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× Note: Sanctuaries are different to National Parks in Thailand, Thailand currently has established 39 sanctuaries and access is more restrictive as their role is as a sanctuary for wildlife rather than a park for the nation. Some sanctuaries do allow limited access to tourists.

Hala Bala Dec 2018

01 Jan 2019 12:01 - 04 Jan 2019 10:02 #5155 by Paul T
Hala Bala Dec 2018 was created by Paul T
I have long wanted to visit the southern most protected...

I have long wanted to visit the southern most protected area of Thailand, but like most others had been reticent to go for two reasons. One being that its is an extremely long way if you are driving and second the violence that has ensued in the area from certain separatist movements.

I had recently noticed more and more people, especially birders, were making the trip though and that the adjoining area of Yala had reduced its security status in regards to separatist related violence. So I decided it was finally time to visit the Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary.

So I contacted the Sanctuary for permission to enter, and was then set for the long journey south. Its is a long journey, I can attest to that. I drove directly there, leaving Bangkok at 5 am in the morning I made it to Hat Yai by 8 pm at my steady driving pace. This left for a 4.5 hour drive the next morning to get to the sanctuary. Thats nearly 20 hours of driving to get there (or two full days) and it would take the same to get back with my gear, making for 4 whole days driving, if driving from Bangkok.

Even though the southern troubles have now grown less I was surprised by the amount of military and police check points on the roadways. Driving in the morning also revealed the large amount of IED checks going on in the roadside verges by heavily armed ranger units. Indeed whilst I was there there were one IED and several bomb attacks reported in the media for the deep south. I should note that I never felt unsafe nor threatened at all, during the whole trip, and the local people showed nothing but warmth and helpfulness to me, as far as I was concerned.

I decided to not camp as it was still the end of the southern rainy season and that was, perhaps, wise as it did rain most days in the afternoon as well as torrentially one night. For my accommodation I stayed at a small resort just 2 km before the entrance to the sanctuary. It had simple bungalows, good air-con and wifi! It was much more than I was expecting as this really is a very quiet part of the world. Indeed the nearest fuel station, in Waeng, is an hour round trip away.

Hala-Bala is an important conservation area in Thailand, covering the area of the Sankala Khiri Mountain Range. Its is probably most known for being habited by 10 of Thailand 13 hornbill species as well as a host of mammals specific to the south and the Sundaic region, and it was some of these mammals I was going to try and photograph. I had a plan to attempt to photograph any of the following 3 species a) siamang b) agile gibbon and c) white thighed surili. In honesty just one would do as photographing mammals is never the easiest of tasks to set one’s self. 

Of particular note is that there are two sectors to the Sanctuary, a) Hala and b) Bala and the two forest mountainous areas are not physically connected. Of the two areas only Bala Forest is open to public access and the access is limited to a small, but beautiful, area in the south of the Bala Forest. Hala, the much larger of the two is only accessible with a research permit.

The section of the Bala sector one is allowed to visit is an old security road in the south of the sanctuary, that starts at the sanctuary HQ and ends 16 km later at the Phu Khao Thong Protection Unit of the Forestry Dept.

 

hala bala map2

The red line shows the path of the road through Bala Sector

 

To start the trip I had arranged to meet one of the sanctuary staff to discuss probable locations for my intended targets and we headed off into the sanctuary to see where those might be. The first 9 km of the road contain the HQ, the Research Station, Sirindhorn Waterfall, a tourist location to view the rising sun over the sanctuary and a misty riverine valley. These locations did not really suit my needs for this trip as I needed to be on the valley ridges for the gibbons or find a fruiting tree. At km 10 the road breached a peak and there was a viewing Sala that gives great views across a valley. I was so impressed by the forest. I don’t think I have seen so many huge dipterocarp trees in one location. This was not my first time in a hill evergreen forest but it was the first time I was seeing one up close up, at eye level, in all its splendor. Very impressive.

 

Hala Bala hill evergreen forest 10

The beautiful hill evergreen forest at dawn

 

Even more impressive were the sounds coming from the valley. Two very similar calls but with different endings. We were listening to both white handed gibbons (lar gibbon) and black handed gibbons (agile gibbon) calling. Later in the trip, after listening to them most mornings I was to notice the lar gibbon was the early caller and the agile gibbon would join the circus of sound a little later (by about 30 minutes). On about half of the days I was there they would be joined by a cousin about an hour after that. We continued on the road noting locations that had yielded sightings of my various targets in the past. We drove past the forestry protection unit station and out of the sanctuary for a short drive. In less than 5 minutes we were at the old border crossing (now closed) between Thailand and Malaysia. Why we were here was to become apparent soon. The first booming call of the siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus) rang out from the mountain top. This particular spot gave a view, albeit way too far to see an animal, of the most southern peak of the Bala sector where one group of siamang spent the night before heading lower in the mid morning in search of fruiting trees. The sound was glorious, not a beautiful sound but a powerful harsh call interspersed with their signature low base boom that is part of their distinct vocalization. Soon it was a cacophony of sound with at least 5 animals calling at the same time. 

We headed back into the sanctuary when the sounds origin started to descend the mountain peak so we would get a better view of the valley they were heading into. 

It was time to set up a hide and start the long process of wildlife photography, otherwise know as “waiting”. 

It was not, and never is, an easy process but the cool weather made it comfortable. My first target, I had decided, was to be the agile gibbon. My modus operandi would be to target them due to their abundance of calls and hope that something else would come into view at the same location. I was to be lucky and on the second day I had an Agile gibbon picture I was happy with.

 

Agile gibbon Hylobates agilis 260

The agile gibbon (Hylobates agilis)

 

I spent 3 days in this particular location, all the time building up an image of what other animals there were and how often they were seen or heard. When heading back to the car on the 3rd day, I disturbed a troupe of langurs. I assumed they were dusky langurs as I had seen them at various locations over the preceding days - they were quite common in this section of the sanctuary. Even though common I have to say the langurs here had proven to be the most skittish I have come across. Nearly all my langur sightings consisted of hearing a crashing sound as they startled and made a run for it, and just seeing dark shapes obscured by the trees, branches and leaves. And this sighting was to be no different except for one thing, the alarm call. From all the time I have spent in Kaeng Krachan I am well voiced in the various vocalizations made by the dusky langur - this was definitely not a dusky langur. I had happened on another of my target species, the white-thighed surili.

 

Dusky Langur 131

Dusky langur (Trachypithecus obscurus) 

 

The white-thighed surili (Presbytis siamensis) frustrated me for 3 more days. This was a leaf monkey that did not want to be photographed by me. They are incredibly skittish. Langurs have distinct territories so I could locate this troupe by sound everyday but I could not get close, try as I did.

I so needed a fruiting tree in the area but during the whole period I could only find one fruiting tree visible from the whole roadway. When I finally did find one with the help of the researchers who were out scoping for fruiting trees most days, it was still young unripe berries.  I eventually got close enough on the last evening of my last day, but it was a grab shot in poor light and so not good quality. I have unfinished business with the white-thighed surili.

 

Siamese White thighed Langur PTW6801 155 Edit

The white-thighed surili (Presbytis siamensis)

 

During this whole period I was hoping to sight a siamang but over the 7 days, even though I heard them in the valley on half of the days I was there, I was not to actually see one. 

As everyone knows Hala-Bala is noted for its hornbills and I did see these. I am not a birder but how can one resist the temptation to photograph such incredible animals that the hornbills are. They are such exotic madness in a creature, a truly spectacular line. I was lucky enough to see 4 species in my time there, all on the high sections of the road. I saw the rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) most days, probably because its honking call leaves you in no doubt it is about to fly past you. A group of 4 bushy-crested hornbills (Anorrhinus galeritus) who were sat in tree next to me but I did not realize until they took off to leave. A group of white-crowned hornbill (Berenicornis comatus). And after hearing them call further up the valley most of the trip, I finally caught a glimpse of a helmeted hornbill (Buceros vigil).

 

White crowned hornbill 46

The white-crowned hornbill (Berenicornis comatus)


It was a most enjoyable trip and I will definitely return in spite of the distance. I still have unfinished business there: a better photograph of a white-thighed surili; a photograph of a siamang; locating a fruiting tree to photograph at; anything to do with hornbills. Even if I do not achieve any these then just basking in the sound garden of the gibbons and birds, an exotic amalgamation of sounds like a Walt Disney version of jungle book.

Its not the easiest location to see mammals but they are there, mammal sign was very obvious and new sign was seen most days. Such places are rare finds these days, or are they, its a somewhat strange irony that glimpsing such wildlife relies on a man-made road cutting through the sanctuary.

 

tapir foot print

Asian Tapir footprint

 

Dusky Langur 2

Dusky langur (Trachypithecus obscurus) 

 

Rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinoceros 127

 The rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros)  

 

White crowned hornbill 34

Group of white-crowned hornbill (Berenicornis comatus)

 

Rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinoceros

The rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros)



Paul Thompson is a member of the Thailand Wildlife Collective - a group of photographers who are creating a “conservation archive” of high quality wildlife images to be used by Thai conservation organizations to help promote conservation efforts and increase awareness of Thailand’s bio-diversity. Paul specialises in mammal photography. The collective also includes Ton Smits, Geoff Potter and Ian Edwardes. All the pictures in this article are of wild animals photographed in their natural habitat.

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