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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

That smell of dead meat

[Huay Khao Khaeng National Park, Thailand, April, 2005]

"Tiger kill." said Dave.

We were jeeping down a track in the forest when we smelled it.

"Back up and let's see if we can find it. It's coming from down there."

"Prem and I used to try that all the time, and we never found the kill." (Prem Bahadur Rai: the chief shikari on the SI-Nepal Tiger Ecology project.)

"Yeah, well, that was in tall grass. C'mon, man, let's try. At least here we can see where we're going."

We walked into the forest parallel to the road, but the stench came and went.

Time to study the situation. The land sloped gently downhill toward a shallow drainage. It looked like the kind of place a tiger might settle to feed. We moved in, picked up the scent again, and suddenly there it was: a heap of decaying flesh, an adult male sambar.

It's a strange feeling standing next to a tiger's half-eaten kill. The cat could be watching you, or it could be dozing on a full belly.

We took pictures, and followed the drag mark to the scene of the takedown, about 50 yards upslope, next to a fallen tree. The viscera were near by, so we knew the tiger had fed before dragging it into the drainage. We took more pictures and left.

The next morning a swarm of blue bottles rose into the air as we approached. The tiger had returned to finish the remaining haunch. We were pleased with ourselves.

Okay. So I was sitting here typing last week, and I kept seeing vultures out the window. They were cruising just above the trees at the edge of the ravine next to the house, and when I went outside, there was that smell of dead meat again. Plus there were 4 black-tailed bucks up the road by the mailboxes--where they hang out when a puma cruises the ravine.

I packed a camera trap, and slowly headed down the deer trail. Confident from our sniff-out in Thailand, I was going to find that puma's kill and stake a camera. I sniffed audibly like a dog, and periodically tested the air with a wet finger like Romar of the Jungle (which wasn't much help).

A vulture flapped out of the canopy, a good sign. I made sniffing sorties to the left and right. The air currents kept changing and the smell was elusive. I checked the small drainages where a carcass might come to rest, and looked for brush piles where a puma might have covered its prey. Nothing.

"Forget it. You need a bloodhound." I settled on checking a camera trap farther down the ravine.

It was a fine day. The poison oak and shrubs had dropped most of their leaves, the visibility was good, and except for a family of nuthatches, which alternately twittered and beeped, it was very quiet.

I was sitting there next to camera with water bottle in hand, when I heard intermittent walking. I shouldered the pack and padded quietly up the trail where I paused behind two large oaks. When I heard the sound again, I slowly peeked around the trunk. About 30 yards away was a small bear, probably the two-year old I've referred to here as Scruffy.

She stood motionless looking in my direction as I slowly reached for the pipe and toy hammer in my back pocket.

I tapped 5 times and nothing happened.

Again: tap tap tap tap tap. Her senses were completely focussed.

Hmmm, I wondered. Am I between mother and cub? Or is Scruffy going to romp up for a friendly look-see? . . . and then it was time to tap again.

Immediately the bear bolted down the hill. Man-the-tool-user smiled with self satisfaction.

I have a sneaky feeling that Scruffy knew exactly where the carrion was, and that reminded me of my own deficient nose. Hers had led her unerringly to the dead meat.

I could only sypathesize with Larry McMurtry's fictional Indian, Magic Shoes the Kickapoo. How he lusted for the Eagle's Eye -- as he called the white man's telescope.

I envied the bear's nose. Maybe it's time to get a dog.


Arthur said...

Hi there: I'm a wildlife photographer in Alberta, Canada, For the last decade I've been using camera traps to shoot critters like cougars, wolverines and the like. I've had lots of success with cougars and I've found that setting up on a kill is the surest way of getting publishable images of big cats. The trick is to track the cat until it makes a kill. The thing is that you need snow to do this consistently. Good luck,
Arthur Veitch

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thanks for that comment. Our problem here is too little snow, but I envy you the snow tracking possibilities up there. Wow, wolverines! I doubt there are any left here in California, but you are fortunate indeed to have photographed this creature.