Welcome to the jungle

Forest dynamics research in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, Thailand

My name is Henry Cooper and I’m studying the Master of Forest Ecosystem Science (MFES) at the University of Melbourne. As part of the course, MFES students have the opportunity to conduct an independent research project. On one of my class field trips last year, I had the opportunity to talk with my lecturer and now-supervisor, Dr Patrick Baker, about his research in Thailand and potential opportunities to get involved. He has been studying the forests of the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Western Thailand for nearly 25 years as part of a collaborative project between the Thai Government, the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard University. A central focus of the broader research project is on understanding what controls the distribution of these species-rich forests within large protected landscapes. I knew little about the forests of Thailand but Patrick was full of ideas, and over the course of several conversations we developed two research projects looking specifically at how new trees establish and grow in the forest.

The first project examined the soil seed bank as a potential reservoir for future regeneration. I collected soil samples from different forest types (evergreen and deciduous) and different ages (areas that were recently disturbed and areas long undisturbed) to see how they might influence the abundance and type of seeds in the soil. With the field crew from the research station, we dug up dozens of soil samples, laid them out in plastic trays in the sun, watered them, and waited to see what, if anything, would germinate.

The second project involved conducting a census of seedlings from several common tree species across a 50-hectare forest dynamics study plot. All ~90,000 trees in the plot have been measured, mapped, and identified every five years since 1991 to provide a detailed record of forest change. However, the plot only includes individuals that are >1 cm in diameter at 1.3 m height. Smaller seedlings are not part of the inventory. To get a sense for whether the common tree species were producing new seedlings, the field crew and I went out and simply counted every seedling at 1250 small plots on a grid spanning the entire 50-ha plot.

So that’s what I was actually doing there, but let me tell you a bit about my living situation.

Nearly everything about my two months in Thailand was different to my life in Melbourne. For a start, it was outrageously hot and humid, which took some getting used to. We could only work in the field during the morning and afternoon, and we would retreat undercover as the midday sun reached its peak. At home in Melbourne I’d usually trawl Reddit or watch TV shows, but the research station in Thailand only had electricity for an hour or two in the evenings when the generator was turned on and there was definitely no phone reception. So, I read. A lot…

Another major surprise was the lack of running water. We had two wells dug into the river bed next to the camp. All of our fresh water came from them and as the dry season wore on, the water retreated. When I needed to wash my clothes, I would sit on the dry river bed with a tub for my laundry and a bucket. For areas further away from the well, such as the outhouses, the workers would fire up a gas-powered pump to deliver water to empty oil drums that held the water for bucket baths and toilets.

The most significant thing missing from my life in the jungle was English. The workers at the field station spoke only a few words of English, so I had a crack at learning Thai. It wasn’t too difficult to pick up the basics with the help of the workers and the Thai phrasebooks Patrick lent me. However, the most confusing aspect of the Thai language is the tones. The meaning of a word could completely change depending on the tone with which it is spoken. I struggled with any word that sounded like ‘kao’, as this could mean ‘rice’, ‘itchy’, ‘nine’, ‘white’ or ‘mountain’. I also called many sites around the forest ‘unlucky’ instead of ‘beautiful’ due to a subtle difference in the tone of the word ‘suay’. Thai people love puns, so my many mistakes were an ongoing source of entertainment for the workers.

While some of the creature comforts of my life in Melbourne were missing, the new experiences that I had over my three months in Thailand far outweighed any inconveniences. As a student of ecology, the incredible biodiversity in these tropical forests was staggering. Coming from the temperate Australian forests, which often only have one or two tree species dominating the canopy (and they’re usually in the same genus, Eucalyptus), I was completely overwhelmed by the number of tree species in the Thai forests (the 50-ha plot had >300 species of trees). Fortunately, my fieldwork in the plot focused on the seedlings of only nine tree species, which after six weeks and hundreds of census plots, I could identify pretty well.

The Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary is a Man and Biosphere World Heritage Site because of its remarkable fauna. There were animals of every form, size, and colour! There were birds, insects, primates, lizards, deer, and wild boar—as well as a few megafauna, which I wasn’t too keen on meeting. On one occasion, I saw a wild elephant crossing the road before being swallowed up by the bamboo tussocks. It was an amazing sight, but I was very happy to be in a car at the time. The only sign I saw of the big cats that roam the forest was a tiger footprint not far from the field camp. There was also a 50-meter tall fig tree with bear claw marks all the way up the trunk, where a bear had gone hunting for honey in the beehives that hung from the branches. That was about as close as I wanted to get to wild predators! Without a doubt, though, my favourite animals were the gibbons. Every morning I would wake to their whale song-like calls and most days I would witness them expertly swinging through the canopy looking for fruit and flowers and leaves to eat.

While the big animals were great, one little animal in particular was not. Ticks, ticks, ticks! They were everywhere. While I wore gumboots and had all of my clothes tucked in to avoid those little blood-sucking ectoparasites, they still managed to get through to my skin. It was always a horrible surprise to find them firmly attached to some part of my anatomy during my daily bucket bath. Thankfully, I became quite comfortable with the myriad of insects that I shared the forest with. Indeed, one species of beetle was even particularly tasty.

My stay certainly had its ups and downs, but the hard work of my supervisor Dr Patrick Baker, my co-supervisor Dr Sarayudh Bunyavejchewin, and the workers Piak, Leun Peat, Yoong, Nohk, and Beam made it possible to collect all the necessary data for both projects and have an outstanding experience while I was at it. It was the best thing I’ve done at university and it is something that’s available to every student in the MFES program. Now that I’m home enjoying running water and dependable electricity, I will have to analyse the data and report on what I found. I doubt that that will be anywhere near as much fun as the fieldwork, but I’ll learn some new skills and see what the data has to say about how these remarkable forests work. With any luck these findings will improve our understanding of the forests at Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and help make a small contribution to the broader field of tropical forest ecology.