June 30 , 2006
Virachey National Park Survey (Cambodia)
(By David Emmett)
In June 2006, researchers from Conservation International visited Virachey National Park in Cambodia to undertake a survey of the biodiversity of this remote park, which borders Vietnam and Laos. They took a team of young Cambodian graduates as trainees, and were assisted by rangers and guides from the Cambodian Ministry of Environment. The team surveyed the area for reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and fish.
The trip, which took place during the rainy season to maximize herpetological activity, aimed to assess the significance of Virachey for turtle conservation. This large park had never been surveyed for reptiles or amphibians, and rumours abounded that the montane regions contained populations of the Big-headed turtle Platysternon megacephalum. However, this turtle had never been confirmed for Cambodia. In addition, the montane regions were likely to hold interesting amphibian species, possibly new to science.
The park contains no villages or roads, and is the most inaccessible protected area in Cambodia. The only access route into the park for the research team was along the old Ho Chi Minh trail, which was overgrown with tangles of bamboo and rattan. The trail was still strewn with rusty, unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War. The team, led by David Emmett from Conservation International, walked the Ho Chi Minh trail for six days to reach high altitude. They conducted searches in the forest and along rocky, montane streams both by day and at night in search of turtles.
The rivers and small streams in Virachey were in excellent condition, running clear and full of fish. These streams also contained healthy populations of the Asiatic softshell turtle Amyda cartilaginea. Sub-adult Amyda were seen swimming in streams from 150m - 400m elevation, and a large adult Amyda was observed eating fish that had been caught in a fishing net set by the fish survey team. Rangers explained that Vietnamese poachers occasionally collected softshells while hunting in the park, although the abundance of softshells observed suggested that, in remote regions at least, they were still common.
The shell of a Giant pond turtle Heosemys grandis was found beside a ranger outpost, suggesting both that the species occurred in the nearby river and that the government rangers were collecting them for food. The rangers on the team confirmed that, while in the field, some rangers and local police tended to fend for themselves for food, and that H. grandis and the Asian leaf turtle Cyclemys dentata were often collected from rivers within the park for food. This is clearly an issue that CI will discuss with MOE staff and the Virachey National Park director, though it did not seem to be a serious matter as the level of collection appeared to be low.
The team found the shell of an Impressed tortoise Manouria impressa at 800m elevation. In addition, park staff and rangers showed the team several excellent photographs of live M. impressa that they had encountered while on patrol in the field. The photos all showed large adult M. impressa. The rangers were also photographed releasing the tortoises back into montane forest. The rangers stated that they did not collect M. impressa for food, though they explained thatthe species is abundant in the montane regions within Virachey National Park. The mountainous areas within Virachey reach altitudes of more than 1,500m and are extremely remote and inaccessible, with no paths or nearby villages. Therefore, it is likely that Virachey National Park harbours a significant and fairly safe population of Manouria impressa.
The team did not find the Big-headed turtle Platysternon megacephalum in the field, although the survey area contained many steep, rocky, montane coldwater streams that were full of fish and crabs and could therefore support good populations of this species. However, due to logistical constraints, the team did not have enough time at high altitude to survey the area sufficiently and could only visit one mountain. After the survey, the park rangers produced photographs of several P. megacephalum which they had found in streams flowing from a larger mountain in a different region of Virachey, indicating that this species does occur in the park. This is the first record of this endangered turtle for Cambodia.
In addition to the turtle fauna, the herpetological research team found at least 21 additional reptile species and 19 amphibian species, including several frogs that appear to be new to science such as the horned frog (Megophrys sp) and several high altitude leaf-litter frogs (Leptolalax spp and Leptobrachium sp).
This survey has shown that Virachey contains a herpetofauna of global significance, both for diversity and for conservation. A second field trip is planned for later in 2006 or early 2007, which will target the larger mountain range in an attempt to confirm the presence, and assess the status, of P. megacephalum in Virachey.
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