Battery Power

A bit of an odd one today but it might be useful to a few people. It’s just a quick blog on batteries, as anyone in this business has a small mountain of the damned things and they are not exactly cheap. I currently have approaching $2,000 worth of batteries for my various bits of equipment with 4 batteries for the new drone setting me back $600. Some of my equipment can sit around for months between uses and I was a little sick of finding batteries that were seemingly dead or wouldn’t hold a proper charge. After investing in a number of new batteries recently I decided to spend a bit of time researching the various types. It’s been worth it as I have managed to resurrect a few of my batteries.


Just a few of my batteries.

Getting the most out of your batteries is not so straightforward. Some batteries like to be kept fully charged others prefer to be stored at zero; some have a ‘memory’ issue others don’t. One thing you can say with all batteries, is they do like to be used. However, the various types need to be treated very differently if you want to get a long life out of them. So here are some tips for battery use, maintenance and storage.


Nickel Cadmium (NiCad)These should be stored with zero charge as any residual charge will cause a kind film to appear, which acts as a barrier to recharging them . You should always fully discharge before charging or you can suffer from the ‘memory effect’ reducing the amount of power it will hold. When seemingly dead or they have a low capacity from poor use, these type of batteries can often be restored to good health by repeatedly charging and discharging them several times. This can kind of ‘burn’ off the film that has developed.

Nickel Hydride (NiMH) – Same as NiCad, the only significant difference is not having Cadmium, which is high toxic.

Lithium Ion (Li-ion) – No memory effect with these but they should be treated completely differently to the Nickel based batteries. For short-term storage, over a few weeks or months, charge to 100%. But for long-term storage they should be charged or discharged to around 40-45%. Check the charge every few months and ideally fully charge and discharge them every 6 months. DO NOT store these for any length of time with zero power, as they can lose storage capacity over time due to a chemical reaction similar to what happens in the Nickel batteries.

Lithium Ion Polymer (Li Po) – This is what I have read regarding my new DJI Phantom drone’s batteries and I am unsure if this is the same for all kinds of Li Po batteries. For storage of more than a week, charge or discharge them to 40%. This is apparently because they discharge very quickly from 100%. For example from 100% a battery will discharge to around 60% in 2-3 months. From 40% they will only drop to around 30% over the same period. Check the levels every couple of months and charge as appropriate. Do not fully discharge these and it is suggested to avoid going below 15%. Always allow them to fully cool before charging, equally allow them to cool before using them. If you store them long term or are regularly recharging them when partially charged, you should charge them to 100% and discharge to 10-15% every 4-6 months or every 20 charges. No batteries like to be dropped but Li-Po batteries seem to be particularly fragile.

WARNING: There have been numerous incidents of these type of batteries catching fire, generally it seems when being charged after being dropped. So if you drop one and want to charge it again, keep an eye on it and make sure it’s away from anything combustible.

Lead Acid (Car/Motorcycle)Always store them fully charged. Ideally they need monthly use and like the others types, they like to be ‘exercised’ by fully charging and almost fully discharging them, once a year. These do not like to be fully discharged and generally speaking it is best to not take a car/bike battery below 50%. Note that deep cycle lead acid batteries for solar and marine use can cope better with larger discharges than normal car or bike batteries but again they still don’t like to be fully discharged on a regular basis. Storage without maintenance will result in ‘sulfation’, which is similar to the effect suffered by the Nickel and Lithium Ion batteries. If caught in time this can be reversed by repeated charging and discharging the battery.

Rechargeable Alkaline – Despite what the instructions usually say you should not run these down to zero before recharging. This type of battery is old hat now, not very efficient and they are not very useful with high-powered equipment. However, with correct use (not running them down to zero) decent quality Alkaline batteries (even non rechargeable ones) can be recharged hundreds of times. Don’t go sticking your Duracell’s in a charger though, without first doing some reading up. Non-rechargeable batteries have to be recharged for no more than 2 hours at a time or they can cause a fire. There are even chargers available online, they basically automate the on and off charging. This is more than a little risky if you are not confident you can monitor them properly, so I for one will not be trying it.

I hope this is useful for someone and please, whatever batteries you are using, try to recycle them as they all contain some very nasty chemicals. The NiCad’s are particularly dangerous as they have Cadmium, but none should ever be thrown away with normal rubbish.

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Creating a Satellite image of Cambodia for 2016.

I have been going through my now annual process of constructing a giant satellite image of Cambodia with images taken from the USGS Earth Explorer site, freely available at To construct this ultra high-resolution image I had to search and download over 60 images, taken between mid December 2015 and the 16th Feb 2016. After doing this on a regular basis for some years, I soon came to realize that for 8 months of the year there is little chance of a clear image due to clouds.

PL deforestation If you want to use this site I suggest setting your range of dates to only include December to April each year, otherwise you will be trawling through hundreds of images that are useless. Also there are numerous image sets you can choose from but largely you will just want to select Landsat 8 for today or the older Landsat versions for historical images. Each month you get 3 or 4 pictures of each part of Cambodia and it takes a total of 25 of these images to make up a complete map of Cambodia.


Example of the problems with Landsat 7 images

For anyone wanting to put together an image from 2003 to early 2015, you have to contend with images from the faulty Landsat 7 satellite. As you can see they have lines across roughly 80% of the image, which makes them very hard to use.

Putting all these images together is a painstaking process and the end result is a truly ridiculous 5.3GB file. Even with my quite powerful Mac, saving it takes almost 10 minutes. But that’s the easy bit. Sometimes as many as 3 or 4 images are combined so as to remove cloud cover. I put in around 20 hours of moving, erasing, merging, colour correcting and otherwise tweaking the images, but I do have a pretty interesting result. Were you to print the final image at 72dpi it would be an impressive 13m x 7m.

Camb 2016small

Satellite image for Jan/Feb 2016

This is a low-resolution version of the completed map.

I have blown up a few areas with comparisons to earlier years to give both an example of the detail of the full sized image and the destruction that’s taking place in Cambodia’s forests.

BPer Deforest Rat deforest











Below are screen shots from the EarthExplorer site.

First select 4 points on the map by clicking on it, then enter you date range.

First select 4 points on the map by clicking on it, then enter you date range.

Click on Data Sets tab and select from the Landsat sets.

Click on Data Sets tab and select from the Landsat sets.

Lastly click on the Results tab and you have numerous options to view the images or their footprint on the map or download them.

Lastly click on the Results tab and you have numerous options to view the images or their footprint on the map or download them.

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Prey Long 2016 – An aerial adventure. Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Solar guy to the rescue.

Amazingly, in Spong of all places, it turned out I could get a replacement within a few hours. Solar guy offered to go and buy one the next day. I’d have to pay through the nose but it was essential and to be honest I was so amazed I’d have willingly paid double. To speed matters up Solar guy suggested we take his inverter with us the following morning, while he set off on a 6 hour round trip to buy a new one.


Kid’s from Spong all keen to see what I’m up to.

We were joined on our journey by our host and guide Mr Vat, who I’d met on the earlier botanical expeditions and knew the forests well. The first stop was a Chamkar (rotational farming fields) with a small ‘house’ a couple of hours south of Spong. I wanted to shoot there too as it’s almost dead center of what is regarded as the ‘core area’ of Prey Lang; prior to going to the swamp. As a bonus it’s got a great little river to bathe and cool off in. My kind of luxury. We set up camp and the solar system and I used up 2 of my batteries filming the surrounding forest. I still wasn’t sure how many charges I was going to get as the drunk farmer clearly had little idea what he was doing when it came to batteries and 3 hours charging (along with 2 other batteries) wasn’t likely to give me much, so I was being very cautious. I made do with taking a few forest shots with my normal camera, while the batteries thankfully charged without any further problems. I had a full set for the swamp.

The Swamp Forest.

Livistona Palms tower over the canopy of the swamp forest.

Livistona palms tower over the canopy of the swamp forest.

The next morning we set off at first light with Mr Vat, leaving the drivers at the river. It took a little over an hour to get to the swamp by bike, with us arriving at around 7am. Once we found a vaguely suitable spot I decided to go for it. There wasn’t much room to play with and I had to weave around to get it up through the canopy. I had no more than about 3 meter hole to aim at and it wasn’t straight up; not a lot of room for error. I knew what images I wanted so I quickly set up a “Point of Interest” shot. One of the cool things this thing can do is automatically circle a point giving a wonderfully smooth shot. I wanted one of the distinctive Livistona palm trees and soon had the shot in the bag. I couldn’t see the copter at all while flying, which was a bit worrying to say the least, but it worked out well. After finishing the third battery I brought it into land again but this time instead of hovering for my assistant to grab it, it started to drift slightly and my lack of piloting experience meant I couldn’t react quickly enough to avoid it clipping a bush. Crunch. I had the sense to switch off the power this time but amazingly it survived its impression of a weed whacker. After some thought I decided to cut short the flying and use the last battery on foot. These things also make a great steady cam for smooth walking shots, although it’s a bit tricky as you can’t see what your filming… and your stumbling around in a swamp. I need more practice at that. I also filmed a little around the swamp with my main camera and had pretty much got everything I wanted by mid afternoon, so we returned to the camp to recharge and relax in the river.


View of a small river from directly overhead.

Predictably, my battery packed up after charging another 1.5 of the copter batteries and I was now onto the smaller reserve battery we ‘d borrowed. That got me up to 3.5 batteries charged, but that was as far as it went. I had to re think the plan again. I had intended to go back to the swamp the next day, but as I got the shots I had come for we decided to head back to Spong instead, where we could hopefully charge a few more batteries and film something different.

I was sad to leave the Chamkar house and particularly the river. It’s also a lot more peaceful sleeping in the forest than a village, where the roosters wake you at 3am. As it turned out, the roosters were the least of my concerns when it came to sleeping. We arrived to find a wedding party being set up a few houses away, with the obligatory wall of speakers. Anyone having experienced a Cambodian wedding knows what that means. Zero sleep. As it happened it did die down briefly around 1am and I dozed off for a while. The thing with Cambodian weddings is that at around 3am they have a kind of call to prayer for the village elders, that goes on for half an hour or so and is generally done at full volume. Once that died down of course, the roosters took over.


Sokhan, Mr Vat and Mr Phun all look suitably impressed… meanwhile, I’m just praying it comes back in one piece.

The new plan involved trying to film some cleared forest I could see on satellite images about 15km to the west of Spong. Seeing it and finding it, turned out to be a whole different ball game. We spent the entire morning riding (paddling would be a more appropriate word) along exhausting sandy trails only to fail miserably, the only other option was a 4 to 5 hour ride across Prey Long to Sandan. For me that wasn’t an option, we’d be looking at a 10 or 11 hour round trip and I wasn’t at all keen to bounce the copter around that much on a bike. Having pretty much wasted the day we returned to Spong to come up with another plan and I settled for using another valuable battery to film a nearby river.

For the final day we decided to try to film some illegal loggers. The forests around Spong were full of them so it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone, according to Mr Vat. As we left the village a young guy on a bike came flying past us. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but it soon became apparent he had set off to warn people we were coming, as the almost obligatory chainsaws had finally fallen silent. Much to Mr Vat’s surprise we couldn’t find anyone all morning. Lunchtime discussions revealed that people around the village thought Sokhan was a soldier, working with me to catch illegal loggers. The fact that one of my drivers was from the Prey Long Community Network probably didn’t help matters either. The PLCN are a group of villagers from all 4 provinces of Prey Lang, who are trying to protect this forest and its resources, such as their resin trees. Apparently everyone was convinced my tripod carrying case was in fact holding a gun. Despite this, not long after lunch our luck changed and we managed to catch some loggers in the act.

We explained what we were doing and that we just wanted to film them. Not arrest them. After some discussion I was able to film them felling a tree they were working on, both from the ground and the air. It should make a nice sequence. With that task done we filmed at another couple of locations before returning to Spong for a rest and some celebratory rice whiskey.

Prey Lang forest canopy on an overcast morning.

Prey Lang forest canopy on an overcast morning.

Solar man hadn’t been keen to charge anymore batteries for me as we had pushed his brand new system to its limit. With my aerial filming effectively over I called an end to the trip a day early. I was keen to get back to town to see what I had anyway, as I only had power to back up all the footage and hadn’t actually watched more than a few seconds of it.

I learned a lot on this trip but I am pleased to say the many hours of research I put in before buying or flying one of these, was well worth it. A quick Google search will throw up one very obvious fact about these quadcopters. They crash A LOT. I spent a great deal of time finding out why people were ‘losing’ or crashing their copters. Most were stupid errors and simply not following instructions, other problems were not so obvious. Large metal structures (including the metal frames of buildings), even a car can mess up the all-important calibration you should perform every time you move more than a few hundred meters. Fly low over water and your copter could soon become a submarine unless you turn off a sensor first. Probably the most surprising cause for me was solar activity. Essentially you can lose contact with the copter if you fly during magnetic storms and probably lose or crash it. A surprising number of people have had to watch hopelessly as their expensive toy flew off into the sunset.

Of course, this being 2016, we have an app for that. There are several apps that warn if magnetic levels are too high. What has surprised me is just how often this occurs. In the one-month since I bought it, there have been at least 5 days when the levels were too dangerous to fly. While there are countless videos of people crashing these things, many people seem to operate them without problems, so I think it’s mostly about being prepared. If your going to be bouncing it around in a forest, expect to have to go through the slightly time consuming process of resetting the IMU/Gimbal, so you get a level horizon. Most important of all, make sure the damned battery shop charges your battery properly.

Myself and Sokhan with Mr Vat, the moto drivers and the old boy is Mr Ouen, a great character (strong as an ox too) who I worked with on all my previous trips here.

Left to right: Mr Than, Sokhan, myself and the incredibly helpful Mr Phun, who seems to get on with everyone. Followed by Mr Vat and Mr Khamphorng. The old boy getting a hug is Mr Uong, a really nice guy who I worked with on all my previous trips through Spong.

Mr Uong – On my first trip here I was provided with a very young assistant that was completely useless to be honest. Anyway, when we arrived in Spong we were trying to recruit a few people as guides/porters. When we talked to Mr Uong, who’s house we were staying at, he said would also come along. The young boy laughed and said he was “too old and not strong enough”. Mr Uong visibly bristled a little but took it well. I had no doubt he’d be just fine. The following morning we set off on a 10km walk with the kid carrying easily the smallest, lightest pack. At the half distance we all stopped and waited for Mr Uong and the young guy to catch up. Shortly after Mr Uong walked calmly around the corner carrying the biggest of my bags (a 120 liter Bergen, which was almost as big as him), plus the kids bag. He was eventually followed by an exhausted and very embarrassed looking boy, who was not allowed to forget that very quickly. Give me the old guys every time.

All in all it was a good trip and I got some great aerial shots. But, I am still utterly dumbfounded that we managed to buy an inverter in Spong. Lastly, a special thanks to my friend and assistant Mr Sokhan Young for his great work and for providing several of the pictures in this 2 part blog.

Here is a link to a sample of the footage taken. It was originally shot in 4k resolution but has been reduced to 720 HD resolution for Vimeo.

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Prey Long 2016 – An aerial adventure. Part 1


Prey Lang forest canopy

I have just completed my first project with my new quadcopter and happily managed to return with everything intact… just about. Although these things are fairly easy to operate I had managed to get just 10 hours practice in before dragging it into the depths of the Cambodian jungle to film in a swamp forest. In particular to shoot an unusually large palm tree that grows in the swamp and towers over the canopy.

Aerial footage is essential to this film, which is to raise awareness of the importance of Prey Long forest in central Cambodia, an area I have had the pleasure of working in on a regular basis since 2008. This was a fairly ambitious expedition, largely due to the issue of power. I have been charging batteries for my various cameras using a solar panel to charge a small car battery for many years, but this piece of equipment takes the problem to a whole new level. The batteries for these quadcopters only last a maximum of 25 minutes and even with 4 of them you don’t get much time in the air. Each battery is as powerful as a small laptop, so charging them is not so simple when you’re traveling to such a remote area. With no time to test my new system thoroughly I picked up a hefty 60amp battery and a new larger 25watt panel. I figured this should give me at least 12 recharges over the course of the filming, possible 16. In a quick test it charged one without problem.


DJI_0012_convertedxSpong is a tiny and remote community of largely ethnic Kouy people. The village was effectively cut off from the outside world for months at a time during the rainy season, but development and massive deforestation have made the village a far easier proposition to visit. My previous journeys to Spong have not been the most pleasant of experiences. In the wet season of 2008 it took 3 days to get there through a combination of minibus, walking, moto’s, an ox cart and more walking. The last 2 visits were with botanists traveling in a local truck. These are horrendously slow and have next to no suspension making the 10-12 hour journey from Stung Treng a truly exhausting experience. Today it can be done in a day from Phnom Penh, with an early start.

After traveling to Stung Treng by minibus with equipment and supplies for the 9-10 day trip, myself and Sokhan my assistant met up with our porters/moto drivers, three local villagers. I brought my own moto too (a Honda Dream) as I prefer to drive myself so I can carry the more delicate equipment, like my shinny new toy. The road is fairly good for half the distance and we made it to Spong by 5pm, just 11 hours after leaving Phnom Penh. A little dusty but none the worse for wear.


Landing safely.

After sleeping at Mr Vat’s home, our local guide, we started early and began filming the forest around Spong. I wanted to get as much aerial footage as I could before we arrived at the swamp, as I was very concerned I would end up wrecking the copter in such a confined space. It’s not recommended to do what I was proposing, even for experienced pilots, so I knew I was taking a risk. As it turned out, these things are surprisingly robust. After using up 3 batteries I brought it into land on a bare bit of dirt in a rice field. I had practiced for exactly this situation time and again and just done it three times without any problems. But this time one side came down fractionally before the other and it instantly flipped over. My heart sank as it disappeared with a grinding sound in a cloud of dust. Was my aerial filming over almost before it had started? I quickly put the remote down and picked it up not realising the engines were still on. As I turned it back over the rotors sliced my forearm as it tried to right itself. I just clung on as I shouted to Sokhan to shut it off. Oh, and they’re bloody noisy too. After a quick dust off it was good to go, much to my relief. I decided to give it a rest for the day and not push my luck. Now to charge the batteries, do a bit of filming around the village and prepare to travel the first part of the way to the swamp the next morning.


Prey Lang forest stretches into the distance in every direction.

This is where things started to get complicated. Having charged just one and a half batteries the inverter started screaming its’ warning that it didn’t have sufficient power. Not impressed. Either my battery was a dud or the damned shop didn’t charge it properly. Mild panic set in. This is Spong, previously you had trouble finding anything other than some ancient cigarettes or salt for sale.

“Can we charge the battery?” “Yes”. Good start. Two options, some guy with a solar panel or a slightly inebriated farmer with a mechanical mule he uses as a generator in the evenings. We visited the solar guy and discovered a full-blown Cambodian style general store. It turned out he had a fairly decent solar system charging a nice big 100amp battery and a 500w inverter to plug appliances into. He let me charge up the 3 batteries but couldn’t help with the car battery. By the way, yes I did have a panel, but it’s just 25 watts so it would take 4 days to charge a battery that size. We tried the farmer but he wasn’t home and wouldn’t arrive until the evening. Things were looking up but I was still worried. A further chat with the solar guy turned up a second battery that we could rent. I then did something really stupid and decided to do a bit of tinkering with my small but trusty inverter of 15 years. The faint but clearly audible ‘phut’ upon plugging it in, turned out to be fatal.


Continued in part 2.

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Darwin Award Nominees.

Crossing a stream.

Crossing a stream.

I’ve just returned from a few days in Prey Long following a group of locals patrolling for illegal loggers. I have made more than a dozen trips into this forest since 2007 and it’s hard not to become depressed watching this amazing forest disappearing do fast. Settlers continue to nibble away at the edges from every direction, while economic land concessions take massive chunks. Much of the forest in Kompong Thom province has now been cleared although some fairly pristine areas do remain. I should qualify that statement. The most valuable timbers like Rosewood and Beng have already gone from Prey Long and predictably the loggers are moving down the value chain to other species, so it’s hardly pristine. However, the ecosystem is for the most part still intact. What disturbs me is that if Prey Long is allowed to be cleared, it will have a serious impact on water supplies across a significant part of the country.

Recording illegal activities.

Recording illegal activities.

Anyway, back to the trip. I was following a group of about 30 people, although the size did vary from time to time. We started off driving through the community forest near Sandan before crossing the wasteland that is the CRCK rubber plantation. Almost as soon as we entered the forest we encountered our first trailer full of wood. As it turned out the guy had papers with permission to cut planks for a house, so he was allowed to go on his way. As we continued on it wasn’t long before the first bikes stopped as the driver of a tractor-trailer ran off into the forest. As we approached we saw the trailer had at least 2 cubic meters of luxury wood. This guy wasn’t building a house.

Burning luxury timber.

Burning luxury timber.

With no driver the group decided to disable the tractor in some fairly innovative ways before continuing on to meet the rest of the team, only stopping to burn some luxury timber we found along the way. We were eventually stopped by a fallen tree blocking the trail, so the group decided to backtrack to a nearby stream and set up camp for the night. This is where I have to question the forethought of some people. You live in a rain forest and the rainy season just started, so you expect rain, right?

Apparently not. Somewhat predictably we had a big thunderstorm and I found myself with 10 people huddled under my tarp. Still, these are not my nominees for this years Darwin awards. That goes to the gentlemen we met the following evening.

Thumb printing illegal loggers.

Thumb printing illegal loggers.

The next morning we soon came across a couple of trailers in the process of loading their timber, while what we assume was their boss made off on a motorcycle before he could be caught. A chainsaw was also confiscated, which was then used to cut up the timber making it worthless. The young guys driving were given a short lesson in Cambodian law before being thumb-printed and warned not to return or they would be prosecuted. The Prey Long Community Network (PLCN) guys work very methodically following the law at all times, noting down every detail and also contacting the Forestry Administration to report incidents. I have to say I am always amazed how amicable everyone is during these confrontations. I have been on a few such trips over the years and I have never witnessed anything untoward from any party.

Destroying illegally cut timber.

Destroying illegally cut timber.

The reason I was on this trip was to record the PLCN using a new phone application provided by the University of Copenhagen/Danmission, which can record various illegal activities. The app is largely picture based making it particularly simple to operate. The rest of the day was spent traveling and we found more cut timber, but the highlight was definitely our second camp. Even as we were setting up our hammocks three tractor-trailers full of luxury timber arrived at the same river crossing.

Tractor trailers caught transporting luxury timber.

Tractor trailers caught transporting luxury timber.

Faced with 30 people and no way to quickly turn around they didn’t bother running. More thumb-printing and education on the law ensued. As we were talking with the drivers we noticed some people talking very loudly a couple of hundred meters off in the forest. About a dozen of us went to investigate and came across five guys, all very drunk and very obviously loggers. One was particularly drunk and while he could barely stand he was very full of himself. We searched the area but couldn’t find their chainsaws so nothing could be done and we went back to our camp.



These guys knew we were camped close by and they also knew we were looking for their chainsaws, so it came as a compete surprise that they decided to start one of them at 6am. The group simply descended on them as they ran off into the forest. A quick check of the area turned up 2 chainsaws and numerous tools and spare parts, as well as empty containers for well over 100 liters of fuel. All they had to do was wait for us to leave. Absolute morons.

Four carts carrying illegally cut timber.

Four carts carrying illegally cut timber.

As we were about to leave yet another trailer of illegal timber arrived and was again processed before all the confiscated timber was then burnt. In the end we didn’t get moving before 11am and spent most of the day traveling before coming across four pairs of cows each pulling around a cubic meter of what appeared to be timber for housing. I took the opportunity for a quick dip in the nearby river but it was scant relief against the sweltering heat. It’s seriously hot here in early April and the storm had simply caused the humidity to soar making it close to unbearable at times. The drivers were warned, thumb-printed and educated on the correct process before we continued on.

Recording details of confiscated chainsaws.

Recording details of confiscated chainsaws.

I wasn’t completely sure what was going on as we came back out into the CRCK rubber plantation. We were not far from Sandan and I thought that was where they were going so I said I’d take the long but much easier route along the laterite road rather than suffer the short cut again (I know it well and it’s just not fun). As it turned out they were planning to stop for the night at their meeting hall in the community forest and I did miss them busting another trailer the next morning. However, as I had the joint pleasure of a cold beer and to my surprise a lunar eclipse to watch from my hammock, it wasn’t such a bad move.

All in all I had fun and got some good footage.

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Filming a Giant Ibis Nest

My work over the past 2 weeks has been to shoot some new footage of Giant Ibises nesting for a film I am making on this enigmatic bird. One of the world’s rarest birds, the Giant Ibis number just a few hundred, all of which reside in the open forests of northern and eastern Cambodia. This once widespread landscape has all but disappeared from S.E. Asia over the past few decades, with most being turned into rice fields. For birds such as the Giant Ibis and its almost equally rare cousin the White shouldered Ibis, this has been devastating.


Typical open forest landscape.

When I came to Cambodia in 2001 I took the first photo of a Giant Ibis in almost 50 years. In fact the species was thought to be extinct for many years and was only rediscovered when Cambodia’s decades of warfare finally came to an end in the late 1990’s. Two years later I went to Preah Vihear province in an effort to film these enigmatic birds nesting. Not an easy prospect due to the fact that they nest at the height of the rainy season. That was an ultimately successful, but exceedingly wet trip. Sadly the footage I took back then is no longer good enough for broadcast, being in the old SD format, so I jumped at the opportunity to film them again in glorious HD… despite knowing just how unpleasant it was likely to be. Wet season in the forest is never much fun.


White Shouldered Ibis at a roosting site.

This expedition took me to Siem Pang in north-east Cambodia, where Birdlife International have a project protecting some of this now rare landscape and its many rare inhabitants. I spent the first few days visiting various locations; a vulture restaurant, where we watched around 50 vultures tear apart the carcass of a cow in a single morning; a roosting site where we saw approximately 20% of the worlds population of White shouldered Ibis (estimated at 1,000 globally) along with several Lesser Adjutants and even a couple of Giants; and then finally a Giant Ibis nest.

We were lucky with the weather up until this point, it hadn’t rained in a couple of weeks and the tracks were mostly dry, as was the forest around the nest. Just a few meters from where I decided to build the hide was a small stream, which was just a trickle when I arrived there the next day with my assistant, a local Birdlife employee, Porn. With the rain starting to fall we prepared everything a couple of hundred meters away, so we could get in and out as quickly as possible as I was desperate not to disturb the birds too much. By the time we reached the hide site it was, shall we say, persistently coming down and to add to the fun lightning was now directly overhead and struck a tree not far from us. We moved as fast as we could but neither of us noticed the stream behind us. As we applied the finishing touches with more strikes hitting trees nearby, we suddenly realized the once small stream was now a torrent neck deep and 3-4 meters across. Porn suggested swimming, as a former lifeguard I wasn’t having any of that. There were numerous trees that had fallen into the river and I was very concerned of getting pinned under one. We searched along the bank and found a partially submerged tree that would get us across; thankfully we only had our kambat’s (local machete) with us and not my 20kg camera bag. It was still a slippery task but we made it without incident. We then returned to the ranger station, some 7 or 8km away, to dry out and prepare for the 4am trip to the nest the next day… weather permitting.


Red Headed Vulture attacking a juvenile Slender bill.

I feel the need to mention a very minor accident I had the evening before we built the hide. While going up some stairs I scrapped a tiny bit of skin off one of my toes, it barely drew blood. Normally you wouldn’t give it a second thought. But, when you are going to be walking in wet boots 8 hours a day for the next couple of weeks something this innocuous can turn very nasty. I just knew this was going to be trouble.

The return trip at 4am was enlightening. I hadn’t realized just how much water was going to drain into the tracks that we had to ride along and it made for a painfully slow journey. What had taken 20 minutes the previous day now took almost an hour, with large parts knee to thigh-deep in water. I finally called an end to the struggle with the bike and told Porn I would walk the remaining 2km or so, rather than expend more energy dragging the bike out of increasingly large potholes. I have to hand it to Honda, those little 100cc bikes are incredibly robust, although Porn’s example was currently lacking any form of brakes.


Giant Ibis

Obviously it was still pitch black, so when it came to finding the last turn to cross the stream I did struggle a little. When I eventually found it, it had dropped to a more reasonable thigh level. As I began to set up my equipment I heard the male Ibis making his early morning wake up call at around 5am. The male roosts elsewhere for the night, while the female remains with the chicks. With me not visible but making a fair bit of noise the female didn’t return his call.

It was a disappointing start to filming as it was very overcast and the sun didn’t make an appearance until gone 10am, so most of what I took was not really worth using. Never the less it was interesting to watch. This pair spent a lot of time repairing the nest compared to the two nests I have watched previously. I got the impression it was as much educational for the chicks as it was of structural importance. These chicks were also much older than the others I’d seen and I guessed it would be about 2 weeks before they would fully fledge. With the morning light gone I left the hide shortly before 11am to walk back to meet Porn and spent the afternoon getting some landscape shots around the ranger station I was staying at.

That evening we had a lot of heavy rain and it was still fairly strong when I awoke at 3:45am. Bollocks! There was no chance of safely getting across that stream, so I went back to my hammock. I awoke later to see a dozen or more vultures and adjutants circling close to the station and got out my camera. Porn and a couple of rangers shot off on their bikes to check it out. They returned half an hour later and said they’d seen 24 birds in all but there was no carcass, “the birds were washing in a river”. It sounded odd to me but I took their word for it. In the mid afternoon I wondered out to see what I could shoot and almost immediately flushed 3 or 4 vultures from trees close to the station. As I walked a little further more took flight and then I heard the distinctive shrieks and whistles of squabbling vultures; there must be a carcass. I headed off the track and continued to more spook birds. With so many birds in every direction it was impossible to get close without being seen and after only a few minutes I found the carcass of a dead cow when I put about 25 birds to flight. Because the grasses and plants are so tall at this time of year you can’t see much on the ground until you’re really close. Even then three vultures were still feeding when I finally got a sight of the carcass from only 3 or 4 meters away. I reckon they got the fright of the lives when my ugly mug appeared over the top of the grass. Sadly, just skin and the larger bones remained so there was little point in putting up a hide. In all I saw something like 40-45 vultures and around 12-15 adjutants and I got some decent footage of both species in flight.

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Sol taking it all in his stride.

The following morning I had a new assistant, Sol. This guy can ride a bike, I was very impressed, he clearly knew where all the really nasty potholes were and we sailed through to where we had stopped previously. He probably could have gone further but I knew how bad it was getting and Sol wasn’t complaining. It was another dull morning and the sun struggled to make an appearance at 9am. I was really struggling with the cameras steaming up. Normally it may do it once and then it’s fine. Not here, it was so wet I had to wipe the lens on my 500mm every 10 or 15 minutes until almost 8am. My lens cloth became damp in no time and was useless so I was forced to resort to toilet paper. The little camera I was using for the wide shots had problems too and I was quite worried when it steamed up on the inside of the lens, however after half an hour it would clear and was fine. Again, I got nothing that great, but at least I had some usable sequences. The return journey was uneventful thanks to Sol and after putting my boots out in the sun to become less wet, I wondered about shooting some macro stuff, flowers and ants for the most part.


Day 4 shooting the nest went the way of day 2. Overnight storms put paid to getting across the stream so we slept a little later. It was nice to be staying at the station. Apart from the added protection from horizontal rain and electrical storms they have a generator, so I can go crazy with my batteries and shot almost constantly every morning. I can also do much of the transferring and basic cutting on my laptop. But, most importantly of all, the cook is great.

Day five and I had yet another driver, Mai. It was quite wet and the stream was back up to balls deep. Another slow steamy start to the day but the sun did come up for a while at 8am, so I got some quite nice footage and I should have a really top notch audio recording of the female returning the males first call. Unfortunately the return journey didn’t go to plan. Mai wasn’t where he was supposed to be and I had left my water at the hide. It was starting to look stormy so I decided to start walking as I thought maybe we’d miss communicated and he wasn’t coming. I was only a little over a kilometer away from the station when he finally turned up. He’d apparently had lunch and lost track of time. I was a little annoyed having spent 2 hours stumbling through around 7km of mud and water carrying a 20kg box and a 5kg tripod. I was knackered.

Day 6 almost predictably went the way of days 2 and 4. Although it had been wet all night I think I might have been able to get across the stream, but my toe was starting to play up and I decided it might be wiser to spend the day keeping it dry. I pottered about shooting several long cloud sequences to speed up later. It was a lovely day and so hot; my boots were almost damp by the end of the day.


Adult alert to the noise of my cameras shutter, while the 2 chicks make adjustments to the nest.

Day 7 saw another driver. We had had a dry night and most of the previous day so I was hopeful for a bright morning. Although I didn’t get the sunrise I wanted the sun did appear by 7am giving me some lovely footage over the next few hours. Having got some good footage I decided around 9am to try my luck with some stills. Bad idea. The Ibis adult reacted immediately to my camera shutter noise as I clicked off a few shots. It flew into a tree directly above me to check out the noise. After that I had to wait about 20 minutes before it returned to the nest. Shortly after that I could hear someone hammering away at something at the nearby trapeang (pond), which is about 100m or so from the nest. When the other adult returned with food it flew over several times before finally landing near the nest. I shot through to almost 11am but the birds were clearly nervous with the hammering continuing.

We returned to the station for lunch and over the course of the afternoon I started to feel bit rough. By dinner time I was not feeling good at all and only managed a little to eat. Within minutes I had a raging fever, I was shaking violently and felt terrible. I have had malaria before and with 5 of the rangers catching it over the past month it was quite possible that was what I had. I foolishly forgot to bring any medicine and there was none at the station, so I had to wait until the following morning to get to town and see a pharmacist. When I awoke the fever had dropped but I felt dreadful and to make matters worse my toe was now starting to look really swollen and it was hard to get my boot on. I figured there was little point in continuing and cut the trip short. As I was going to try to get to Phnom Penh that day, we left early for Siem Pang town and quickly grabbed some medicine. I didn’t want to wait until the capital as the pharmacies would probably be shut and I could be in real trouble. The Birdlife guys stuck me in a minibus bound for Stung Treng and thankfully it was a very easy change over in Stung Treng.

It’s not a fun journey as the roads between Siem Pang and Stung Treng have been utterly destroyed by logging trucks and most of the Siem Pang road is a quagmire. Another issue is the huge amount of people transporting wood. I counted 18 of the mechanical mules all hauling 3 or 4 large logs; dozens of motos with smaller bits of wood; big trucks and small trucks. It was simply everywhere I went between Siem Pang, until well past Kratie. Very depressing, I am seeing this same scene everywhere I go in Cambodia and it appears even the smallest Rosewood and Beng trees are being cut now. Incidentally, both the mini busses I traveled in had several rosewood planks hidden under the seats. After a long day I arrived home in Phnom Penh at gone 8pm and just decided to get some sleep and deal with my now very messy looking toe in the morning.

It was disappointing to have to cut the trip short, but I did get what I needed and as I wasn’t going to be able to stay long enough to see the chicks fledge anyway. Basically, I didn’t miss anything. I have decided to return to Siem Pang in a few months to try my luck at a few trapengs. The Birdlife site is quite remarkable with, not just large numbers (relatively) of both species of Ibis and the three vultures, but also a population of the incredibly rare Eld’s deer. I really am looking forward to returning, but I will definitely be taking my own motorbike next time… and some malaria medicine.

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In Memory of Chut Wutty – Part 3

Continued from part 2


Wutty waiting for the ferryman to make some changes so we can squeeze the car on board, This was during the flooding in September 2011

One thing that makes me a little sad regarding Wutty is that I never took any pictures of him. Sounds strange but all I have is one brief interview in his office and the washed out interview in the forest. When we were out in the field he always made a point of asking not to be the center of attention. Before this protest he said to me “I would prefer you did not take pictures of me with the protesters. This is their protest; it’s not about me. He said this several times to cameramen and photographers while I was with him. He didn’t want the attention but he understood his unique and extensive knowledge of the issue, and the fact he was pretty much the only person brave enough to speak out publicly, made him a target for the media.

A little known fact about Wutty. Not long before he was killed he was asked to lead Cambodia’s first UN mission. Wutty respectfully turned it down insisting his work here at home was more important to the country.

Back to the protest. We drove back to the land concession gate in Wutty’s car to film the protesters arriving. They were chanting as they rounded the corner just 100 meters from the gate, and as they approached you could sense an air of trepidation. The villagers were not entirely sure how the police would react. Thankfully they were very calm and chose not to escalate the situation. Without guns they had little hope anyway, with maybe 30 cops on the gate they were outnumbered by at least 10-1. Several of the lower ranking military police had told us privately that they supported the villagers and didn’t want to be there. One said his family was suffering a similar situation elsewhere so he understood the villagers anger.

Several people at the front starting talking and demanded to talk to a company representative. They wanted to go into the concession to inspect the area and were not going to take no for an answer. An officer on the gate told them that one would come out but after about 10 minutes no one came. The protesters were becoming more vocal again and demanded to go in, there was a brief and very minor bit of pushing as all 300 protesters streamed through the gate chanting and waving their placards. The police gave up almost immediately and watched as the procession wound it’s way across the huge concession. Myself and a cameraman followed for about a km before we had to give up as neither of us had lights and we weren’t exactly sure what was going to happen. We knew they were going to walk about 5km to inspect a saw mill, but we weren’t sure if they would sleep out there so we headed back to the gate and the vehicles where all our gear was. Amazingly Stephanie Scawen, the Al Jazerra correspondent went past us on the back of a policeman’s motorbike. We found out later that one of the military policeman at the gate had seen that Stephanie was walking with the aid of a walking stick and offered her a lift. What a gent. If we had been a bit quicker on the uptake we could have taken the car in, unfortunatly the cops on the gate had to change their minds when officer returned to the gate. We ended up heading back to the guest house as we had no idea what was going on out in the concession and couldn’t do any more in the dark anyway. Wutty returned in the early hours and later explained that the villagers had inspected the sawmill. There had been a few calling to burn it down, but Wutty had managed to calm them and explain how vital it was that the protesters must not break the law.

In the end nothing was damaged, the company lost nothing, and the police did their job in a very responsible way. If only all protests in Cambodia could be this civilized.

The following morning we headed back up the road. Around midnight the villagers had walked back out of the concession and had slept in the forest a few km down the road. We arrived to a fairly typical village scene, with clothes being washed in a stream and food being prepared by the protesters. Interviews were conducted as the group prepared to move off toward Sandan town, where they had an educational training session planned for the next day.

As we left Wutty explained that the villagers had found a large haul of illegal timber on the edge of a village just down the road. The protesters planned to burn it.

A short video of the scene that followed was uploaded by someone and can be seen here.

The villagers set about stacking the wood ready to burn, there were close to 90 large pieces of valuable timber. I took my photos while the other journalist’s buzzed around the scene. With the fire raging I left with the Al Jazerra team who wanted to get back to town to put their story together. We had only gone about 4 or 5km when we were passed by an black windowed SUV and 2 truck loads of armed police.

Yellow Vine factory, that Wutty photographed just before he was murdered.

Yellow Vine factory, that Wutty photographed just before he was murdered.

Oh no” we thought. This is not good so we quickly turned and head back after them. We arrived to find them forcing several villagers to put the fire out while the others stood around looking very nervous. We started to film what was going on when suddenly there was a scuffle as several policeman tried to grab Wutty and drag him off. The villagers reacted quickly jumping to his defence, grabbing sticks or whatever was at hand to take on the AK wielding police. There was a lot of shouting and screaming and I one policeman in particular was far to close to pulling the trigger. We talked about the scene later and all of us felt that had we (the foreigners) not been there this could have turned really nasty. There were 5 or 6 foreigners there pointing cameras and the District Police Chief, who was directing them, clearly had some concerns about publicity.

Anyway, the police backed off a little as the protesters, fearing for Wutty’s life, escorted him to his car and then marched alongside his car for about 8km, to a village they had planned to stop at. The police followed for about 30 minutes before driving past us and off toward Sandan. We were convinced they would be waiting at the end of the road, at the check post, but thankfully they weren’t and the day ended peacefully.

Saw Mill Panorama

The saw mill Wutty photographed just before he was murdered.

The planned training session for the next day was cancelled and Wutty was persuaded by the protesters to head back to Phnom Penh for his own safety. I stayed on for a few days to conduct survey in several villages for another report I was producing. When I returned to Phnom Penh I went to see Wutty and he explained that the Sandan Police Chief was trying to have him and one of the protesters leaders charged. At least one of the protest leaders from Sandan district had fled to the forest fearing for his life. Wutty dismissed the attempts to charge them and a few weeks later all these charges were dropped.

The last time I spoke to Wutty was a day or 2 before he left on his fateful journey to Koh Kong. While he wasn’t very keen on having to babysit the 2 journalists, he was pleased to be going as they were paying for the expenses providing an opportunity he would not otherwise have had. Wutty had worked in this area on and off for many years and was well aware of some very dubious activities taking place so he was keen to get an update on the situation. Sadly that was the last time we spoke.

A comment a long time friend of Wutty said to me that we were so lucky to have Wutty on the right side fighting illegal loggers and land grabbers. Being in the military and being quite well connected, he could very easily have become rich and relatively powerful had he wanted to. Instead he chose to fight against the destruction of his beloved countries forests and wildlife. Sadly his decision to fight against the wrongdoers ultimately cost him his life.

The site of Wutty's murder

The site of Wutty’s murder

Chut Wutty was a remarkable individual with a very quick mind. He was incredibly disciplined and very hard working, traits, I assume, from his extensive military training. I was amazed at how he managed to have so many things going on at the same time. Nine groups of protesters to direct, 1 film crew and 1 photographer to babysit, with a snake bite thrown in for good measure, all this while fielding questions from numerous journalists in English or Khmer, as well as answering calls for help from villages elsewhere…all at the same time. And he took it all in his stride, he never look remotely stressed.

On April 26th 2012 I lost a friend who I was looking forward to working with for many years, Cambodia lost much more. I hope others will take his place but Wutty’s shoes will not be easy to fill.

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