At long last I finally found the opportunity to visit the Gibbon project at Veunsai in Ratanakiri province. I approached Conservation International a few weeks back about a visit and made arrangements to join them on their next visit, in return for taking some stills of tourism for the projects new website.
The obvious problem with filming most primates is they spend almost all of their time up in the canopy. So, if you’re shooting from the ground, the best your likely to get is a lot of little furry bottoms. To get truly world class footage you really need to get up into the trees. I’ve used tree platforms before with great success, but I was not at all sure if that was even going to be possible with the gibbons. It was hardly the right time of year to be doing this and I fully understood the chances of getting some decent footage were slim to say the least. For me this was always going to be more of a sighting trip, with an eye to come back in the dry season.
I traveled up from Phnom Penh with Naven and Andrew from Conservation International, staying one night in Banlung, while they tried to find some willing tourists for me to photograph. This being the off-season tourists were pretty thin on the ground, but Naven managed to find 2 young couples to join us. Abel Schroeyers and Shana Vanhee from Belgium and French couple Gaetan Bzc and Juliette Darbou.
The following morning I had a couple of hours to kill, so I took my drone and headed up to the stunningly beautiful Yeak Laom lake, which is in an extinct volcano just a few km’s east of town. The journey to the Veunsai ranger station, where we would be staying, is fairly easy and even in the wet season it’s possible to get there from Banlung in a little over an hour.
The following morning we arose at 4am, as you have to arrive at the site before they start singing. This species generally calls for just a few minutes each morning around sunrise, with the male and female combining in a haunting duet. They have a territory that is around 1km across so you have to find them before they stop singing or you can have a very hard time spotting them. Naven’s team spent 2 years habituating this family group, no mean feat with what is an extremely nervous species. I have only seen Gibbons a handful of times in the wild so it was quite amazing to be able to just watch them go about their lives with no concern for the giant primates running around on the ground. This particular group has 2 offspring of different ages and they were both very vocal as we followed them in their search for food. The squeaks and whistles they produce just make these already seriously cute animals, even more adorable.
I concentrated on taking photos, although that proved very tough due to the very overcast sky. Even with a fast f2.8 lens and opening the ISO up to 1600 I was only getting 25th of a second, way too slow for handheld shots. I soon abandoned the stills camera and switched to video so I could at least get some usable video captures. We spent a couple of hours following them before returning to the starting point for breakfast. On the way back we checked out the local carnivorous pitcher plants and visited a salt-lick where a wide variety of animals come to feed, including another local primate, the Douc Langur.
By this point everyone was pretty exhausted and we returned to the station for lunch. We spent the early afternoon relaxing and being soundly beaten at Boule by some of the rangers. We then headed off for a stroll through the surrounding forest where a guide showed us many of the plants that the locals use and eat. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this, particularly Abel, who seemed to have an insatiable appetite.
Dinner was a wonderful spread of Khmer dishes that went down extremely well. I have to say it was some of the best food I have had out in the provinces. Compliments to the chef.
The next morning, we headed off to take some pictures of the tourist’s mountain biking, which also gave me the opportunity to get my drone out for some experimental shots. I also tried to get some general forest shots while I was at it, but I was getting massive interference on the screen. With no phone reception, I couldn’t check if there was high sun spot activity, which can cause your drone to simply fly off on its own, so I decided it wasn’t worth the risk of seeing my drone disappear over the horizon and called it a day.
The tourists headed off back to Ban Lung after lunch and within an hour it started to rain, monsoon style. It didn’t stop for the next 48 hours and I reluctantly decided to give up on the Gibbons. In the dry season, they have many more fruiting trees and can hang around in 1 location for several days making filming a much more realistic prospect. At this time of year, you are chasing them around as they scavenge for what is available. With a huge camera to drag around it makes the task almost impossible.
We decided to make a try for a waterfall that I understood was only a couple of hours away. However, as the journey unfolded it soon became apparent that it was going to take far longer and to make matters worse the road we found ourselves on is one of those that turns into an ice rink when it rains. I have been on a few of these here and they are scary to ride a bike on, it’s hard to even stand up when walking. We all agreed to turn back and with that my brief trip was over. It was hardly a great success from my perspective but I was never under any illusions I would get much. With any luck I’ll be able to return in the dry season.
I should mention that when I got back to the hotel, I discovered there was a huge cyclone approaching, so the next few days would have been a complete washout too.
For anyone wanting to see the Gibbons this is a great little trip and a wonderful snap shot of Cambodia’s amazing wildlife. I’ll add a link when the website is up and running.