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 (otherwise known as Asian wild dogs) in partnership with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). The team was hoping to place GPS collars on dholes to track their movement patterns and assess threats to their survival. This work is funded through private contributions to the Minnesota Zoo Foundation and grants to SCBI. Check out the first blog of this series for more background information here.
BHUUURT, BHURRT, BHUURT, BHURRT! What!? A smoke alarm? I need to evacuate. Where is the fire? A smoke alarm? Do they even have smoke alarms in the forest? What!? Wait. Where am I? Ah. And it finally registers in my sleep-deprived brain that the blaring alarm is from a phone. It is a reminder to wake up and check our traps at 4am. We have five different sites set up to catch dholes so that we can deploy GPS collars on them. Each of the sites is linked to a transmitter. When any of the traps are moved, the transmitter beeps faster. We listen for this sound every hour. Tonight our site at the salt lick is beeping. I quickly grab my camera, pen, knife, headlamp, and field backpack and we pile into the truck.
We are in Salak Pra Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand. Tropical Thailand, but it is still the cold season. I am huddled in the back of the truck wearing a fleece and I can see my breath. Everyone is quiet as we bump along the road in the dark. We have had little sleep between listening for the beeps and checking sites. This is already day 10 and no sign of dholes. We were in Thailand in October 2014 attempting this same mission and were not successful. Each person has a private dialogue going through their head: is this finally a dhole!? We will see the flash of a black tail as we drive up? But the more prominent feeling is that, well there is an 80% chance it is elephants, 15% chance it is a monitor lizard, maybe a jackal. And there is that tiny exhausted voice that says: I hope it is nothing, so we can quickly reset everything, get out of the cold, and climb back into the tent to go back to bed!
Everyone sits a little straighter and wakes up a little more alert as we round the bend. We strain to see in the darkness what has changed with the traps. Anticipation deflates as we realize there is no movement of a captured animal. The site is a mess with traps thrown around, twisted clumps of bamboo leaves, and the meat bait rolled in the dirt, crawling with ants and flies. This wildlife sanctuary has an abundance of elephants. Elephants are curious about anything new in the forest and they come often to check out our camera traps and trap sites. Elephants don’t get caught in the traps, but they trample the area. We work in the dark using our headlamps to locate all of the pieces that need to be set up again. By the time we drive back it is 5:30am and almost time to wake up for a 6am drive past all of the traps. And the day begins again.