poaching.

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.

Check out the photos below.  Did the team catch dholes?  Read more about Kate’s trip in Part 2 –Dholes in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand.

Dr. Kate Jenks (Minnesota Zoo) looking for dhole footprints. Photo by Jennifer Buff (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute volunteer)

Team members Dr. Kate Jenks (Minnesota Zoo), Jennifer Buff (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute volunteer), Dr. Warisara Thomas (Zoological Park Organization of Thailand), and Dr. SaNae (Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation) prepare a site to attract dholes. This includes securing a transmitter high in a tree. Photo by Dr. Nucharin Songsasen (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) A transmitter is placed at each location. When a trap is disturbed, fishing line is pulled which flips the transmitter upside down. This causes the transmitter to send a faster VHF radio signal. The team listens for this signal (heard as beeping) to know when to check the sites. Photo by Jennifer Buff (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute volunteer) Dr. Kate Jenks (Minnesota Zoo) shows some of the team members how to work the receiver to listen to the VHF radio transmissions from the sites. Photo by Jennifer Buff (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute volunteer) Team member Nook (Khao Yai National Park staff) places a trail camera at one of the sites. The camera has an infrared beam that detects heat and motion to automatically take a photo of any passing animals. This allows us to see which animals visited the area and took our bait. Photo by Dr. Kate Jenks (Minnesota Zoo) Someone is always up at any time of the day or night to check the radio receiver, listening for the tell-tale, rapid beeping that indicates whether or not one of traps has been sprung. The team, which always includes a veterinarian, is ready to leap into action at any moment to ensure the smallest amount of time possible that any animal is in a trap. Photo by Dr. Nucharin Songsasen (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) Sooner or later monitor lizards arrive to check out our bait too. They are awesome reptiles, but they are not dholes! The team is taking body measurements of a small monitor lizard. Photo by Dr. Kate Jenks (Minnesota Zoo) Dr. Kate Jenks (Minnesota Zoo) holding a green magpie that was caught when it came to eat bugs off of our meat used to bait dholes. We released the bird unharmed. Photo by Dr. Nucharin Songsasen (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) Animal work continues day and night. Large Indian civets are ferocious and usually needed to be anesthetized to remove them from a trap. The team has to be well organized with supplies and each person clear on their individual role and responsibilities to work in the darkness of the forest. All work is done by the light of headlamps on everyone’s forehead. Photo by Dr. Nucharin Songsasen (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) Dholes! There were at least three pack members that came to visit our trap site, according to images from our trail cameras.