Could Virachey National Park hold unknown repositories of critically endangered species? A team led by conservationist and academic Gregory McCann tries to unravel this secret by trekking into a virtual no-man’s land of mountain spirits.
Our party of six came upon several piles of very strange-looking feces. They were filled with fur and leaking with blood and beside them were poop-lathered leaves which our guides said the animal had shoved up its anus in an effort to fool predators who might be in pursuit. My American trekking partner Keith and I were mystified. Within twenty minutes two of our party disappeared.
Two hours later our friends showed up, safe and sound, not having been devoured by the mythical “tek-tek” or tropical yeti that supposedly inhabits these distant mountains, and after two more grueling days of trekking we came upon the majestic O Kampa River, a watercourse whose length and girth must be the home of several species of otters – and hopefully the “hairy-nosed otter” (Lutra sumatrana) – one or main quarry.
We set up camp along the O Kampa and immediately took a reconnaissance swim upstream. Clambering up onto some dry stones, I came upon what I am certain was otter dung. Of what species, we could not be sure. What else could be watching us from the dense foliage all around the river? Civets, mongoose, enigmatic carnivores? Our camera traps will tell the story, and hopefully the photos will bring enough attention to Virachey National Park so that more conservation investment is brought in to this still-spectacular park.
The next day we began trekking onwards to a place called T’Buen Mountain, a chunk of Cambodia in Virachey National Park that sticks up into Laos like a bent thumb. The mountains on those border ridges peak out at around 1,400 meters and the location is about as gruesomely remote as any imaginable in Cambodia.
Along the way we came upon a pig-tailed macaque hunting along a beach, we found numerous carnivore claw marks on trees, the footprints of Asian golden cats in several in locations, wreathed hornbills, oriental pied hornbills, pied kingfisher, and so many more delightful species. Despite years of conservation neglect, Virachey National Park’s wildlife has found a way to hang on. And there was sublime beauty as well: gorgeous mountain streams and waterfalls that we were probably the first white people to ever lay eyes on unless some American GIs had parachuted down during the Vietnam War.
Why were we going here? We had already surveyed other border mountains like Haling-Halang and the Yak Yeuk Grasslands, and we had found plenty: we rediscovered Asian elephants after an absence of over 10 years; we found clouded leopards, 11 species of small carnivores (one of which is a new species for Cambodia and the paper will be coming out later this year); and marbled cats, golden cats, Asian black bears, sun bears, and dholes where some of the many others now compiled on our list. Tigers have been declared extinct in Cambodia (an assessment I agree with), so what else could we be after?
Two species in particular: Owston’s civet (Chrotogale owstoni), currently only known from the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam (and presumably already extinct in China). But Virachey National Park is a mysterious westward-stretching arm of the main Annamite Cordillera, and until recently it was all connected by forest. Owston’s civet could certainly be lurking in those border mountains where we installed our camera traps. In fact, I showed one guide the photographer Joe Sartore’s picture of Owston’s Civet and he immediately nodded and said they are present. Interestingly, he added that they have a nice smell, a detail confirmed by a couple we later met who visited a breeding center in Vietnam for the endangered Owston’s.
The other animal is the large-antlered Muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis) which could very well be hiding out in Virachey National Park for the same reason of historical connectivity that the Owston’s civet could be there. The large-antlered Muntjac, listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, is found only in the Annamite Mountains of Vietnam and Laos. Could Virachey –that odd westward-stretching arm of the Annamites, hold secret repositories of these cryptic species? That’s what we’re after with this latest trek.
Legend has it that those who can make it to the top of T’Buen Mountain are the strongest of men, and, tired as we were, especially after taking a “shortcut” down a 700-meter boulder-strewn ravine, we were all feeling pretty good. And then one night, just a day’s walk from the nearest village, two sun bears began roaring next to our camp. It was the most primal, vicious, and frightening sound I had ever heard.
We all got out of our hammocks and huddled together, unsure of what to do to, no longer feeling so “powerful.” One of our rangers, however, walked fearlessly in their direction, just so that he would know where to look the next morning for signs of the fight. Perhaps T’Buen instilled unthinkable power and courage in this man after all!
The next morning we were treated to an hour of gibbon calls and the honking and swooping of great hornbills overhead. Despite all the challenges, I still retain hope for Virachey National Park, and I am sure that surprises await.
Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. Readers can help support McCann’s efforts by making a small donation at https://www.paypal.me/GregoryMcCann