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Field Diary: Best Reptile, Amphibian Night Ever
David Emmett, CI Wildlife Biologist

CI Wildlife Biologist David Emmett was a member of the survey team that discovered the rare Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) in Cambodia’s Mekong River. Here is an excerpt from Emmett’s field diary about another memorable day of surveying in Laos.

Nakai Plateau, Laos (February 28, 2007): The morning dawned still and chilly, exacerbated by the cold water bucket-shower that forced my breath from my body. I could hear Soutchai, my translator, in the next room, puffing and gasping from the cold as he washed. The sky grew overcast by the time we went shopping for rice, vegetables, and other food. For the next five days, we would be surveying for reptiles and amphibians in the Nakai Plateau.

Our car had been fixed (we thought it needed a new gearbox, but it was simply a loose gear-stick top!), so we were on schedule. My left hand really ached from the bamboo cut and IndoChinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) bite, but I was confident it would be okay for the survey.

We set off along a dusty road toward Ban Don village, where three local guides joined us. Together we drove toward the river, where a boat awaited us. As we headed upriver, there were a few kids playing on the sandbank next to an abandoned village. The villagers had relocated to higher ground in anticipation of floods that would be created by a proposed hydroelectric dam. I waved at the kids, and the youngest ones waved shyly back.

After an hour, the sandy banks gave way to huge boulders, creeping lianas, and overhanging trees. The river was still about 30m wide, so there was still plenty of light. I took some photos of a pair of beautiful white egrets in the shallows. Soon the sky grew dark and the river began to ripple with pre-rain wind. We fervently hoped it wouldn’t rain hard, since we were totally exposed on the river.

Then, it rained. Not torrentially, but in waves of fine droplets that clung to everything like dew and made us feel cold and damp. It continued for more than two miserable hours, gently soaking us and our bags. When it stopped, a weak sun shone through the clouds and slowly dried us. Pretty soon, the river became much more overgrown.

We saw fresh signs of Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus). Dung lay on the sandbars and half-eaten bamboo was strewn along the riverbanks. The guide told us to be quiet, as the elephants were nearby and could be dangerous. Researchers had estimated that this area held around 170 elephants in three large herds. I really wanted to see a herd! But it was not to be – they stayed in the forest and all we heard were some distant crashes and squeals.

About 2 km further upstream we hit a set of impassable rapids, so we stopped and located a camp site. I took the GPS coordinates of the site and plotted it on my map. We were right next to a very interesting hill stream that fed into the main river. I found it after a bit of searching, but it was just a dry stream-bed. This was very disappointing, as I’d hoped to search along it at night for frogs. I returned to the site, put up my tent, laid out my science gear, and went back downriver by boat and put out 20 turtle live-traps.

It was late, so we had dinner. Then Soutchai and I went out exploring. After we found a couple more frogs along the main river to add to the species list, I went a few hundred metres up the dry stream-bed to have a look. Scrambling over rocks, I came to water! The river was partly subterranean.

The next three hours were like a dream – by far the best reptile and amphibian-collecting night I’d ever had. After searching just a few minutes, I found and took photos of two Asian Leaf Turtles in small rock-pools (Cyclemys dentate). I also found a huge, threatened Asiatic Softshell Turtle (Amyda cartilaginea) that vigorously tried to bite me (they can crush bone, so I had to be careful) before hurling itself into a deep pool. I caught a snake (only mildly venomous), and then went back to get Soutchai. He had to be part of this!

Together, we walked several kilometres up the stream with our torch-lights playing through the trees, across leaf-litter, and shining into dark pools. We caught frogs I’d never seen before, and added at least 10 more species to our inventory list. There were fat, spotty bullfrogs with red armpits and thighs (which turned out to be a species undescribed to science), moss-coloured tree-frogs (Taylor’s Treefrog, Rhacophorus bisacculus), and a grey-coloured frog about 25 ft up a tree that we couldn’t identify.

Soutchai dislodged it with a long bamboo stick, and I caught it one-handed as it fell (great teamwork!). There were enormous green Large-eared Rock Frogs as big as our hands, tiny red frogs called Inornate Froglet (Micryletta inornata), multiple species of brown leaf-litter frogs, an attractive-looking Striped Sticky Frog, and many more.

We returned to camp around midnight; tired, muddy, and very happy. I felt that after overcoming all of the difficult logistical challenges to conduct this survey, we really deserved to have a night like this. It had been great! I washed in the cold river by moonlight, watched the river for a while, and then clambered into my tent. I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the river and the chorus of frogs.

Related Links
> News: Rare Soft-Shell Turtle, Nesting Ground Found in Cambodia

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© CI-Cambodia/David Emmett
CI's David Emmett was a member of the survey team that discovered Cantor’s giant soft-shell turtle in Cambodia’s Mekong River.

© CI-Cambodia/David Emmett
Emmett and team discovered an undescribed species of Bullfrog during the survey.

© CI-Cambodia/David Emmett
Emmett's improvised campsite beside the Nam Mon River in central Laos.


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