Siamese russell’s viper
(Daboia siamensis) (Smith, M, 1917)
This snake only occurs in agricultural and dry forests in central and eastern Thailand where its populations seem to be constantly decreasing.
Central & East Thailand (Phetchaburi, Khao Yai and the Far East)
It was nearly a year since I last left Thailand and with tight restrictions still in place another road trip was in order to target some key reptiles, mammals and birds in the country. The number one target was an adult Siamese russell’s viper (Daboia siamensis) as December is usually quite a good month although finding this species is never guaranteed at the best of times. I had found a decent place in July where I saw two juveniles so I was hoping that this place would produce the goods again. Aside from that main reptile target there were a number of mammals I wished to see, mainly cats but also Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus). I had intended to travel further north and west on this trip, but as Covid cases increased there was a risk of restrictions or a lockdown. So after the search for the viper in the east and a stay in Khao Yai we spent 9 days in Phetchaburi in and around Kaeng Krachan National Park. Knowing this area quite well now I added a new target to the trip, photographing a King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) in situ somehow, ideally swimming or hunting. A big thing to ask, well so I thought!
Our new omnipresent friend Covid 19 did raise its ugly head once more and we had to tweak parts of the trip and cancel others based on the infection rate in each province. In the end we stayed long in the Kaeng Krachan area than we had intended.
Kat and I are grateful to Ian and Games for their hospitality at Baan Maka Nature Lodge and it was also good to catch up with Ton and Rushen one evening.
East of Thailand
The road trip started with a very long (16 hour) drive from Phuket to the far east of Thailand. The sole reason for this long drive was to hopefully find an adult Siamese russell’s viper (Daboia siamensis) after finding two juveniles the last time I was there. As December supposedly falls under the breeding season of the species, I was hopefully that this would be the best time. This initially turned out to be the case, as I immediately found an adult viper after arriving at the place I visited back in July! We had barely arrived at the location and as I turned a corner an adult viper was sitting motionless at the edge of the road. Incredible luck! Especially as 20-30 seconds later a 12 wheel turn came blasting down that road. However the next day and night did not produce any further viper findings so we decided to tweak the trip and head to the Khao Yai area earlier than planned.
Several nights in Khao Yai did not produce many reptiles, perhaps due to the chilly night temperatures. However this did not matter too much as the sightings of other fauna in this area certainly compensated. Mammals and birds were the most impressive animal groups found here, the spots where I found Vogel’s pit vipers (Trimeresurus vogeli) back in July did not produce this time. But with night temperatures of less than 15C it was not surprising. However at lower altitudes near our hotel I did find several Large-eyed pit vipers (Trimeresurus macrops).
Kaeng Krachan (Phetchaburi)
As previously mentioned, due to Covid restrictions we ended up spending a lot more time in Kaeng Krachan than we had anticipated. However this was fine as this is one of the best areas in Thailand for seeing all wildlife and we benefited from staying at Baan Maka and visiting the park each day. Kaeng Krachan is much quieter now without international tourists and this made exploring even better than usual.
Okay so I’ve been very lucky with King cobras in the three and a half years that I have been living in Thailand and traveling this country and neighbouring countries. After I had ticked off my main targets for this trip I still had 5 days left in the Kaeng Krachan area. Although always an exciting place with plenty to see, I needed a specific goal. I decided that the goal would be to take in situ photos of a King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), ideally swimming. Not an easy task but I put my mind to it and highlighted some locations where this could potentially happen.
Luck was truly on my side, over four days I saw four King cobras. The first surprised me as I turned a corner. It was stretched out across the road in the middle of a hot afternoon. I only got a few unsatisfactory in situ photos before it fled. The second I heard before I saw it. It was retreating through some dry leaf litter and I watched it climb up a rocky slope and out of reach. The third I found basking early one morning in a big pile of bamboo. I could only see part of the body so I backed off and hoped it would do something interesting if I stayed away and watched from a distance. All it did was retreat into cover after a few minutes.
I was really saving the best until last after I thought I had used all possible luck with this species. I heard some Langurs alarm calling so I approached and had a look around to see if there was anything that they were obviously afraid of. Nothing apparent. Then as I walked away from the agitated primates I looked down into a small stream and there it was: another King cobra! It hadn’t spotted me and was moving slowly along the stream bed, passing through small pools of water. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity! I ran like crazy along the edge of the stream so that I could get ahead of the snake while Kat watched it move towards me from a distance. I settled down in the middle of a dry patch of the stream and a minute later the cobra rounded the corner and headed towards me. King cobras are not stupid and it saw me after about 10 seconds. However during this time and for several minutes after it spotted me, I was able to take a series of in situ photos that I have not taken before of a King cobra moving naturally through its habitat. A few minutes later it moved out of the stream bed and disappeared. I could now do the 10 hour drive back to Phuket knowing that I had achieved every goal for this trip!
Phuket & Phang Nga
Back home and back to work I had little time to venture out looking for animals. Snake catcher Bam in Phang Nga had been called out to rescue 15 King cobras (Ophiophagus hannah) in less than two weeks, a clear indication that January and February are months with increased activity due to the breeding season. I joined Bam on two occasions on weekends to rescue a male and female from an agricultural area and we released a further five Kings together in several locations. Three of these individuals were between 4.5-5 metres in length!
In Phuket I recorded a Phuket pit viper (Trimeresurus phuketensis) at a new locality for the species on the island and Ian visited one evening to look for the rarely seen Phuket stream toad (Ansonia phuketensis). Despite me never seeing this species before, we found two individuals after less than an hour in a rarely explored brook passing through some decent forest.
I had another week off in February and we decided to join Ian back in the far south of Thailand in the rarely explored mountain ranges which connect Thailand with Malaysia. We were there back in August and decided that the rare species on offer there deserved a second visit.
The drive down from Phuket to Yala takes about 11 hours so I had about 5 days in total in the far south of Thailand in and around the enormous and mostly inaccessible Bang Lang National Park. This area rarely receives any visitors due to on going insurgency in the area and indeed we saw lots of heavily armed soldiers and SWAT teams at check points and even noticed some serious looking house raids on our drive through Pattani and Yala. However as we stayed in such a remote location at a Chinese Peace village community we never once felt unsafe during our stay. Much more of a concern was elephant activity on the remote trail that we would explore which would take us into deep rainforest close to the Malaysian border. Indeed Tigers, Tapirs and even Rhino still exist in these mountains and despite some hunting activity in the area, the area is untouched. We saw footprints of Tapir at several streams. We also met one hunter late one night while hiking back along the trail. Although he was carrying a huge shotgun and was surprised to meet other people, he was friendly enough and we continued on our way.
Our main focus in the area was to find amphibians, however it was quite dry with blue skies everyday and no rain at all during our stay. With so many species only occurring in Thailand on this one mountain range, it was an exciting place to explore just as it was back in July. The last time I was here my main focus was the iconic Long-nosed horned frog (Megophrys nasuta) which has a very limited distribution in Thailand with this area being the hotspot in the country. However this time around we wanted to confirm the presence of the Malayan stream toad (Ansonia malayana) as well as a couple of other amphibian and lizard species. Snakes which are very rarely reported in Thailand are known from this mountain such as Wirot’s pit viper (Trimeresurus wiroti), Sumatran pit viper (Trimeresurus sumatranus) and Blue coral snake Calliophis bivirgatus). Despite the lack of rain we did very well with amphibians but not so well with snakes.