By Sy Montgomery, Author and Naturalist
In the final post of her six-part blog series, author Sy Montgomery and her team wait with baited traps, and bated breath, for the dholes to arrive. As the final hours of the Earthwatch expedition Tracking Asiatic Wild Dogs in Thailand wind down, Sy reflects on her experience studying these elusive predators, and what it truly means to be part of a pack.
Khao Yai National Park, Thailand –– It’s Saturday night, our last night together before we Earthwatch volunteers have to leave for Bangkok.
At dinner — another meal of delicious Thai specialties — our expedition leaders, Drs. Ronglarp Sukumasuang and Nucharin Songsasan, toast our teamwork: “You have inspired me and my students,” Ronglarp tells us four Americans warmly. “Thank you so much,” says Nucharin. “Please come back!”
Together, we’ve accomplished a lot since we joined the expedition only a week ago. We’ve surveyed the area for scat, tracks, and prey remains. We’ve helped to select, set, bait and monitor five arrays of padded leg-hold traps. We’ve erected five game cameras opposite them to see who visits. We’ve examined and freed two civets, a monitor lizard, and a jackal, who were inadvertently captured.
Most importantly, we’ve advanced the team’s goal. We’re closer than ever to catching and radio-collaring some of the rarest and most misunderstood canids on Earth – the red-coated, bushy-tailed Asiatic wild dog, or dhole. Though we haven’t caught one yet.
But we still have 13 hours. We haven’t given up.
So on this last night together, we Earthwatchers have taken the 8 p.m. to midnight shift checking the telemetry every 15 minutes, to see if any of our traps have been triggered. And though the job can be done by one person, all four of us—Roger Wood and daughter Parker, Earthwatch communications director Alix Morris, and me–always walk outside together to see if the signals coming from the traps have changed, indicating we’ve got a trigger.
Spanning ages 20 (Parker) to 60 (me), we all have different ranges of hearing, and sometimes the signal is so faint only one of us can hear. But that’s not the only reason we stick together. We’re like a dhole pack, united in our thirst for every last drop of adventure our expedition has to offer. Tonight could be the night–and if it is, we want to experience every second of it together.
At 9:45 p.m. we get the news we’re waiting for: Channel 773 is beeping fast and urgent. We alert the others at their cabin next door, and race to the site of the former golf course.
“I have high hopes!” Alix says in the car.
“This could be it,” says Roger.
Luckily there are no elephants on the road tonight to impede our journey.
“Yes, it’s possible,” agrees Nucharin. “The time is in the right range…the location…” Grad student Noraset “Nook” Kheiwsri had spotted a dhole near this trap just yesterday.
The moon shines almost full against a backdrop of buttermilk clouds. A good night for hunters like dholes.
We’re on the scene by 10:05 p.m. Ronglarp, Nook, and three veterinarians who recently joined us run ahead with the medical kit and net. Ronglarp hears frenzied footfalls rustling the dry leaves of the forest floor. Dholes!
The advance team reaches the trap array. Two traps have been sprung–but no dholes.
Back at the camp, we review the memory card from the camera trap to see had happened. “Damn!” says Nucharin. “We just missed them!”
But, I feel, we didn’t miss them. The images recorded during those 20 minutes gave us a rare glimpse into the social life of a dhole pack: a careful, wary scout, using all her senses, memories and intuition to assess whether or not this seemingly free meal was safe. Her two companions, confident in the scout’s expertise, waited patiently for the verdict. We could see the dholes’ tension and temptation, the scout’s caution, her companions’ trust.
No, we didn’t really miss them. We were there. We were connected by the signal on the telemetry, which picked up the first tripped trap less than two minutes after it had been triggered. Ronglarp had actually heard dholes running in the dark as the advance team approached. At the trap site, we were in the same place at the same time. We knew about each other’s presence, and for both of us, the other species was uppermost in our minds.
Our two worlds—human and dhole—had, for a brief, revelatory moment, become one.
We leave Khao Yai with traps still empty—but our hearts are full.
We’ve had breathtaking encounters with wildlife. One afternoon, we stood just a few dozen yards away from a one-tusked male elephant taking a dust bath, then spent more than half an hour watching a moon bear cub at close range. We’ve watched hornbills with giant bright yellow and black casques on top of monstrous beaks, and strange little fanged deer called muntjacks. We’ve listened to white-handed gibbons whoop their elastic, alien duets from towering jungle trees. And just about every day, we’ve enjoyed the close company of a 700-pound sambar stag, who has chosen the patio of our guest house as his resting place.
We’ve been inspired by exceptional people. At my prodding, and with Nucharin translating, soft-spoken Dr. Ronglarp Sukmasuang, co-leader of the project, told us about his days as chief ranger at Huai Kha Khaeng National park in western Thailand. So dogged were he and his team in chasing down their quarry — poachers intent on harming the wildlife they were charged to protect — that the local press christened them “The Dhole Pack.” Two stray mixed-breed dogs Ronglarp adopted while there furthered his interest in the wild dogs of Thailand. When Ronglarp left the park to earn his PhD, he left the pair with a new owner. When Ronglarp returned to the park four years later, he learned from that owner that the dogs had last been seen running in the direction in which they’d seen their beloved friend depart.
That loyalty—the loyalty that seals relationships, whether a pack of dholes or a group of committed researchers—is one of the things Ronglarp admires most in his study animals. Indeed, Ronglarp’s devotion to his students at Kasetsart University, where he is a full professor, is worthy of a dhole pack: Asked about his proudest accomplishments, he spoke of his students. His student and our friend Khwan is the first PhD student to study dholes in Thailand. His student, our friend, Noraset “Nook” Kheiwsri, is the second.
We feel forever enriched by our new friendships — friendships we’re confident will endure. We’re planning a reunion in March when Nuch will be back at her post at the Smithsonian, and when west-coasters Roger and Parker are hoping to come east.
We’re all staying in touch. Now that we Americans are back home, we’re still communicating daily with Nucharin and the team in Thailand. As of this writing, Nuch reported that just last night, a dhole pack hunted and killed a sambar fawn right within sight of trap 773. “The site is near a pond,” she wrote, “and we already have two huge lizards visiting the trap site.” So Nook is going to wait in a tree so he can chase lizards away from the bait, leaving it free for the dholes. “I hope the pack will be back this evening,” she wrote, “and finally catch a dhole!”
Read the rest of Sy’s posts from Thailand:
1. “Worlds Between Worlds”
2. “In the Land Where Deer Bark and Dogs Whistle”
3. “Leech Socks, Lizards, and Bottles of Blood“
4. “Never a Dhole Moment“
5. “The Jungle Opens“