Archive for January, 2012

Mekong Journals: 17

January 15, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 17 of the series.]

 

Isabel hopes to do these surveys continuously over a year. After that she will have a complete and fairly exhaustive record of where the dolphins live and where and how this is connected to changes in the seasons etc. She’s concerned for example that she’s missing some animals in the Jan, Feb, March period. At this time dolphins are still moving outside the deepwater pools. She can tell that many of them are away, because a comparison of sighting-numbers and estimates shows that a number of them are missing and unaccounted for at this time. She simply does not know where they are – they could be ranging quite far afield or they could be just on the outskirts of the pools. There is no clear way of determining this. I suggested that they might be in the tributaries but she explained that this wasn’t possible as the water is too low. Accounting for these unaccounted animals might well be one of the major contributions of her thesis.

 

Another contribution will be in resolving the question of why dolphins choose some pools and not others as favoured habitats. There are literally hundreds of deep water habitats that are not used by the dolphins. Her feeling is that the dimensions of the pools make a difference – depth certainly does because they don’t like pools that are too deep. The depth has to be just right. But the connection between the pools and the main channel of the river also makes a difference: they prefer pools that are not too isolated; there have to be easy connections to other similar pools.

 

 

 

 

The pools at Kampi and Chray Banteay are a good example of this – they are on two different sides of the river, but there are channels connecting them, so the dolphins can move back and forth. The topography might also make a difference. She has a feeling that they like gentle, curving slopes – not steep channels. When she gets back to write up she intends to spend a lot of time figuring out the geomorphology of the river pools.

 

 

 

At the moment her work focuses on three things: one is Abundance (determining the numbers); the second is distribution (habitat preferences); the third is critical habitats. The third aspect is particularly important to the conservation aspect of her work – and this is very important to her; all her zoological work has a conservation aspect to it.

I asked Isabel: What would you do if you were to make a field trip to the Sundarbans to study the Gangetic dolphin? Her answer was that she would first do a preliminary survey. For this she would hire a local boat. What kind of boat? I asked. Ideally, she said, she would like a boat that provided a raised viewing platform. I asked why she hadn’t got a boat of that kind for this survey and she said it wouldn’t have been possible because big boats couldn’t negotiate the Mekong’s rapids and would certainly not be able to make it all the way to Stung Treng. It struck me that a similar issue would arise in the Sundarbans, for a big boat wouldn’t be able to make it into the smaller creeks.

However she added that platform height was not an important factor in direct counts (like that which she’d do in the Sundarbans). The important thing was to keep the same platform height throughout.

The next thing she’d do is conduct interviews with local people, in order to get an idea of distribution, habitat preferences etc. After that she would design a survey to suit the local conditions.

 

 

 


Mekong Journals: 16

January 13, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 16 of the series.]

 

 

The whole point of the survey is to create very highly standardized measurements and recordings. In ‘On Effort’ periods, in Isabel’s survey, there are 2 observers on duty for 30 minutes, One is in the prow of the boat, looking through binoculars, covering a 180 degree view. The other observer in the meanwhile, is observing with the naked eye and he/she sits aft. The observers are both usually seated, although they can stand if they want to. The observers change position with other observers every 30 minutes, working in groups of two.

 

 

Isabel says that is she had a different kind of boat she would have liked to have an observer in the stern as well. This is a lesson learnt from surveys of the Inya – the Amazon dolphin – which tends to sound at the approach of a boat and surfaces well behind (and are thus often missed). Also one observer at the stern of the boat also provides some sense of the number of animals being missed by the others.

 

 

 

Observers who are On Duty are called Primary Observers and those who’re off-duty are called Independent Observers. If observers who are resting make a sighting that has been missed by the Primary Observers, then those have to be attributed to the Independent Observers.

In a large boat, with more personnel, Isabel would have arranged the observers differently. There would be three observers in the bows, one looking left, one right and one directly ahead. The left and right observers would be armed with binoculars, while the forward looking observer would be watching with the naked eye.

 

The speed of the boat is ideally between 8 to 10 kmph.

The effort sheet also records many other things: the direction of travel, depth, turbidity, habitat-type, state of the river etc. All these are recorded every time there is a change of observer – in other words ever 30 minutes. If a dolphin should happen to be sighted, that results in an E.E. – ‘End of Effort’. After that a data sheet has to be filled in, recording the details of the sighting.

 

These protocols, as Isabel uses them, are based largely on the methodologies that she learnt while working on coastal surveys in Hong Kong. But they also draw on a paper on surveying methodology for river dolphins that was published in 2000 by two Australian cetologists.

The recording of the boats’ track is done only while On-Effort. After a spotting the GPS is switched off and is turned on again only when the effort resumes. Turbidity is recorded through Secchi Disk readings. This is a marked disk that is dipped in the water. The point at which the markings cannot be read is the measure of the turbidity. Water temperature is recorded with a simple thermometer, of the kind used in domestic aquariums.

 

One of the useful tools is a software package called Geographic Information Systems. It allows many different kinds of information to be mapped on to a topographical map. Thus, turbidity, depth & sightings can all be mapped on to a chart of the river, providing instant visual confirmation of co-relations between these different factors.


Mekong Journals: 15

January 10, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 15 of the series.]

 

Isabel’s survey is intended to establish, in a reliable way, the extent and limits of the dolphin habitat on the river. There are, Isabel said, no established techniques for riverine surveys of cetaceans. The protocols and methodology have to be based on survey techniques for other riverine fauna. Essentially they have to be made up, by combining the techniques of marine mammal research with the procedures of river-systems research.

 

 

 

The methodology that Isabel is applying here is one that she has evolved to suit the circumstances. This is how the survey is conducted: a boatload of surveyors goes up a certain stretch of river, recording dolphin sightings. Where the river channel is less than 2 kilometres wide they chart a straight course down the middle. Where the channel is more than 2 km wide they chart a straight course down the middle. When the channel is more than 2 km wide, they cover the channel by following a zigzag course, going from one bank to the other. The zigzags have to be carefully charted – if the turns are too wide then not enough of the river is covered; if they’re not wide enough then there’s wastage of fuel and effort. The course that every boat follows is recorded on the hand-held GPS device which takes a reading every three minutes and creates a detailed chart. These readings can be fed into the computer and superimposed on a map of the river. Every time a dolphin is spotted a data-sheet must be filled out.

 

Isabel, left and Mr Somany

 

 

There are two kinds of data record: one is a data sheet which is filled out every time a dolphin or dolphin group is spotted. The other is an ‘Effort Sheet’. This charts the periods between sightings, in periods when the observers are trying to spot dolphins.


Mekong Journals: 14

January 8, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (1)

 

 

[In January 2003  I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 14 of the series.]

 

All this while Isabel had been agonizing about what to do with the dog. In New Zealand he would have been put down of course, and she was considering whether he ought to be put down anyway, in case he did this again, to someone else. When we got back to the house she tried to explain this to the landlord, through her Cambodian colleague, Mr Somany. But he did not understand what ‘put down’ meant. ‘Killed’, said Isabel, ‘killed in his sleep with one injection’. Mr Somany went pale and was at a loss for words. When he finally succeeded in translating this to the landlord’s family they merely tittered in amazement. I remembered how amazed I myself had been when I first heard of ‘putting down’ as a concept – I couldn’t imagine what it would sound like to Buddhist ears.

We left the matter unresolved and Isabel went off to change and clean up. Then we went down the road to have some dinner – Isabel was perfectly cheerful, very much in command of her emotions. I was amazed; I had thought that she would go into shock once we were back home. But no; she was quite remarkably brave and took it all in her stride.

While we were eating dinner, the landlord appeared, on his moped. The private doctor was back from the wedding he said, and was ready to give Isabel her tetanus shot. Isabel went off with the landlord: ‘It’ll just take a minute…’

Fifteen minutes later she came back, looking puzzled. The doctor had given her a note scheduling six more shots over the next several days. ‘But then,’ I said, in alarm, ‘he must have given you a rabies shot – for tetanus you get only a single shot.’

Her colleague was summoned. He looked at the note and confirmed our suspicions: she’d been given a shot for rabies, not tetanus.

‘Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse…’ But still she stayed cheerful and finished her dinner. She even insisted, over my objections, that she would not postpone the survey, and that it would go ahead as scheduled. Later she called another veterinarian friend, in Phnom Penh, who told her that she should continue her rabies shots, just in case, and she’s already worked out a schedule of how she’s going to do this while we’re heading north towards Laos.

 


Mekong Journals: 13

January 5, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 13 of the series.]

 

When we turned into the hospital I had an extraordinarily vivid recollection of visits to upcountry Cambodian hospitals in Jan 1993. They were nothing more than jumbles of dilapidated shacks; the wards were crammed with people; the stench was unbelievable. They were like something from Inferno.

To my astonishment, the Kratie hospital was freshly painted, as bright as a new coin. It’s a  cheerful provincial hospital. Compared to its Indian counterparts it looks almost First world.

The interior didn’t quite match the exterior, but it was still a great improvement on the rural hospitals of Cambodia in 1993. Patients were squirming on rather dirty-looking beds, with their families camped around them. There was only one nurse on duty and she seemed a little flustered and uncertain. She led us into an emergency ward and had a look at Isabel’s wounds. Where was the doctor? The wound on Isabel’s wrist definitely needed stitches and I couldn’t see that this nurse would be able to do the job. The doctor was away at a wedding, the nurse said. What about the other doctors? They were all at the wedding. Could they be called? The nurse wasn’t sure; she disappeared for a bit. In the meanwhile Isabel sat on the operating table, holding her wrist, obviously in great pain. Yet she was completely composed, smiling. The entire ward had crowded around the door to watch, and Isabel had a smile for everyone.

We called an American vet who lives here in Kratie. He was clearly not interested in getting involved. ‘Oh just get some stitches and get outta there.’ The problem was that there was no one to do the stitching. I told him that we were kinda hoping that he’d do it. ‘I don’t work on humans; just haven’t worked on humans much; she’ll be fine there. They’ll stitch her up.’

Various nurses wandered in and out offering bits of advice. One said that dog-inflicted wounds couldn’t be stitched; another said that the doctors weren’t going to leave the wedding to do the stitches… There was no one to translate and we couldn’t make ourselves understood. Then, at last, one of Isabel’s Cambodian colleagues arrived. Suddenly, with the circuitry of language in place, things began to move. A nurse practitioner appeared and was attested to be an expert at stitching; even the doctors left the stitching to her we were told.

Isabel was given some local anesthetic and then the nurse took out an evil-looking curved needle and some thick black gut. She thrust the needle into Isabel’s wrist as if she were trying to hook a fish – jabbing, pushing, grunting. For a moment I thought I was going to be sick, but Isabel sat through it without any fuss. Her teeth was clenched and she was muttering under her breath, but her composure remained intact through all of it. After the stitching was over she got up and walked out and even arranged a payment for nurses ($20). I thought of George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’.

Then we went looking for a tetanus shot: this we were told, had to be administered by a private doctor. At this point, we weren’t concerned about rabies shots at all – because Isabel had been inoculated against rabies six years ago, when she was working with bats in New Zealand. The dog had also been inoculated against rabies, so that seemed to be taken care of. So it was tetanus that was the immediate concern when we looking for the private doctor’s home. Alas, he too was away at the wedding. We left a message with his family and came back to the house.

 


Mekong Journals: 12

January 4, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 12 of the series.]

 

January 7, 2003

Yesterday, as I was writing that last sentence, Isabel came running to the door, spattered with blood. ‘Amitav I’ve been attacked by my dog. I have to go to the hospital.’ She was clutching her left wrist, with a hand that had deep puncture marks. Her T shirt and her pants were stained and bloody. There was a deep six-inch incision in her wrist and some eight wounds along both forearms. There was also a bad bruise on her waist.

‘Of course, I’ll come with you,’ I said. Downstairs the landlord and his son were waiting on their mopeds. We climbed on and headed straight to the hospital.

What had happened was this: after we came back from the survey (at about 5:15) she took her dog ‘Mange’ for a walk. The dog is a small black mutt that she adopted in Phnom Penh last year. Apparently the dog was always a good companion to her, until about a week ago. That was when the landlord locked away another dog, his pet, in a cage, as a punishment. The dog had killed a chicken. The landlord has several dogs and he and his family seem to care for Mange too, especially when Isabel is away. The dogs were used to running around together and evidently Mange was upset at having his companion locked up and had been misbehaving ever since. Certainly he growled very fiercely at me when I arrived – I didn’t like the look in his eye and decided straight away that I’d give him a wide berth.

Yesterday, when Isabel took Mange for a walk, he was distracted and behaved oddly, running back to the house very soon after she’d taken him out. She followed him back and found him sitting beside the caged dog. She yelled at him: bad dog, and waved a finger. The dog growled and she decided that she couldn’t back down. She reached for the collar to pin him down, establishing dominance. But when she took hold of his collar, he turned sideways and fastened his jaws on her and wouldn’t let go. She shook him off but he came after her again and again, attacking her four times, quite savagely. Then he ran upstairs into this apartment. She thought it might attack me and hoped that I was in the shower.

I did hear howls, barks and shouts. But I’ve grown used to hearing strange noises from this dog: it makes a fearsome howling sound, as if it were being tortured, every time Isabel pets it. So I decided to ignore the noise. And then she appeared at the door, with blood all over her.

 


Mekong Journals: 11

January 2, 2012 in Mekong Journals | Comments (0)

 

[In January 2003 I accompanied an expedition that was conducting a survey of river dolphins on a stretch of the Mekong River in Cambodia. The expedition was led by Isabel Beasley, who was then a PhD student specializing on Orcaella brevirostris: also known as the ‘Irrawaddy Dolphin’ this species is found in many Asian river systems and deltas. The journal I kept during the expedition will appear on this site as a continuous series of posts. This is part 11 of the series.]

 

Isabel was on her way to visit Clasico, on Nov 26, when she had a terrible accident. She was sitting side-saddle on the moped – which is the normal way for a woman to sit – and the driver was trying to turn. They were hit by another moped, which went directly into Isabel. She was thrown off, her femur was broken and her knee was shattered. She was brought back to Phnom Penh and it was clear at once that she would have to be Medevaced. She had Australian medical insurance and she assumed that it would be a straightforward affair to have the evacuation covered. But when she called Australia to confirm, the insurance company told her about a detail that she hadn’t known about, something in small print – that the insurance company would pay for evacuation only if the driver of the vehicle had an Australian driver’s license. This was a great shock for the cost was huge. She was in utter despair and her brain had begun to swell because her skull was fractured. But somehow, through friends, the money was raised and the plane flew out from Bangkok. Just 15 minutes before she was to leave the CEO of the insurance company called her to say that the company would pay after all. Apparently what had happened was that her doctor had called the company and told them that if Isabel wasn’t taken to Bangkok she was going to die, and the company would be stuck with huge lawsuits. This made the company cave. Isabel was taken to Bangkok, she received medical attention, the procedures were successful and she went off to New Zealand to recuperate. Soon after, two of her colleagues organized Clasico’s release. Everything went well, but for Isabel the release was a disappointment because very little data was recorded.

But the story ended on a happy note. After all the disappointments of 2001-2, she was back in Kratie at last, sitting in this very pavilion, when she noticed, one day, that a dolphin was surfacing repeatedly, very close to her. It happened so many times that it seemed to be more than random; it was almost as though the animal were trying to attract her attention. She took many pictures of it and later when they were developed, she realized that it was none other than Clasico.

 

 

 



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