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Bruce on the Loose in the USA…!

Sunday, December 1, 2013 posted by Bruce 11:04 AM


In August, I decided to do a road trip in the USA. I arrived in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas on October 18 and spent a few days with my family in Grand Prairie (between D-FW) before heading out. Got a Nissan ‘Altima’ from Hertz with unlimited mileage and got some 35 miles to the gallon. The car was very comfortable and handled well. Also, bought a Garmin Nuvi 2597 GPS and boy, did that ever come in handy. I could have bought two GPSs if I had rented one from Hertz at $12.99 plus tax a day….ouch…! Over the entire trip, it (she) took me to everyone’s front door; simply amazing.

On October 21st, I left Grand Prairie, Texas to Oklahoma (one night), then up to Nebraska (three nights), Wisconsin (one night) Minnesota (one night), Michigan (three nights), Pennsylvania (one night) and New York (for a 5 day rest). It was back on the road again down to New Jersey and back up to Pennsylvania (one night). Then it was down to Tennessee (two nights), Georgia (two nights), Florida (two nights), Alabama (one night) Louisiana (five nights) and back to Dallas. The odometer at the end of the trip was 6,240 miles. The main objective for this mega-trip was to visit my friends on forum in the the Mid-West and East.

Unfortunately, I missed Fireman Jim in Dechard, TN (he was at work) and Ron Davis in Jacksonville, FL (out hunting in Georgia)…but I did talk with both of them on the phone at length…!

I also did a wildlife presentation for the Biology Club at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This group are serious students of wildlife conservation…!

Another objective was to meet-up with Beak, an old friend I knew more than 45 years ago in Thailand…..We visited the Okefenokee Swamp together in southern Georgia with the main objective of photographing the American alligator. It was fun and I got my gator…also met a lovely Cajun girl who was our naturalist/guide/boat operator; she was sweet and knew her stuff about the swamp…!

List of Camera Trap guys that I met on this trip:

1) ghoot – Gary Kohout at Snapshotsniper – Duncan, OK

2) TRLcam – Jeff Dale – Walton, NE

3) jjkscf – Joe Kahl – St Croix Falls, WI

4) willy – Sean Hall – Cloquet, MN

5) wolvenkinde – Lon Ludach – Ironwood, MI

6) IroquoisArcher – Jon LeVan – Erie, PA

8) johnnydeerhunter – John Lockburner – Boonton, NJ

9) Buckhunter1 – Bruce Kisner- Wyalusing, PA

Other people I visited along the way as follows:

10) Wayne (Beak) Sivaslian from Schenectady, NY (My dear friend and buddy for more that 45 years).

11) Dr Robert Orr in Knoxville, TN (retired professor at the University).

12) Brad Preston and Chris Lytle, in New Orleans, LA (business associates).

13) Bryan Marlborough in Baton Rouge LA (my webmaster).

And finally, stopped by my 5 acres of timberland outside of De Ridder, LA…as I was leaving my property, a bobcat bounded across the front of a pickup coming towards me. I will camera trap this thicket one day knowing that many animals pass through…!

Politics in Thailand have just had another negative downturn and I might have to set-up some sort of a fall-back in the US. I’m thinking I could homestead my land if Thailand went into serious civil unrest….I’m just prepping for what might come…!!

I enjoyed my trip in the States and look forward to another one in the future. I would like to thank all of you who extended your kind hospitality and friendship. and look forward to doing it again…!

6,240 miles

The odometer back in Texas. 6,240 miles total..!

Bruces trip2

The route and guys I met on the trip. I will post (Part Two) more photos ASAP.

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Thailand’s Vanishing Giants

Wednesday, July 31, 2013 posted by Bruce 1:10 PM

A family unit in Khao Yai National Park.

Increasingly dangerous environment for wild elephants: An indicator species of a pristine forest

Of all the mammals in Thailand, the wild elephant is probably the most important indicator species of a disappearing wilderness. A century ago, there were more than a hundred thousand elephants found in the country when 75 percent of the Kingdom was still covered by forest. Just north and east of Bangkok, these huge mammals thrived in the marshlands and forests near the city.

But as time passed and humanity expanded creating cities and towns, roads and highways, railways, agriculture farmlands, golf courses and resorts, the home of the wild elephant began to disappear leaving many forests fragmentized and degraded. Populations of wild elephants went into serious decline. Humans are directly responsible for this loss with encroachment and poaching at the forefront. Forests and wildlife continue to disappear as we move into the 21st Century.

When Khao Yai, the first national park in Thailand was established in 1962, the Royal Forest Department (RFD) was in charge of protecting the forest. Prior to that, they controlled logging concessions and huge swathes of forest were felled in the timber business. Finally, the government stopped all logging in 1989. However, illegal tree felling is still going on to this day but on a smaller scale.

Tusker camera trapped in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, eastern Thailand.

Then in 1992, the Department of National Parks (DNP) was established to look after the national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, non-hunting areas and marine national parks. There are now over two hundred protected areas nation-wide.

Since then, it has taken many, many years for the department to establish some form of protection and enforcement. Patrolling of the forests has been minimal due to many factors. Unfortunately, things have been difficult for them to look after these biospheres because of low budgets and not enough personnel. Laws are seriously outdated especially when it comes to elephants.

Elephants in the Huai Kha Khaeng river blowing water.

The history of man and elephants in Asia has been intertwined for several thousand years. These majestic creatures taken from the wild have been part of human culture and beliefs. Elephants played a major role in the wars with Burma of the past. Until recently, the elephant was not only used for logging but for transport and baggage. More recently, they are used to attract tourists at camps and in cities where people use them for begging. The domestic elephant has been abused, and very badly in some cases.

Begging elephant in Chiang Mai – Abstract.

Probably the most appalling fate for a domesticated elephant is to become a streetwalker. These magnificent creatures are forced to walk hot, dusty and polluted streets of Thai cities ‘begging’ for food and money. Stories about elephants hit by cars and falling into drainage ditches, plus other accidents have been documented.

Ten years ago, it was guesstimated that 2,000 wild and 3,000 domestic elephants were thriving in the country. Due to an increased DNP and NGO interaction in the parks and sanctuaries, wild elephants have made a bit of a comeback in some protected areas. There are now (still guesstimated) to be about 3,000 wild elephants and more than 4,000 domesticated animals. Population density surveys have been carried out in some parks but exact numbers of the wild population are still uncertain.

Elephants on a truck bound for Chiang Mai.

The biggest threat to wild elephants is still the same. Poaching males for their ivory and females for their babies. Recent kills in Kaeng Krachan National Park in the Southwest have gone on for quite sometime due to poor protection and enforcement, and numbers of elephants have dropped.

Elephants in the savanna of Kui Buri National Park.

It is quite possible that they have migrated to Kui Buri National Park further south along a thin corridor along the Burmese border. Numbers in Kui Buri have increased 100 percent in the last five to ten years, and evidence of elephants in Prak Tha Kor Reserve Forest between the two parks has been documented. This area needs to be established as a protected area.

Elephant herd in Kui Buri National Park.

The following is a typical scenario of baby elephant snatching. Gunshots reverberate explosively through the forest, panicking and scattering a herd of wild elephants. The huge beasts instinctively flee as fast as they can through heavy foliage away from the cacophony. In minutes, the forest returns to normal. But the sad fact is that humans have just disrupted the herd permanently.

A large herd in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary.

A baby elephant mills aimlessly around its mother lying dead on the ground. The confused calf has no sense of danger as poachers move in to capture it to be sold on the illegal black market. The calf will likely be forced to wander city streets or work in tourist camps.

A small herd including a calf in the Huai Kha Khaeng river.

Such atrocities are still practiced by unscrupulous people intent on killing the mother solely to capture the baby. Many other animals are also hunted down in much the same way. Middleman, the ‘big-fish’ and end-use buyers perpetuate this market and seem to evade the law. When will this horror story ever stop?

A tusker and tourists in Khao Yai.

In another real-life scenario, a young tusker is killed on the road that transects the northern part of the elephant’s range in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Thailand. It is home to about 170 wild elephants. The road had been widened and resurfaced to enable faster speed.

Tuskless bull in Huai Kha Khaeng.

During late-evening one day in May 2002, a man and woman in a pickup truck barreling through the sanctuary at high speed did not see the elephants on the road until it was too late. The truck crashed head-on into a 5-year-old tusker. The truck’s driver was killed on impact but the woman survived. The young elephant died shortly after.

Tusker on the road in Khao Yai NP.

This young tusker was not the first and definitely will not be the last elephant to be killed by reckless driving on this road. Eventually, the local government ordered the road closed through Khao Ang Rue Nai from 9pm to 5am. The elephants come out of the forest usually only at night and can now roam safely in their own habitat. Accidents and road-kill have dropped drastically. Definitely a role model for other protected areas with elephant-human conflicts.

Another tusker on the road in Khao Yai N.P.

Such accidents are a terrible blow to the conservation of Thai elephants, because tuskers are particularly vulnerable, being subject to hunting for their ivory. Asian ivory is finer-grained than African ivory and prized for carving into trinkets and Japanese hanko (signature seals).

Herd in Kui Buri N.P.

Much of their habitat has been taken over, mainly by pineapple, sugarcane and cassava. Villages spring up in old elephant habitat, and the trespassers expect the giants to simply fade away into the forest. But elephants can develop a taste for crops grown by farmers, and they often take what they want. Countless conflicts have arisen between villagers and the real owners of the land, whose ancestors have lived there for many thousands of years.

Herd in the Huai Kha Khaeng river.

Elephants have been maimed and killed by poisoning waterholes, pungee stakes, gunshots, and electrocution. They have been chased out of rice paddies, mango orchards and farmlands. People use fireworks, bright lights and guns to scare them away temporarily, but the elephants are intelligent enough to lose their fear of such ruses.

Elephant on the highway north of Bangkok.

These giants grow bolder and go on the rampage, sometimes killing people, tearing up villages and damaging RFD and DNP facilities. Some conservation organizations have erected new signs warning of the danger of elephants in the area.

Elephant and handler begging near ‘700 Years’ Stadium in Chiang Mai.

A trip at night around some cities, one can still be greeted by a huge gray beast with a red light attached to its tail. Continuous calls for change go unnoticed by mahouts and the owners of these elephants who sneak them into tourist sites. Legislation concerning domesticated elephants remains old and out-dated, and law enforcement has also been very poor. On the positive side of things, the authorities have finally moved them out of Bangkok, but they still roam on the outskirts in some places.

Elephant in a mineral deposit in Kaeng Krachan N.P.

It is hoped that the RFD, DNP and other government organizations will draw attention to the dire situation of Thai elephants, both wild and domestic. These noble beasts have featured prominently in almost every important historical event in the Kingdom. They are a national symbol of pride and joy. The Thai elephants’ future survival lies in the hands of the government who are responsible for these amazing giants….!

Special Note:

I would like to thank Andy Merk, German wildlife photographer for the lead photograph. He has been hanging around Khao Yai for the last 20 some years and has a huge collection of elephant photos from the park. He is doing a survey of trying to get a estimate of the population by identifying individual elephants by their ears, specially the male tuskers and mature females.

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A ‘Black Leopard’ again..!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013 posted by Bruce 7:07 PM

An extraordinary sighting in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary

A black leopard resting at the hot spring.

Sometimes things happen in succession that boggles the mind. On May 6th I posted a tale about a ‘black leopard’ plus other Asian wild animals caught by my Sony S600 cam on a trail into a hot spring in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, western Thailand where I’m currently running a camera trap program.

Entering the hot spring.

I also mentioned in the story that I photographed a ‘black leopard’ from a tree blind some 15 years ago just up the trail a bit. The ‘leopard spots’ image is one of my all-time favorite wildlife photographs ever.

Leaving the hot spring.

On May 7th, I was back at the hot springs to set camera traps, and to sit at the base of the old tree for some through-the-lens work. Who knows what might show-up.

I was with my friend Sarawut Sawkhamkhet, a Thai wildlife photographer. We arrived and set-up a temporary blind about 3pm. The weather was warm and balmy with nice clear-blue skies.

A full-frame shot.

At 5:45pm, the unthinkable happened! A ‘black leopard’ appeared out of the forest near the springs and walked over for a drink, and then disappeared for a short while. Then the magnificent creature came back and flopped down on all fours twitching its tail looking straight at us staying for about 10 minutes before going back in the forest where it had come from.

Kabook Kabieng hot springs deep in the interior.

I would venture to say, this is the same cat I camera trapped back in February and it could also be an offspring of my original leopard back in 1998. Who knows? I was elated to say the least.

To see and photograph a black leopard once again at this same location after all these years is something out of the extraordinary. When time permitted, I set one of my trusty Sony S600 cams at the hot spring and will go back in a couple of weeks to see what has visited the waterhole.

Then I intend to set a DSLR Nikon or Canon camera trap with several flashes for improved images. This place is truly worth the effort, time and difficulty to get here. I look forward to more incredible images from this wildlife haven.

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“The present government should take a positive interest in preserving what remains of the Kingdom’s natural treasures before it’s too late”

“Before World War II, 75% of the nation was still covered in pristine forests”…!

“What remains is still worth saving”…!


Asiatic jackal by the side of the road in Huai Kha Khaeng

Thailand’s wildlife and forests has evolved over millions of years into some of the most beautiful and interesting in the world. Photographing these ecosystems and rare animals such as the Siamese crocodile, tiger, leopard, gaur, banteng, wild water buffalo, elephant and tapir, plus a multitude of other mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, spiders and insects in their natural habitats is a daunting task to say the least. A multitude of different aspects contribute to the difficult and sometimes dangerous pastime of wildlife photography.

Gibbon calling during the morning in Huai Kha Khaeng

Probably the most prominent is the ever-increasing human population and social ills like poaching, gathering and encroachment in the protected areas. This alone has taken its toll and the country’s wild flora and fauna, from under the sea to the highest mountains, are in serious jeopardy with a slim chance of recovery to the magnificent ecosystems of the past. However, not all is lost and the present generation should take a positive interest in preserving what remains of the Kingdom’s natural treasures before it is too late.

Nature photography is one of the best ways to record and promote wildlife conservation awareness. Wildlife photographs create a mental image that can improve one’s love and understanding of the wonderful world of nature. Many people in the cities have a misconception that Thailand’s wildlife and forests has diminished to the point of no return, or has disappeared into the depths of extinction. This is unfortunate and needs constant education and media projection to uplift the people’s knowledge that many species do in fact, still survive.

Sambar with a blue magpie feeding on ticks in Huai Kha Khaeng

Low densities at many sites depleted over the years by poaching and encroachment before any form of protection was implemented is probably one of the main reasons. Human pressure and the Asian traditional medicine trade are directly responsible for the disappearing wild species. The black market trade in wildlife seems to be on the increase and the authorities are continually working to eradicate this destructive illegal business.

Before World War Two, 75 percent of the nation was still covered in pristine forests. Barely 30 percent survives today and most of these are seriously degraded. Wildlife has become scarce and extremely elusive and hence, difficult to photograph. With no subjects, it can be a tough assignment to capture wild creatures that were once quite common. Knowing where to go with the right equipment is just part of the process. Many other aspects are also important and I will try to pass on some of my experiences to those who desire to try their hand at nature/wildlife photography.

Sambar doe on the run in Huai Kha Khaeng

A few protected areas still remain fairly intact with good densities of flora and fauna. Prey species are abundant and carnivores thrive. These havens for wildlife include time honored Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuaries, Thailand’s top nature reserve and a World Heritage Site. Due to its size (more than 6,000 square kilometers) and biodiversity, this site is absolutely the best tiger habitat left in the Kingdom. It must be saved at all costs for present and future generations.

Kaeng Krachan and Kui Buri national parks further south along the western border with Burma still have very good ecosystems with an abundance of flora and fauna. Other protected areas include: Khao Yai, Thap Lan, Pang Sida national parks in the northeast; Khao Ang Rue Nai and Khao Soi Dow wildlife sanctuaries in the east; Sai Yok, Erawan, Sri Nakarin national parks and Salak Phra Wildlife Sanctuary in the west; Khao Sok National Park, and Khlong Saeng and Khlong Nakha wildlife sanctuaries in the south; and finally, Tarutao National Park and Hala Bala and Budo wildlife sanctuaries in the deep south all have wildlife and make good photographic destinations. However, the security is not too good at the moment and maybe it would be better to wait until things improve for these southern nature reserves.

Gaur herd at a mineral deposit in Huai Kha Khaeng

Wildlife photography is a difficult hobby or profession to become proficient. Years of trial and error, lost shots, bad exposure, out of focus, no wildlife subjects, equipment failure, expense and many other intricate problems make things difficult for the wildlife photographer. Travel plans and permission to enter some of the sensitive protected areas is a hurdle that must be crossed before any photographs can be taken. But where there is a will, there is a way and the difficult can be overcome.

Cameras and lenses in the professional range are expensive but amateur equipment can also provide satisfactory results. Modern technology like the Digital Single Lens Reflex (D-SLR) is now the ultimate and both Nikon and Canon remain the most popular brands for variety (beginner to professional both in lenses and cameras). Other makes like Sony, Pentax, Olympus and Sigma also offer very good equipment. Aftermarket lenses from Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina cost less than the top brands but produce satisfactory to very good photographs.

Spangled drongo in Doi Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary

Another form of wildlife photography is the use of infrared camera traps that allows one to capture illusive and rare animals, plus new digital cameras show results in real time. Readymade camera traps are available and a quick search on the Internet will show dozens of makes and models.


Female tiger camera trapped in Huai Kha Khaeng

The use of a photo-blind is very important as is self-control and patience, which comes with practice and a desire to get a photograph of nature’s creatures. Long stints in the blind and hot weather are something that comes with practice. Wildlife encounters are usually brief and one must always be ready with camera in hand ready to shoot on a moments’ notice.

Black orb spider along a trail in Huai Kha Khaeng

No two days are alike in the natural world and opportunities must be taken then and there if one is to be a successful wildlife photographer. Finally, share your photographs with as many people as possible in order to send a message to all that nature is truly worth saving for the future.


Published in the Bangkok Post on February 27, 2013 in the Life – Nature section…!


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Happy New Year 2013

Monday, December 31, 2012 posted by Bruce 7:05 PM

Would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and good luck for 2013.



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Spiders: The Ultimate Predator

Tuesday, November 20, 2012 posted by Bruce 11:36 PM

Thailand’s 8-legged arthropods

Lawn wolf spider in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary

It is said arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders is common among people around the world who have an inherent trepidation of these creepy crawlies. Just the thought of coming in contact with one is something most of us dread.

But there are few souls out there who love them and even keep spiders as pets. However, the vast majority of us tend to just stay out of their way. Some spiders can give a nasty bite although fatalities are rare.

Like all living things, spiders have to face life’s difficulties such as finding food and mates, producing offspring, and fending off danger. However, spiders are the ultimate predator, and have been on the planet for a very long time.

Ornamental spider female and smaller male in Lampang province

The ancestry and anatomy of spiders are different from those of insects. Spiders have eight legs not six, and their bodies are divided into two parts rather than three. Many people mistake spiders for bugs.

The family tree of spiders is as follows: Jumping spiders, the largest and most highly evolved family, with hunting spiders and web spinners making up the main group. Tarantulas and trap-door spiders and others in this group plus ‘six-eyed’ spiders make up modern-day spiders.

Spiders are an ancient group that first appeared during the Devonian period, almost 400 million years ago. By the Carboniferous period (300 mya) when insects were still relatively little developed, many highly evolved spiders already existed. These arthropods appeared about 100 million years before the first back-boned animals.


Green linx spider in Lampoon province

Scientists have identified some 43, 244 species around the world. More than 230 species have been recorded here in Thailand with many more to follow. There are just a few people researching spiders and hence, knowledge is bit limited.

Dr Patchanee Vichuitbhun and Prasit Wongprom working out of Kasetsart University in Bangkok are the country’s leading arachnologists. Some five other graduate students are also working on spiders.

Together with their eight-legged relatives, the scorpions, harestmen, mites and ticks, spiders form the class Arachinda. Spiders alone represent the order Araneae and are classified in a family tree that numbers three suborders and 111 families.

Bird-eating spider in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary

Spiders are found virtually everywhere: in the house, in the garden, in forests, in caves, and in most other terrestrial habitats throughout the world. A few species live under water and some even in the marine tidal zone. The only place with no spiders is Antarctica.

While the greatest diversity of species occurs in tropical rainforest, spiders are also very well represented in temperate woodland and grassland. Spiders thrive wherever there is rich vegetation and plenty of insects or other arthropods.

Thailand has plenty of big scary-looking spiders but only a few species will actually bite a human being. Luckily, deaths from spider bites are very rare-less than 3 per year across the whole world and these are generally a result of allergic reactions.


Decoy spider in Chiang Mai province

Although virtually all spiders possess venom, only a small number of species, probably fewer than a hundred in the world, have a sufficiently potent and effective bite to be of medical importance. Spiders use venom to quickly immobilize or kill their prey. It is also used in defense against animals, including man, but this is only a secondary purpose.

Thailand is home to very few spiders that are dangerous to people. However, the brown widow is the most venomous. Tarantulas and golden orb weavers attract notoriety more for their size than their bites. Monitor all spider bites carefully to avoid the development of secondary infections.

The spiders of medical importance in Asia include widow and cupboard spiders (also called brown house spiders or false widows (family Theridiidae) which venom contains neurotoxins. Though not especially venomous, a number of Asian tarantulas or bird-eating spiders can also be regarded as potentially dangerous.


Orb-web spider in Ankor Wat, Cambodia

In many countries around the world, the practice of keeping spiders as pets seems a bit on the extreme to most of us, especially if it is highly poisonous. A few years ago, a brown widow escaped from someone and it made front-page news in some newspapers here in Thailand.

A trip down to Chattuchak Market at the pet section can provide one with a spider. There are rows and rows of shops catering to anyone who wants one. Most species on display are tarantulas from South America but there are some Asian ones too.

The pet trade is alive and well here in a business as usual atmosphere. It seems most of these shops act with impunity and no matter how many raids the Department of National Parks makes, they just pop back up and carry on. It is really disheartening to see how these mafia-type groups continue to operate.

Orb-web spider in Chiang Mai province

 Most people are not aware the dangers of keeping a tarantula that will flick off barbed hairs when alarmed causing imbedded hairs in the eyes and hands of the pet owner. Eye surgeons might be able to remove some hairs from an eye but many are likely to remain causing a serious medical ailment.

Something else the public needs to worry about is the brown widow, an invasive species from North America related to the very famous and notorious black widow. The brown species is now confirmed in 20 provinces in Thailand, and probably came over on ships. The bite from one of these is extremely painful but there have been no fatalities here yet. There is no anti-venom for this species.

The most remarkable thing about spiders is the silk they make. We humans have not produced anything as strong, light and elastic. Spider silk is twice as strong as other silk producing insects like the silkworm moth.


Argiope sp. spider in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

Besides the construction of webs, spiders have many other uses for their silk such as making nests, attach trapdoors, furnish burrows, and construct egg cocoons. Other uses are to wrap up and mummify their prey. It truly is some amazing stuff.

The coupling of two predatory and often shortsighted creatures can be a hazardous affair, particularly for the smaller male. In spiders, the battle of sexes is very intense and in some species, the male ends up being eaten after mating with the female. The size difference between the male and female can be seen in the photograph of the ornamental spider.

Spiders are extremely important in the balance of nature and play a big role in the elimination of vast numbers of pest insects. These unique creatures are allies of farmers and growers. Yet even if they were not useful, spiders would still deserve our whole-hearted respect as one of the most diverse and fascinating groups in the natural world.


Argiope sp. spider in Chiang Mai

Some people may disagree but if you bump into a spider, please let it go. These ancient creatures need our love and protection.

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Snakes Alive: Thailand’s limbless reptiles

Friday, October 26, 2012 posted by Bruce 8:33 PM

Feared by most but revered by some: More than 217 species in the Kingdom

King cobra hunting by the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park.

A magnificent serpent some five meters in length slides along the forest floor looking for another reptile to eat. Its movement is swift but steady. Senses are on high alert as a rat snake moves ahead. The big snake rears up and strikes pumping venom into the smaller one. The two wrestle for a short while but soon it is all over as the ‘King’ swallows the lifeless victim headfirst.

Such is the life of the king cobra Ophiophagus hannah, the largest venomous snake in the world. Their main objective in life is to kill other snakes, eat them, and to propagate keeping the species intact. These cobras live primarily in pristine forest far from human interference. They are rarely seen being highly elusive but chance encounters do happen.

The same cobra just before it made a U-turn into the forest.

Over the years, I have bumped into these fearsome snakes several times. My first encounter was while working in Kaeng Krachan National Park along the Phetchaburi River in the Southwest. One day while trekking up-river, my team and I were about to turn back when a large dark snake appeared some 10 meters away.

I quickly brought my camera up and shot a series of images as the creature slid by. After using the flash, it did a U-turn and disappeared into the forest. The team had already retreated leaving me to my own devices. It certainly was a heart-stopper but worth every second of the encounter collecting these photographs.

Reticulated python on the road in Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary

Years later while working around the Chiew Larn reservoir in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary situated in Surat Thani province down South, I was silently motoring along in my battery powered boat-blind when a king cobra swam in front of the craft.

Immediately recognizing it, I decided to give chase but the long big snake was faster and got to the opposite shoreline first. I then steered the boat diagonally to catch up with it moving along the bank. Its head appeared over a log and it rose up with hood expanded about eight meters away scaring the life out of me.

Siamese cat-snake in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

It surely looked mighty big through the lens and I quickly reversed the motor to escape. Being in a boat and constantly moving, all my shots were slightly out of focus. The encounter was brief and disappointing, but I was relived when the highly poisonous reptile slipped away into the dense foliage.

The next day with my team in a bigger boat, another king cobra crossed in front of us. This snake was busy hunting and gave us no heed. We hung back as I fired off a whole bunch of photos through my camera and 500mm long lens. Then the young snake climbed up a tree and eventually disappeared. This particular king cobra had ticks attached to its head. These reptiles are excellent swimmers but also climb very well while hunting, and contrary to popular belief they only stay on the ground.

King cobra hunting in Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary

Thailand has approximately 217 snake species recorded so far (as of early 2012). There are eleven families and many sub-families and genus. A third are highly poisonous, another third mildly venomous and the remaining third are non-poisonous. It is safe to say that snakes – arboreal, aquatic or fossorial (borrowing) can be encountered in every possible habitat, from paddy fields all the way up to montane forest plus urban sprawl, mangroves and the sea.

The same cobra climbing. Note the big tick on its neck.

At the last species count, there are four cobras, 16 vipers, three pythons, three kraits, nine cat snakes, four whip snakes, four rat snakes, 20 keelbacks, 29 sea snakes, 11 blind snakes, 14 water snakes and 13 wolf snakes. There is also a sunbeam snake, a pipe snake, a file snake and four slug snakes. These range from a few centimeters to giants that can exceed 10 meters like a mature reticulated python.

Biologist will argue over snake classification for a long time to come as new species are discovered all the time. Doing research on snakes has been carried out at many universities and institutes in the Kingdom.

Green-bellied pit viper in Kaeng Krachan

Probably some of the best research was undertaken by the late Dr Jarujin Naghitabhata (1950-2008) who was instrumental in establishing the National Science Museum and the Museum of Natural History in Khlong Luang north of Bangkok.

He was a walking dictionary, not only on snakes but all the other reptiles and amphibians plus birds, insects, terrestrial mammals and bats. Jarujin published many books, journals and papers on all the above. He was a kind man and his passing is a great loss for the country.

Yellow bellied pit viper and carpenter ant in Kaeng Krachan

I certainly will miss our friendship as he helped me identify many species for my book projects. However, his work continues today with all his students and protégés at the museum. It is definitely worth the trip out there especially for the kids to see all the amazing things that can be found in the natural world.

It is a fact that most people fear and dislike snakes, and that perpetuates widespread misunderstanding about these cold-blooded creatures. Once the fear of snakes can be overcome, their beauty and grace will become apparent and appreciated.

A mock viper in Doi Inthanon National Park

Snakes rarely attack unless seriously provoked. Tongue flickering of many reptiles is not aggression but simply transmitting signals to their organs of smell. Cobras spread their hood demonstrating an aggressive posture when threatened. Vipers coil-up ready to strike hanging motionless from a tree branch or on the ground. Pythons kill by restricting their prey before devouring headfirst.

Unfortunately, many snakes are caught and eaten. Others are killed outright and left to rot. Snakes are very important creatures for pest control and should be treated with respect. They keep rats and mice in check. Fatal bites do occur but with modern snake antivenins ready availability in hospitals, fatalities are few and far between.

A pit viper on the forest floor in Kaeng Krachan

I know a man who jumped off a boat on Phi Phi Island in the Andaman Sea with just flip-flops and got bitten by a pit viper. After stepping on the little snake, it struck three times injecting its venom into his foot. His was lucky as the Thai Navy flew him by helicopter to a hospital in Phuket and then on to Bangkok where doctors managed to save his foot and life. I also know of a hunter in the Eastern forests who was attacked by a king cobra – he was found three days later black from the torso up – obviously he did not survive.

Occasionally, a large mature python will take a human, mostly is areas adjoining the forest where these monsters live. I know of a tree in the Western Forest Complex that was famous for taking out sitting poachers until the locals finally got wise and stopped. The men just disappeared leaving their guns and stuff on the platform.

A cave-dwelling snake in Sai Yok National Park

Over the years, snakes were captured and exported for the pet trade, and many species went into decline. Fortunately, the Thai government stopped exporting snakes and possibly some species have made a slight comeback. However, illegal operators still manage to break the law shipping reptiles to other Asian countries for local consumption.

All the pythons, the king cobra and a few rat snakes are now protected by law, but most are not including the other cobras and vipers. The future of snakes depend on large-scale public awareness programs for the need to educate the public, spare any found and make sure that illegal wildlife traders are apprehended and put away. This of course will be a tough nut to crack as these people seem to carry-on with impunity, and the markets are ever expanding.

A whip snake in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary

If certain steps are taken by the authorities to counter habitat loss and combat wildlife traders, only then can we say the limbless reptile will continue to survive in good numbers. These amazing creatures certainly need our help.

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IN THE LINE of DUTY: The plight of the forest patrol ranger

Thursday, September 27, 2012 posted by Bruce 9:32 AM

Thailand’s workforce of the National Parks and Royal Forest departments


Forest rangers going on patrol in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary

Nit packed his bag and said goodbye to his wife and two daughters. It would be the last time he saw his family. He jumped on his new motorcycle and left the village heading to the national park headquarters, some 30 kilometers away. On the way, he made a quick stop at the market to buy some rice and foodstuffs for a weeks’ trip into the forest. His salary was about 150 U.S. dollars a month, and he wondered how the family was going to make ends meet.

Arriving at the headquarters, Nit greeted the rest of the forest rangers scheduled to go on patrol. He checked in and pulled a shotgun from the armory. Jumping in the back of a pick-up, the team headed out for a long ride into the forest. As he bounced around the back of the truck, his thoughts wandered back home to his wife and daughters. After awhile, they arrived at the drop-off point. From there, it was a four-hour walk along a leech-infested trail to the first camp. The long day was near its end, and everyone pitched in with camp chores.

Rangers praying to the ‘Spirits of the Forest’ before leaving on patrol

Setting up camp was quick and easy. A simple lightweight hammock and a flysheet were set between two trees. Dinner was cooked and everyone slept well that night. Early the next morning after breakfast, the team hiked in further. Along the way, fresh human footprints were detected. The team went into danger mode. Poachers were nearby, but it was not certain how many were in the group. As the team got closer, Nit spotted the poacher’s camp. Just then, shots were fired from the trees and a bullet hit Nit in the chest. He died instantly.

In another real-life near tragedy, a ranger working in a wildlife sanctuary in the East trips a trap gun meant for deer. He is hit by shrapnel in the stomach and rushed to the nearest hospital. Luckily, he survived. These scenarios have happened in the past and will surely happen in the future – a sad reality.

Dangerous poachers in a protected area photographed by the author

Half of the ranger force is temporarily hired, low paid, and have very few benefits like medical and life insurance. Most often they have to pay for their own uniforms, boots, sleeping gear and equipment, even their own food while on patrol. It gives them very little incentive to go out into a dangerous environment like the forest where poachers shoot to kill. Unfortunately, many senior and lower-ranking rangers have left the force due to the poor situation concerning these men.

If the protected areas are to be managed and protected for the future, grass-root needs like helping the rangers must be addressed. They need to be taken care of by the government and the public. Even though things have improved slightly, it still is not good enough.

There are many so-called conservation NGOs who care only about what data and other benefits they get from their work. Supposedly, some are helping the rangers but only a very few of them really care about these true protectors of the forest. The rangers who put their lives on the line for Thailand’s magnificent natural heritage need to be compensated.

Indochinese tiger known as ‘4-spots’ camera trapped by the Phetchaburi River in 2004. This cat was caught at many locations identified by the row of four spots on its left flank.

An example of none or very little ranger patrolling: From 2001 to 2006 and then again in 2008, I conducted presence/absence surveys in conjunction with the Department of National Parks and World Wide Fund (WWF Thailand) catching many tigers (more than 10 individuals) in Kaeng Krachan National Park along the Phetchaburi River, on the road past Phanern Thung (closed for two years in 2004-2006 due to landslides), and the road and mineral licks around kilometer 12 inside the park.

These beautiful cats were recorded on film walking the trails and hunting at all times of the day and night on almost every set. Leopards were also present. I was able to capture/recapture many individual tigers over a large area and it was determined that the protected area was intact with carnivores and prey species in abundance. After four camera traps were stolen, I decided to suspend my program.

In late-2011 and early-2012, DNP research personnel and wildlife NGO conducted a large survey in Kaeng Krachan using some 40-camera traps in many areas previously known for tigers over a four-month period. They did not catch a single tiger in the program!

Rangers setting a camera trap in Huai Khas Khaeng

It seems the Indochinese tiger and other species have already been wiped out or almost so. Some tiger tracks were discovered during the study and a few survivors might still exist. However, this is serious news which means extinction is looming for the big cat in Kaeng Krachan!

It is common knowledge there has been very little patrolling done here due to poor protective management, no planning and very little funding. The consequences are now clear after a serious influx of wildlife and plant poachers plus jungle encroachers.

Too much emphasis has been placed on excessive tourism and expanding the facilities to over capacity, and this has also been extremely detrimental to the natural ecology. Construction with heavy equipment has been carried out at several locations disturbing the animals that are now seen less and less.

One of the biggest problems is absolutely no control by the park rangers on who enters the park and from where. This is difficult to control under the present system and I have seen many large back-packing groups being taken to the end of the road at kilometer 36, left off, and their vehicles returned back down the mountain by a driver. Who knows what and where these groups have gone (usually with Karen guides accompanying them).

It is probably all ready too late for Kaeng Krachan that is a shame to allow this magnificent park to become devoid of tigers. Sounds like a repeat of Khao Yai National Park where tigers have not been seen for more than five years and it is confirmed they are now gone. Nearby Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks have some tigers, but for how long?

Without intense patrolling, unscrupulous people will slip through the cracks using simple tools of wildlife poaching: rope or wire snares and poison where a deer or pig is caught and the carcass poisoned. Tiger bones are in big demand. Guns are not carried `much anymore judging from recent camera trap photos of these poachers.

The only way to look after the forests anymore is constantly revolving patrols. Say out of one ranger station, three to four teams of five men each would be out with one resting at the station. With a constant presence in known haunts, law-breakers would find it hard to slip in. These rangers would all be permanent hire so that they would be paid every month with good benefits and longevity. They would be well trained, well armed and have incentive.

Another critical aspect is to monitor all trails frequented by illegal intruders using modern camera traps in video mode, as most people will not know they are being recorded. These cameras could catch face detection so culprits are rounded up and put away. I have caught poachers in several protected areas and they usually just walk past the video camera. A special team would monitor and keep the traps going 24-7. These men would come from elite special forces training. Funding and personnel would have to be made available so they could do their work without impunity.

It is absolutely known that once an area has zero poaching or close to zero, the animals can propagate and numbers will come back as in the case of Kui Buri National Park in Prachuap Khirikan province in the Southwest.

At the end of the day, the laws and regulations concerning these rangers must change for the better to insure that Thailand’s wildlife will survive into the future. Without well taken care of and dedicated people to look after the forests with integrity and pride, how can the biospheres that took millions of years to evolve continue to exist?

It is hoped by many in wildlife conservation that those in power will open their eyes and do something about improving the lives and conditions of the patrol ranger. As it stands, these men and women continue to face hardship deprived of basic human rights like no pay for months on end.

It will be a rough road to extinction for many species and ecosystems, and there is no turning back from this as in the demise of the Gurney’s Pitta in Southern Thailand. These striking birds, a flagship species, are now pretty much gone from the Kingdom forever, a sad fact indeed. Everyone involved needs to take heed and work together to save and protect wildlife, if not for yourselves, then for your children and future generations!



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Amazing biodiversity in jeopardy made famous by the ‘Death Railway’ in World War II

On December 8, 1941, the same day of the Pearl Harbor attack in Hawaii (Dec. 7 in the U.S.), the Japanese Army invaded Thailand with thousands of troops and settled in. Sometime in 1942, a decision was made to build a railway from Bangkok to Burma and beyond through the thick malaria and tiger infested jungles in Kanchanaburi province using allied and Asian prisoners-of-war as construction labor.

Regal crab by the Mae Nam Noi river in Sai Yok National Park

Thousands died under the harsh and sometimes brutal conditions. Remnants of this rail line remain today in Sai Yok National Park. Numerous monuments to the men who lost their lives have been erected in Kanchanaburi, and the main cemetery in town is close to the rail line and the famous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ (Khwae).

Apart from its popular waterfalls and river trips, this national park is not that well known. Situated in Kanchanaburi province, along Thailand’s western border with Myanmar, its interior is truly a magnificent wildlife paradise encompassing exactly 500 square kilometers. However, it may not remain so for long, as poaching and forest encroachment continues to be a problem for the Department of National Parks (DNP).

Kitti’s Hog-nosed bat in a limestone cave by the Mae Nam Noi

The headquarters of the protected area is at Sai Yok Yai (big Sai Yok) waterfall, about one hundred kilometers upstream from Kanchanaburi town on the Khwae Noi River. This site is visited by scores of local and foreign tourists every year that come to see the waterfall and the smaller one at Sai Yok Noi, both of which are only a short distance off Highway 323 going north. Activities on the river include swimming, rafting, boating and picnicking.

Cave-dwelling Nectar-eating bats in a limestone cave by the Mae Nam Noi

Deep inside the park, however, one of the world’s smallest mammals, Kitti’s hog-nosed bat Craseonycteris thonglongyai discovered by the late Thai zoologist Kitti Thonglongya, is found in limestone caves along the remote Mae Nam Noi and Khwae Noi rivers. Previously, it was thought to be endemic but now this creature has been found in other isolated pockets elsewhere in Kanchanaburi, and is also thought to survive in neighboring Myanmar.


Short-nosed fruit bats

This flying mammal weighs barely two grams. Aptly, it has been called the ‘bumblebee bat’ and has an average wingspan of just three inches. It uses sonar to forage for insects during short periods each night — about 30 minutes — in the evening and again for 20 minutes just before dawn. Numbers are few and is listed by IUCN as vulnerable. At one time, this remarkable little mammal was in fact one of the world’s twelve most endangered animals. Constant foraging by locals for bat dung (guano) and catching bats with mist-nets is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Sunset over Sai Yok National Park

Also found in this same area is the regal crab or queen crab Thaiputsa sirikit discovered in 1983 and named in honor of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand. This crustacean is known locally as the ‘three-colored crab’. With their white body, purple stripe down the back, and red legs, the regal crab is truly a pretty sight.

Mae Nam Choan tributary in Sai Yok

They live like most crab, in holes, which they dig along the banks of the river. They come out at night to forage for food eating mainly composted leaves. Now few in number, this is yet another species that is seriously endangered and needs complete protection.

Olive-back sunbird female by the river

Fortunately, the locals in the area have stopped eating them since they were named after the Queen. They are now protecting the few crabs that are left. This is a case of true conservation and hopefully, the species will survive into the future.

Olive-back sunbird male close by

Elephant, gaur, tiger and leopard, plus many other species, still survive in the interior of the park, but all wild animals are dwindling. Sambar, serow, muntjac, tapir and wild pig are also found and constitute the main prey species for the big cats. Asian black bear, Malayan sun bear, clouded leopard, golden cat and marble cat plus many smaller species like civet, porcupine, gibbon and monkey live here but like all the rest, they too are threatened. Birds, reptiles, insects flourish as well as plant life.

Mae Nam Noi river in Sai Yok

Like most national parks in Thailand, Sai Yok is a target for poaching and logging which seem to go hand in hand. Most of the wildlife is hunted for trophies and meat, primarily during the dry season when there is good road access. It is sometimes common to see poachers in the park, cruising along the roads in vehicles or on motorcycles. Illegal logging has been carried out along the Khwae Noi, Mae Nam Noi and Mae Nam Lo rivers. This has seriously eroded their banks.

Mae Nam Lo river in Sai Yok

Other forms of encroachment include cattle and buffalo corrals that are set up deep in the forest where fodder is easily available. The chance of ‘foot and mouth’ disease being passed on to wild ungulates is real. Fruit orchards pop up in areas along the river inhibited by wild creatures and seem to thrive. Constant illegal activities are affecting the status of the park’s wildlife and watershed integrity.

Leopard camera trapped in the interior of Sai Yok

The forests in Sai Yok are mostly tropical broad-leaved evergreen with much bamboo and mixed deciduous woodlands in the foothills. The highest peak, Khao Khewa, at 1,327 meters above sea level, is part of the Tenasserim Range that runs through the park from north to south. The area was formerly logged so the park has many thin patches where big trees were felled. However, heavy brush continues to grow back strongly in these areas.

Elephants camera trapped by the river

During the height of the rainy season, between July and October, Sai Yok’s wildlife roam and feed fairly safely due to the rough weather and almost impenetrable terrain. The rivers and streams in the park become raging torrents that make crossing them next to impossible. About the only way in is by long-tailed motorboat, with a very skilled operator.

Mae Nam Lo river deep in the interior

Many a boats and rafts has been washed away in rapids on the Mae Nam Noi and Mae Nam Lo rivers.  Occasionally, 4×4 off-road vehicles become stuck in the park after heavy rains. Some have even had to wait until the dry season to get out. Elephant just love to play football with these vehicles left behind. I know a man who left his Land Rover through the rainy season and when he returned, it had been flipped over and completely smashed.

Crab-eating macaque by the Lo River

Another very important aspect of Sai Yok is that gaur and elephant come across the border from Myanmar to feed on bamboo shoots in August and September, and then return to the safety of the other side prior to the dry season. Equally interesting, there are unofficial reports of a ‘hybrid cattle’, possibly a cross between gaur and banteng that have been seen by locals.

Young crab-eating macaque with a troop

The numbers of all animals are dwindling, however, due to increased activity in the park. Just a decade ago, green peafowl were found here but they have neither been seen nor heard from for many years. The ever-shrinking wilderness area of Sai Yok is under threat that should be addressed by the DNP if its flora and fauna are to survive intact.

Mae Nam Choan river

Sai Yok has always been special to me. I basically began my career as a wildlife photographer here after making a promise to the ‘spirits of the forest’ to begin documenting Thailand’s wildlife with a camera. Some of my first photographs are the regal crab and the Kitti’s hog-nosed bat shown in the story. I also camera trapped my first and second tiger in the interior. I recently caught a leopard by camera trap along a trail by the river seen here.

Khwae Noi River in Sai Yok

The future of Sai Yok as one of Thailand’s most beautiful and important national parks depends in great measure on the DNP and their ability to enforce the law. Reportedly, greater efforts are being made by the department to protect the park and its precious wildlife and ecosystems. Some poachers and encroachers have been arrested but such campaigns can be difficult to sustain. The long-term effects will become clear over time.

Candlebra bush flowers in the interior

It is hoped this magnificent wilderness and its wildlife will survive into the foreseeable future. In particular, the home of the world’s smallest bat needs serious attention and protection. It would be a sad day for Thailand if this prestigious mammal were to be lost to extinction.


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Wild Rivers: The Kingdom’s important waterways

Sunday, October 30, 2011 posted by Bruce 9:15 PM

Thailand’s rivers: The Khlong Saeng in the South, the Phetchaburi, Huai Kha Khaeng, Mae Klong, and Khwae Noi in the West,  and the Mae Ping in the North

Khlong Saeng River in Surat Thani, Southern Thailand

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, during his continuing reign of more than 60 years, has always understood the vital importance of protecting and saving Thailand’s forests and watersheds. The concern for natural resources, from the highest mountains down to the deepest marine environments, is a top priority of His Majesty. Royal conservation projects initiated by King Bhumibol continue to flourish in the nation, and play an important role in the preservation of nature.

Bull gaur by the Khlong Saeng River in the late afternoon

Water is the essence of life – two thirds of the earth is covered with this resource. The oceans are the main source of water, and the forests are Mother Earth’s natural filters. Watersheds begin deep in forested mountains that evolved millions of years ago. Streams channel water down to the main rivers, and eventually the sea. Along these waterways – the lifeblood of the nation – many plants, animals and humans undertake their daily lives dependant on water.

The ‘Sea of Fog’ over the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan National Park

Thailand’s formation began when a group of island continents including China rifted from Pangea, the supercontinent, sometime in the Cambrian-Ordovician period 543 to 443 million years ago. Drifting north on tectonic plates, two smaller continental blocks, the Shan-Thai (Sibumasu) and Indochina meshed together in the late Triassic period, some 220 million years ago. They both eventually crashed into the Eurasian plate to form part of Southeast Asia. Dinosaurs roamed this land, and reptiles flew in its skies and swam in its seas.

Wreathed hornbill not far from the Phetchaburi River

This natural heritage goes back long before dinosaurs evolved on the planet. Trilobite fossils more than 500 million years old have been discovered on islands in the Tarutao Marine National Park off southern Thailand’s Satun province. Other fossilized plants and animals from prehistoric times have also been unearthed throughout the country. Some of the oldest dinosaurs ever found in the world were endemic to northeast Thailand, including a sauropod and a theropod. A vast array of fossil fish, birds, freshwater sharks, turtles, crocodiles, and mammals such as the giant panda, rhinoceros and orangutan have been uncovered. This legacy of evolution is part of the Kingdom’s natural heritage.

The lower Huai Kha Khaeng in the early morning

Continental Thailand and its islands extend over an area of 513,115 square kilometers (198,115 square miles), and at one time, were almost completely enveloped in forest cover with rivers, valleys, plains and mountainous terrain. As the human population grew, these forests began to disappear.

Burmese striped squirrel feeding on flowers at the lower Huai Kha Khaeng

The central lowlands were predominantly deciduous forest, much of which has now been cleared and converted to agricultural land. Teak, pine and hill-evergreen forests covered the mountains of the north, while western Thailand was a mixture of deciduous, dry dipterocarp woodland and semi-evergreen forests. The southern peninsula was mostly wet evergreen, while the northeast and eastern parts of the country were a mixture of dry dipterocarp and lowland dry evergreen.

The Mae Klong River (Mae Nam Choan) in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

At the end of World War Two, 75 percent of the country was forest teeming with wildlife, but that quickly changed as modernization began to take its toll. Barely 30 percent of that forest cover survives today. Long before the existence of roads, rivers provided Thai people with transport and communication links. Not surprisingly, riverbanks were usually the first lowland areas to be cleared.

Common muntjac on the run near the Mae Klong River

After the war, the country was wrapped up in an industrial revolution and the need for electricity was necessary. Hence, hydroelectric power was the choice made as water and forest resources were very plentiful in 1964 when the Yan Hee Dam, now known as the Bhumibol Dam, was the first to be built by the Electric Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). It was constructed on the Mae Ping River in Tak province. Since then other dams were quickly developed to keep up with the demand for electric power.

Khwae Noi River in Sai Yok National Park

However, large areas of forest were flooded changing the habitat permanently. Many species of flora and fauna were depleted as water levels rose. Some were able to adapt but it was a long hard struggle for most. With increasing human development, pristine wild riverine ecosystems are now rare.

Tusker bull elephant in Sai Yok National Park

Some fifteen years ago, I embarked on a photographic odyssey along some of the most important rivers in western, southern and northern Thailand. The creatures and ecosystems found in these backwaters have been recorded on film and digital images. Hopefully, these photographs will contribute to the conservation of the nation’s watersheds. As time passes on, these magnificent ecosystems have been degraded. This story aims to serve as a wake-up call to the importance of saving these natural treasures for present and future generations.

Wachirathan Waterfall flowing into the Mae Ping River

For this article, six rivers were chosen: the Phetchaburi, Huai Kha Khaeng, Mae Klong and Khwae Noi in the West, Khlong Saeng in the South, and the Mae Ping in the North. Information and wildlife photographs were collected over 15 years of regular forays into these waterways. The National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP), the Royal Forest Department (RFD) and the Groundwater Resources Department (GRD) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) are responsible for all these protected areas. EGAT and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) are also involved in management of water.

White-throated kingfisher by the Mae Ping River

Phetchaburi River: It flows all year round from the Tenasserim Range through Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province, some 200 kilometers southwest of Bangkok. This waterway is 170 kilometers long and flows north and then east into the Gulf of Thailand. An agricultural dam, situated at Kaeng Krachan provides the lowland people with water. In the interior, the harmony of life between animals and plants is remarkable, as it is still fairly intact. But this forest is only pristine upriver from the reservoir to the headwaters of the Phetchaburi.

Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

The lowland areas of the river have been compromised by ethnic tribes people living in several villages within the boundaries of the national park. However, elephant, tiger, leopard, gaur, tapir, Siamese crocodile and many other interesting and rare mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and plants still survive in the interior. More than 400 bird species have been recorded in this national park. In the eyes of some naturalists, this magnificent ecosystem is truly world class.

Lightning over the Phetchaburi watershed

Khlong Saeng River: Down in southern Thailand, it flows from the Phuket Mountain Range to Thailand’s gulf at Surat Thani. Up in the highlands, many tributary streams now flow into a permanently flooded forest in the upper reaches of the Khlong Saeng. Many rainforest creatures like tapir, gaur, elephant, argus pheasant and more are still found in the thick vegetation made up of evergreen forest. Unfortunately, tiger has disappeared, but leopard, clouded leopard, golden cat and marbled cat still thrive.

Khlong Saeng flooded forest

There is a permanent lake 60 kilometers long and dammed near the Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary headquarters called Chiew Larn, or the Rajaprabha Dam. Many people live on floating rafts and fishing is allowed. However, some fisherman use devious methods like electricity or explosives plus trap-lines that are very detrimental to fish stocks. Also, there are many noisy boats and loads of tourists who visit Khao Sok National Park that shares the lake, and this has an enormous impact on the wildlife and ecosystems in the Khlong Saeng valley.

Huai Kha Khaeng during the late afternoon sunset

Huai Kha Khaeng: A watercourse about 100 kilometers long, it flows south through Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, a designated World Heritage Site. The protected area is in Uthai Thani province in the central west. In Thai, ‘huai’ means stream, and ‘kha khaeng’ is strong leg. During the wet season, this stream actually becomes a raging river, but in the dry season it peters down to just a trickle in some places. The wildlife is absolutely remarkable and it is one of the greatest wilderness areas in the world.

Huai Kha Khaeng in the interior

In Southeast Asia, it is the only place where three species of Asian wild bovid occur: gaur, banteng and wild water buffalo. Occasionally, gaur and banteng mingle at mineral deposits. Other mammals include elephant, tiger, leopard, tapir, wild dog, plus many more. About 350 species of birds have been recorded here, including the rare green peafowl. Insect and plant species number in the tens of thousands and many are yet to be discovered.

Mae Nam Choan in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

Mae Klong River: It begins its long journey along the Myanmar border from Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary. This fast and furious river flows south about 140 kilometers through steep rocky terrain through Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, also a World Heritage Site, which becomes the Choan River flowing into the Srinagarindra reservoir or upper Khwae Yai River in Kanchanaburi province. The Srinagarindra hydroelectric dam is Thailand’s largest and provides electricity to the national grid. The upper Mae Klong still runs wild today and was saved from damming by an outcry from conservationists around Thailand back in the late 1980s.

Mae Nam Lo not far from the Khwae Noi River

Khwae Noi: It is one of the Kingdom’s best-known rivers. In 1942, the Japanese Army began advancing towards Burma and built what is now known as the ‘Death Railway’ where thousands of Asian laborers and Allied soldiers died building it. The movie ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ depicted this saga that was screened worldwide. Many of the dead soldiers are buried in a memorial graveyard in Kanchanaburi town, which has a museum adjacent to the cemetery maintained by the Allied War Graves Commission.

Mae Nam Lo further upstream

Another 60 kilometers north at ‘Hell Fire Pass’ in Sai Yok above the Khwae Noi, a museum was funded by the Australian Government in honor of the troops who died there during those horrific times of war. Many wildlife and plant species can still be found along the deepest tributaries within Sai Yok, Khao Laem , Thong Pha Phum and Erawan national parks. The Khwae Noi is dammed at Thong Pha Phum district by the Vajiralongkorn Dam (formally named Khao Laem), which is hydroelectric.

Stormy weather over the Mae Ping River in Tak

Mae Ping River: It is Thailand’s second longest (after the Nan River) that flows from the northern province of Chiang Mai some 590 kilometers south to Nakhon Sawan province in the central plains. People live along most of the river except for a section within Mae Ping National Park, and Omkoi and Mae Tuen wildlife sanctuaries, plus Doi Inthanon National Park further north.

Bhumibol Dam on the Mae Ping River in Tak province

The reservoir behind Bhumibol Dam is 316 square kilometers and created a huge deep water-body due to the terrain of limestone karst the river flows through. The famous ‘Kaeng Soi’ rapids were silenced forever when the reservoir filled-up. Prior to that, many boats and people disappeared in the white water when it was flowing naturally. The lake has been fraught with illegal fishing, poaching and gathering by locals living within and outside the protected area.

Stormy weather over the Phetchaburi River in Kaeng Krachan

The national parks and wildlife sanctuaries these rivers run through need constant surveillance by the DNP. Also, MONRE should implement up-dated laws and regulations to cope with the on-going onslaught of encroachment and poaching. The importance of these rivers cannot be emphasized enough.

Fortunately for Thailand, these waterways provide the lifeblood of the nation even though it can be very destructive at times as the Kingdom is experiencing now with the worst flooding in decades. What was once a massive swamp that drained water into the sea, the Central Plains is now completely carved up and filled in which has created an immense blockage. Over development is the biggest problem with factories, housing estates, elevated highways and rural roads plus a hundred-fold population increase have contributed greatly to the calamity facing the nation at the present.

Reforestation of degraded forests should be the number one priority for the government in areas needed to bring the watersheds back from decline. As it stands now, when heavy rainfall comes naturally, water is not retained but flows full force down the mountains into the lowlands, and many villages and villagers have been washed away in the torrent. Illegal logging continues to plague the country and seems to be getting worse from recent reports that certainly will destroy the watersheds further.

Water management at the dams also needs some serious evaluation. Further, the future building of huge scale dams that destroy large swathes of natural forest are not the answer to the floods like some politicians and construction companies will have you believe. The recent hoarding and then panic release of water at the dams is a point in contention and this needs to be addressed. Cooperation and trust between government ministries and departments is still a long way from being improved and implemented.

The most important element of an intact watershed: does it have hornbills, gibbons, elephants, gaur and other animals that help with seed dispersion and regeneration of the forest? Are these animals protected from excessive poaching and habitat loss? Do they live and reproduce in safety? Can the watersheds retain and release water slowly as nature intended? These are the big questions being asked of the powers-to-be.

Protection and enforcement should be the top priority for all national parks and wildlife sanctuaries that have large rivers and watersheds in them. Unfortunately, old policies governing these will probably be with us for sometime to come. It is essential to understand that all these waterways are under threat, in one way or another.

With no forests, there would be no water, and with no water, there would be no life. Only time will tell if we can adequately protect these vital resources from damaging human encroachment. More active safeguards plus increased budgets are needed, and government regulations should be improved while stamping out corruption. Now this will be a tough nut to crack and can only be curtailed with increased vigilance by the Thai people and agencies concerned, and finally, true prosecution of law-breakers with real jail time. It is the only way forward.

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