I saw my first wild Thai elephant. According to a recent BBC program there are only 3,000 of this subspecies of the Asia elephant left. These are scattered throughout the national park system and because of surrounding development, can’t move about too much. Inbreeding will lead to genetic problems which the National Elephant Institute believes will combine with other factors, such as poaching and loss of habitat, to make the Thai elephant extinct in about 50 years. Many tourists come to go “elephant trekking.” This is a controversial activity. Some say the practice is of course abusive to the animals and exploitative and will further lead to the decline in population. Others argue that these are retired work elephants who are offered a better life, that in fact they are preserved this way, and the public can be educated more about them. Being around one is a pretty incredible experience, but it doesn’t take a lot of observation to see these creatures need room to move and their keepers are about as informed about animal ethics and conservation as Michael Vick and the Bush Administration. Some of the so-called elephant camps actually care for the beasts, do not promote human interaction, and provide great education programs for visitors.
One of the national parks that still has wild elephants roaming around is Khao Yai N.P. This mountainous preserve is just about 2 hours from Bangkok and the altitude is a welcome reprieve from the heat. The park offers very cheap tent camping, and some so-so accommodations (very basic, hot water, no fan (no need at night), and a couple beds in each room. We stayed overnight and were a little unsettled by some bad smells from the septic system. We were not properly prepared and so at night it was a might bit cold despite the park’s provided blankets. The decision to stay was spur of the moment and a last-minute cancellation made it possible.
At night the park hosts $2 ride-in-the-back pickup tours around some back roads to shine some animals. Most travelers report seeing nothing but deer. We saw what looked like a fox (possibly a dhole, a wild dog) and a couple of large porcupines, plus loads of deer. The numerous monkeys (macaques) that lounge along the road apparently don’t dig the nightlife. But if you have nothing better to do for an hour, why not?
Birders can find a lot of species in Khao Yai, some quite colorful, but perhaps the coolest are the hornbills. Preamtip and I parked our car at the trail to an observation tower 1 km from the main road. We set out two hours before sunset. At the end we reached a two story tower with a blind at the top overlooking open fields, a small lake, and a distant salt lick. Just as we came up to the structure I saw the elephant. Across the lake she entered very cautiously into the clearing of the red salt lick. From above us someone started screaming Elephant! Elephant! I had my camera out and was just about to take the shot, and sure enough, about a couple seconds later the sound reached the nervous pachyderm and it fled back into the forest. Ugh. We waited up in the tower, now alone as the others left, and about 20 minutes later she came back again, lingered a bit, got spooked and ran off. But not before I could at least get a few shots off.
As the sun slipped behind the mountains we followed the trail back to the car. Just before we arrived there we came upon at least a couple dozen oriental pied hornbills. Their huge beaks seem impossible to balance and they hop along branches almost like a muppet. I had a tripod set up and saw them flying to the ground beyond the bend in the trail and behind the tall grass. It was awkward to move the camera but I did as best I could not to draw too much attention. Despite some intervening grass and the low light, I managed to take the pic above of them fluttering around in the dust of the trail before they all flew off. It was a pretty amazing thing to watch and with an elephant sighting to boot, we counted this as a successful day at Khao Yai. We’ll be back; we have yet to see the gibbons!