Archive for the ‘The Northeast’ Category
Endemic dinosaurs once thrived on this land
Thailand’s five endemic dinosaur species
During the early Cretaceous period 140 million years ago (mya) in what is now Kalasin province in northeast Thailand, a lone theropod dinosaur walked slowly along a riverbank hunting for prey. Herbivorous dinosaurs also inhibited this land and were probably the main diet for the huge carnivore. This solitary predator walked upright. Weighing about two tons it left massive footprints 18 inches long and 12 inches across in the sandy banks of the river. Over millions of years, the sand bank eventually solidified but these footprints have miraculously remained intact. This prehistoric heritage is one of Thailand’s most important fossil sites of when the dinosaurs ruled the land.
Theropod fossil track
The Mesozoic (meaning ‘middle life’) is also known as the Age of Dinosaurs and comprised of three periods: the Triassic (248-206 mya), the Jurassic (206-144 mya) and the Cretaceous (144-65 mya). Dinosaurs evolved over 160 million years into a myriad of shapes and sizes. While some were the tallest and heaviest animals to ever walk the earth, others were no bigger than a chicken. Hundreds of species adapted to widely different environments. This adaptability contributed to the success and diversification of the dinosaur.
Thailand’s Dinosaur Sites
Thailand has the largest and finest representation of dinosaur fossils in Southeast Asia. The only other fossils in the region are from a few discoveries in Laos. Thai fossils show a close relationship to the Chinese and Mongolian dinosaurs. To date, all dinosaur fossils and footprints discovered here are from Mesozoic freshwater sediments, which has turned into clays, sandstone and limestone.
Geologic Time Scale
One man has undeniably been at the forefront of the discovery of Thai dinosaur remains. A walking encyclopedia on the subject, Varavudh Suteethorn of the Department of Mineral Resources is surely Thailand’s top paleontologist and geologist. He has found more dinosaur fossils in Thailand than anyone else, and has published scores of scientific papers. Varavudh’s has also found a stegosaur or ‘plated lizard’ and recently a carnosaur, both from the late Jurrasic. He and his team will invariably discover more new species in the future.
Eric Buffetaut and his wife Haiyan Tong of the National Center of Scientific Research in France have worked on a Thai-French project. Considered leading authorities on the identification of Thai dinosaurs, they have published many papers in collaboration with Varavudh. The meticulous work of this Thai-French paleontological team has found some 15 species in Thailand.
Thailand’s Mesozoic Formations
Thailand’s dinosaurs range from the late Triassic period to the early Cretaceous period. The first fossil was discovered in 1976 in Phu Wiang National Park in Khon Kaen province. A femur fossil from a sauropod was discovered by Sutham Yamniyom, a geologist with the Department of Mineral Resources. Then teeth from a theropod and several bones from a sauropod of the early Cretaceous were found in Phu Wiang. These were from the Sao Khua Formation, a very productive stratum.
Five new species of dinosaur known nowhere else have been found in Thailand. In 1986, Siamosaurus suteethorni, a fish-eating theropod named after Varavudh, was unearthed in Phu Wiang. It also dates from the Sao Khua Formation. In 1992, a small, parrot-beaked herbivorous dinosaur, Psittacosaurus sattayaraki, only about a meter long, was excavated in Chaiyaphum province. In 1994, the largest dinosaur ever found in Thailand appeared. A sauropod of the early Cretaceous, it was named Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae after HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who followed the excavation keenly. This giant plant-eater has been found at three sites on the Khorat Plateau.
Theropod fossil tooth
In 1996, a carnivorous theropod Siamotyrannus isanensis, was discovered and was once the oldest Tyrannosaur found in the world (but a new discovery in China is slightly older). It is one of Tyrannosaurus rex’s earliest known ancestors. The next species from the Northeast is a very primitive sauropod from the late Triassic named Isanosaurus attavipachi. It is the oldest sauropod unearthed so far. The fact that Thailand’s dinosaur discoveries have often proved to be the earliest example of lineages well known all over the world has led many scientists to believe that many dinosaur species originated in Asia.
The Kingdom’s single most significant discovery was in 1980 at Wat Sakawan, a Buddhist temple in Sahat Sakhan district, near the city of Kalasin. The temple lies at the foot of Phu Kum Khao hill and the site attracts many visitors all year round. The first fossils were found and kept at the temple. Subsequent excavations by Thai-French paleontologists discovered seven fossilized skeletons of the sauropod Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae in the Sao Khua Formation. At the same site, several fragments of theropod teeth were also found, which suggests scavenging on the sauropod carcasses. Theropod teeth were also found together with sauropod fossil bones at Phu Wiang.
Sauropod Phuwiangosaurus sirindhornae
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia with fossilized dinosaur footprints, boasting nine sites in the Northeast. In 1974, the first set of theropod footprints was found on a slab of sandstone in Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary in Loei province. These tracks are from the Phu Phan Formation and date from about 120 mya. There are older footprints, about 140 mya, from the Phra Wihan Formation at Phu Wiang National Park. They show several paths traversed by ornithopod, theropod and sauropod dinosaurs of the early Cretaceous.
Sauropod fossil teeth
In 1996, two schoolgirls spotted two different sets of dinosaur footprints from the Phra Wihan Formation at Phu Faek Non-hunting Area in Kalasin province. The two-ton, three-toed theropod dinosaur portrayed at the beginning of this story made the clearest and best-preserved footprints in Thailand. A smaller set criss-crosses the larger set for a total of 21 footprints. The prints unfortunately lie in a seasonal stream and are covered with running water during the rainy season.
Huai Hin Lat formation 220 million years old
In 2003, a set of tracks was found by the Nam Nao Conservation Group in Nam Nao district, Phetchabun province. Villagers told of footprints that they believe had been made by the spirits of the forest. Superstition plays a big part in their lives. The conservation group contacted Varavudh Suteethorn, who investigated and determined that the tracks had been made on a huge mud flat by an archosaur or ‘ruling reptile’ sometime during the late Triassic 220 mya.
Arcosaur or ‘ruling reptile’ Triassic track
This formation is known as Huai Hin Lat. Over millions of years, the 200 by 250 meter slab somehow remained intact as geological forces thrust it up to a 40-degree angle. There are three separate track-ways, and they are the Kingdom’s oldest fossil footprints. Because this important site is situated just outside Nam Nao National Park, it is not in protected land. These important fossil sites need absolute protection for them to survive.
The downside of Thailand’s wonderful discoveries is that fossils are in big demand by both local and international collectors, stimulating village people to pillage fossil sites. Some fossils end up sold at the weekend market in Bangkok and tourist venues as curios. Scientific knowledge of millions of years of evolution is being lost to wanton ravaging of these sites. Recently, a young influential man was caught with some 300 dinosaur fossil bones waiting to be shipped abroad. Most were real and a few fakes. It is essential that such looting be controlled.
Sao Khua formation 130 million years old
Thailand is recognized as a major dinosaur site, in fact one of the richest in the world. These fossils are revealing very important information about Mesozoic dinosaurs in Asia. The joint Thai-French search for fossils continues, and surely new revelations will emerge to delight paleontologists worldwide. Thailand’s dinosaur fossils and fossilized track-ways are a special part of the Kingdom’s wild heritage, and need full protection from the authorities responsible for the natural resources.
Land of the plateau – pristine forest in the Northeast
Hog deer haven and introduction site
On Thai wildlife day, December 26, 1983, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit released four hog deer made up of two mature males and two females in breeding age at ‘Thung Kamang’ grassland in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary situated in the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum. This was the beginning of what is now a successful introduction program in order to save the species.
Hog Deer on the run in Phu Khieo Wildlife Santuary
The Crown Prince in 1987 introduced another four hog deer, and reintroduced several male and female sambar (Thailand’s largest deer) in the same area. In 1992, Her Majesty the Queen once again released more hog deer to boost the numbers of the herd. She also released three Eld’s deer (one male and two females). Unfortunately, this species has been difficult to monitor because of their preference for deep forest unlike the hog deer that prefer grassland and swampy habitat.
Phu Khieo massif
Over the years, the herd of hog deer has steadily increased due to a safe haven away from poachers and encroachment. In 2004, there were approximately 75 deer, and in May 2008, Kasetsart University conducted a survey around the grasslands and headquarters area counting more than 120 individuals. There are now approximately 140 hog deer in three or four separate herds. The sanctuary officials are constantly monitoring the herd with six hog deer fitted with radio collars and have established their range in the sanctuary.
It’s November and not a single cloud can be seen in the clear blue sky. Early morning air is crisp and cool. Heavy dew blankets Phu Khieo as mist rises from the forest. The sun arcs up into the sky and morning heat builds up. A mature sambar stag barks a warning call alerting all the animals within audible range that a predator is on the prowl. In the grasslands, a herd of hog deer grazing on tender young shoots is now on high alert. They are nervous and begin moving as the top carnivore of this forest stalks them.
Sambar yearling doe in late afternoon light
A pack of hungry Asian wild dogs working like a well-oiled machine concentrate on their target. They bump into the deer scattering them. The dogs go after an inexperienced doe and separate her from the herd. The chase is on. The deer becomes confused and makes a wrong turn. The dogs pull the struggling creature to the ground and go in for the kill. Within an hour the carcass is stripped and almost nothing is left except a few scraps. But it’s just another day in the balance of nature where natural selection and the struggle for life and death between predator and prey is played out.
In the early 1830s’ during the reign of King Mongkut, the French missionary Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, in his excellent book entitled ‘Description of the Kingdom of Siam’ published in 1850 reported seeing large herds of deer grazing on the central plains. Hog deer were still quite common in the Kingdom even at the turn of the 19th Century and could be found in all the river basins of the far North, the Northeast, the West and the whole of the Chao Phraya River basin and its tributaries. Hog deer fossils taken from sand dredging in many rivers dates back thousands of years to the Holocene, and teeth fossils of hog deer were discovered in a cave in Phu Khieo dating to the Pleistocene.
Hog deer buck and doe – the male has a radio collar
Unfortunately, these lowland deer were totally overcome by habitat destruction converting natural grasslands and swampy areas into agricultural land throughout the hog deer’s former range. Hunting deer was also a big business and warfare in Asia drove the skin trade. From the late Ayutthaya Period up to the early 20th Century, Siam exported millions of deer pelts from all the large species of deer including Schomburgk’s deer (extinct), sambar, Eld’s deer and hog deer to Japan. Deerskin being soft and supple was used to make leather for Samurai armor and clothing, boots and equipment mostly for the military. This was one of the main reasons for the disappearance of these remarkable creatures from the wild.
Short-nosed fruit bats
Captive breeding of hog deer, Eld’s deer, sambar and muntjac (barking deer) is carried out in some of the 22 wildlife breeding centers around the Kingdom set up by the Royal Forest Department, and now managed by the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP). The Phu Khieo Wildlife Breeding Center outside the sanctuary has been active since 1983 and is still breeding deer and wild pigs for future release into other wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.
Essarn is not all barren and dry like many people think. Over in the western part of the Northeast is Phu Khieo – Nam Nao Forest Complex that incorporates 19 protected areas, covering some 7,725 km2 (twelve national parks and seven wildlife sanctuaries) in the provinces of Chaiyaphum, Khon Kaen, Nong Bua Lum Phu, Udon Thani, Loei, Phechabun and Lop Buri. The complex incorporates a number of large forests on the Phetchabun and upper Dong Phayayen ranges. Phu Khieo, established in May 1972, is the largest sanctuary in the complex at 1,560 km2 made up of, a rocky plateau and steep mountains. The protected area is covered in forests of pine, deciduous, dry dipterocarp and evergreen with many streams that flow into the Chi, Lam Phrom and Sa Phung rivers.
Phu Khieo has elephant, gaur, sambar, muntjac, mouse deer, tiger, clouded leopard, golden cat, back-striped weasel (extremely rare), black bear, gibbon, langur and macaque plus many other mammals can still found here. Jeffery McNeely found tracks in 1977 of the Sumatran rhinoceros on a mountain in the middle of the sanctuary. The last set of rhino footprints was recorded by the sanctuary staff some 10 years ago but has not been seen since. Crocodiles are thought to lurk in the backwaters but again, only footprints and feces have been discovered several years ago. These two species need further investigation and research to establish if they still exist, especially the rhino.
Rare birds such as the Oriental darter and white-winged duck live in the secluded wetlands found in this forest. Other birds include hornbill, osprey, black baza, blue pitta, Siamese Fireback, plus loads of babblers, flycatchers, barbets, kingfishers and other forest birds. The very rare purple cochoa has been sighted and photographed here.
Oriental Darter by the lake
Much research has been carried out by foreign and local researchers from various organizations. Stonybrook University in New York sent a team to monitor and record behavioral habits of the Phayre’s langur and crab-eating macaque. Lon Grassman, as a master student with Kasetsart University, did a camera-trap survey and, collared golden cat and clouded leopard plus other carnivores with support from Texas A&M University and he received his PhD from this excellent work. Kitti Kreetiyutanont who heads the Phu Khieo Research Station has done much research on biodiversity of flora and fauna found here, and in the buffer zone outside the sanctuary. He also has done some archaeology work finding pottery and tools thousands of years old. There are some cave drawings in the sanctuary indicating past civilizations. Wanchnok Suvarnakara, the deputy superintendant, is an avid wildlife photographer and has recorded many species on film and digital, and published a photographic book.
For the first time in the history of wildlife sanctuaries since Salak Phra in Kanchanaburi was established in December 1965, a woman has been nominated as superintendant to Phu Khieo. Dr Kanjana Nitaya received a doctorate on management, and has run this protected area with determination to succeed. The staff and locals who have benefited from her management skills and leadership over the last four years respect her. In 2006, Phu Khieo was voted as the best wildlife sanctuary in all categories by DNP due to criteria established by the department. She is proud of this achievement and hopes this will help the conservation of this magnificent place well into the future.
However, poaching and encroachment is still an on-going problem for the staff. Another serious long-term idea from politicians in the lowlands is to build a dam across the Sa Pung Nua River on the southern face of the plateau not far from Nong Bua Daeng in Chaiyaphum. If this dam were to become a reality, a large swath of forest would be inundated and damage the ecosystem already in jeopardy. All efforts should be made to stop this project before it goes too far. As Thailand’s best wildlife sanctuary, it should not be compromised by the construction of a man-made scheme.
Saving a species from extinction should be a top priority of the DNP. Other ungulates like goral, serow and banteng should be reintroduced into protected areas where they once thrived. Some may argue against introduction or reintroduction, but as we loose more and more species, release is a practical way to save Thailand’s rare animals from extinction in the wild. It is up to the department to instigate and increase these introduction/reintroduction projects, and then to protect these animals from danger by all means available. Budgets for enforcement and protection need to increase, and more staff to man any project to save a species from extinction is an utmost priority.
Hog deer buck in the grassland
Historically, the range of the hog deer spread from India and Nepal, east through Burma and Thailand, to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This deer is now restricted to just fragments of its former range. In Thailand, the last sighting of hog deer was in Nong Khai province in the Northeast sometime during November 1963. There are some hog deer herds in the wilds of Cambodia and Laos.
Hog deer were typically found on alluvial plains and lowland forest along rivers, particularly near marshes with tall grass. Today it would be impossible to reintroduce these deer into any of their former habitat, but a few protected areas like Phu Khieo are ideal. Any introduced or reintroduced species needs the full protection afforded by a national park, wildlife sanctuary or non-hunting area.
Hog deer are medium-sized animals that resemble the larger and more common sambar deer in appearance. Male hog deer antlers are similar in shape as sambar but smaller. Depending on the season, they have grayish to dark brown fur. Females like all other deer species, have no antlers. Fawns have spotted coats. Spots can also be clearly seen on some adults.
These deer are more of a grazer than a browser and feeds on grass. They are gregarious, forming large family groups. The rut starts in September and goes on through October. A single fawn is born eight months later, during the rainy season around July or August. Hog deer received their name because of the way they move. Unlike other deer, they seldom jump over a bush or high grass, but they tend to run through the underbrush with head held low to the ground, much like a hog.
Published in the Bangkok Post ‘Outlook’ section on 28 October 2011
A World Heritage Site in the Northeast
Khao Yai – ‘The Big Mountain’
The concept of parks or wildlife sanctuaries in Siam dates back to the 13th century Sukhothai Period during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great who created a park known as ‘Dong Tan’ used for royal recreation and preservation. The people were also encouraged to set-up parks around Buddhist temples and other religious sites because it was against Buddhist strictures to take a life and hence all parks were havens of safety for the animals of the forests. However, from the end of the Sukhothai Period to the 19thCentury, parks and conservation declined.
Haew Narok Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park
The Royal Forest Department (RFD) was established in 1896, introducing modern management practices to forestry, especially the teak industry. However, conservation fields were not addressed in the beginning. In 1900, the first law protecting animals was the Law Governing Conservation of Wild Elephants, and thus elephants became the first species protected by a law. In 1921, the law was amended, which superseded the previous act providing better protection.
Haew Suwat Waterfall in Khao Yai
Then in 1943, the RFD began turning its attention to conservation and efforts to manage certain forests for the public’s recreational use. The department established Phu Kradueng National Park in Loei province. However, due to World War II and very limited budgets and trained personnel, the park project was shelved.
Tusker in a mineral lick close to the road in Khao Yai
In 1959, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, Thailand’s prime minister, voiced his opinion about protecting some of the immense forests that existed in the Kingdom at the time. He made several inspection tours into the wild areas of the North and Northeast, and became impressed with the natural resources. His idea was to establish reserved areas much like Yellowstone National Park in the US and Kruger National Park in South Africa. His foresight has developed into one of the largest concentrations of protected areas in the world. At last count, there are more than 260 national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, non-hunting areas and marine national parks, plus 1,221 reserved forests situated throughout Thailand.
Tusker near the road
Sarit’s fascination with nature prompted him to establish the National Parks Committee and the Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Committee to hash out necessary protective management plans, and to select pristine wilderness areas suitable for preservation. The first new step to conserving wildlife was the enactment of the Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Act of 1960. The next law passed by legislation was the National Park Act of 1961, which really got the ball rolling. By Royal Decree, on September 18, 1962, the 2,165km2 Khao Yai National Park was appointed, becoming the nation’s first national park, thanks to Sarit and many others.
Muntjac munching on leaves by the road
The core group was made up of General Surajit Jarusaraenee, the Minister of Agriculture and General Prapas Jarusatien, who was the Minister of Interior, along with Chalerm Siriwan, the director general of the RFD and Pramual Unhanand, who was the director of the Bureau of Silviculture under the RFD. The first chief of the park was Boonlueng Saisorn. One man who was also involved in the establishment was Dr Boonsong Lekagul, who was the executive-director of the Association for the Conservation of Wildlife that was actually started up in 1951.
Muntjac male by the road in the park
Dr Boonsong, a well-to-do Thai medical physician, was also a hunter and biologist. He published scores of scientific papers and books on mammals, birds and butterflies found in Thailand. His enormous contribution to natural science was the first stepping-stone to knowledge of the natural world and a better understanding about Thai fauna. Dr Boonsong also collected wildlife specimens to document as many species as possible. He certainly made an impact on the movement of wildlife conservation.
Sambar stag in the campground
Dr George C. Ruhle, an American national park expert from the U.S. National Park Service did a survey in 1959-1960 and a report in 1964 for the ‘International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN), and the American Committee for International Wildlife Protection’ about the forests. This work contributed to a greater understanding of Thailand’s natural heritage. He made many treks into the wilderness areas of Khao Yai, Thung Salaeng Luang and Doi Inthanon plus many others, and was instrumental in some of the first ‘national parks management plans’ that were to follow.
Banded Kingfisher by the campgrounds
After World War II, about 70 percent of the country was still covered in thick vegetation with an amazing array of wild animals and ecosystems. The first big area to be acknowledged was the primaeval contiguous forest once known as Dong Phaya Fai (or “Jungle of Fire”). This remarkable wilderness stretched from the lower Northeast all the way into Cambodia, and north to parts of the Central and north-Northeast regions. These mountain formations were created during continental uplift about 60 million years ago when the Indian Plate crashed into the Himalayas.
Pig-tailed macaque by the road
Kouprey, a rare wild cattle and now most likely extinct, lived in parts of this great forest. Large tigers preyed on abundant deer and other ungulate species that proliferated in the deep jungle. Smaller species, including clouded leopard, sun bear, gibbons, hornbills as well as many others were common. It was an impenetrable and dangerous place due to the steep mountainous terrain where no roads existed. Very few humans lived in the depths of this once great biosphere. Malaria and fierce creatures reigned supreme.
Great hornbill a its nest by the road
Before Khao Yai was formed, settlers and outlaws used slash-and-burn agriculture in the mountains, creating huge grasslands around the present-day headquarters area. Many of these people were evading the police, but they were evicted after the park was established. The government decided to establish a golf course on the grassland and bungalows to generate income, which was run by the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT). Back in the mid-1970s, I actually played golf on the links when it was opened to visitors. It was amazing seeing all those wild animals crossing the fairways. However, the “rough” was jungle, and if you did not hit the ball straight and true, it was a goner! It was a tough course to play on and I lost quite a few balls. It was, however, finally closed in 1991 at the urging of the Anand Panyarachun government.
Male muntjac jumping in front of a motorcycle at khao Khiew
In 1955, a road (Mittraphap Highway: Saraburi to Nakhon Ratchasima) was cut through the forest to facilitate the US military machine at the airbases in Nakhon Ratchasima, Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchathani provinces, as well as Phanom Sarakham district in Chachoengsao province in the Northeast. Later, another road separating Khao Yai and Thap Lan (Route 304: Kabin Buri to Pak Thong Chai) was constructed.
Muntjac jumping 2
These roads basically cut all migration routes of elephant, gaur, banteng and other large mammals established over thousands of years, and opened up virgin forest to settlement. In the meantime, Khao Yai was being encroached on from all sides and can be seen today as resorts, golf courses and agriculture that completely surrounded the park.
Muntjac jumping 3
Khao Yai (“Big Mountain” in English) is part of the Dong Phaya Yen-Khao Yai forest complex covering 6,152km2, and is also Thailand’s second World Heritage Site, which was granted on July 14, 2005 by Unesco. The complex is comprised of five protected areas – Khao Yai, Thap Lan (1981, 2,235km2), Pang Sida (1982, 844km2) and Ta Phraya (1996, 594km2) national parks, and Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary (1996, 312km2).
Tusker and tourist bus on the road – a dangerous situation
Khao Yai is Thailand’s third largest national park and covers four provinces including Saraburi, Nakhon Nayok, Prachin Buri and Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat). It incorporates parts of the Sankampaeng range made up of shale and sandstone at the south-east edge of the Khorat Plateau. The highest peak is Khao Rom at 1,365m and vegetation includes moist evergreen, dry evergreen, hill evergreen, mixed deciduous, dry dipterocarp, secondary forest and grassland. Some formations in the park go back more than 100 million years when dinosaurs roamed here. One set of dinosaur footprints has been found in Khao Yai on an isolated slab of red sandstone by the banks of the Sai Yai River. Some dinosaur fossils have been found close by in Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks to the east.
Tusker on the road in the late afternoon
Today, elephants, gaur, sambar and muntjac (common barking deer) are still common, but unfortunately, only survive around the Khao Yai headquarters area for about 300km2. Years and years of degradation and poaching have taken its toll imploding towards the centre. Very few animals or birds survive in the outlying areas after many wildlife surveys done by various organisations and individuals came up with data to confirm the void. Even though Khao Yai was the first national park, it certainly has been devastated by years of minimal protective management and prolonged encroachment and poaching.
Tusker charging my truck – reverse was the only option
However, much research, training and management planning has been carried out in Khao Yai, primarily around the headquarters area. One of the first people in 1975 was Dr Chumphon Ngampongsai, who studied habitat relation of the sambar. Secondly, Dr Warren Brockelman of the US and some of his students from Mahidol University have conducted what is now the longest primate study in the world at “Mo Singto Forest Dynamics Plot” of the intricate lives and habitats of both white-handed and pileated gibbons that live together and sometimes produce a hybrid of the two species.
Philip D. Round and George Gale also carried out a bird survey in the plot. In 1978, a hornbill ecology research team under Dr Pilai Poonswad began hornbill surveys and helped increase nest sites. In the 1980s, Dr Surachet Chettamas from Kasetsart University wrote a Khao Yai park and recreation management plan, and Robert Dobias from the US also did planning at that time.
In the late-1990s, a master student, Sean C. Austin from New Mexico State University, did a survey for sympatric carnivores such as the leopard cat, clouded leopard, Asian wild dog and binturong, as well as radio-collared quite a few of them. He also used camera trap technology to build up a database.
In 1999, “Wild Aid”, now known as “Freeland”, started the Khao Yai Conservation Project including community outreach, wildlife monitoring, ranger training and park management in partnership with the Department of National Parks, and the Wildlife Conservation Society who did camera trapping and managed to catch a few tigers on film plus a multitude of other creatures.
Wild Aid also set up a team to monitor the park’s wild elephants and provided some equipment to the rangers. Another master student, Kate Jenks, from the Smithsonian Institute carried out a camera trap programme that involved an attempt to photograph carnivores in conjunction with Wild Aid from 2004 to 2007. Sadly, she camera trapped no tigers during the program but did record one set of tiger footprints in 2005.
Dr Naris Bhumpakphan of Kasetsart University sent master student Preecha Prommakul to monitor and camera-trap tigers in Khao Yai, but with a lack of data, the program was shelved. Preecha did, however, see a set of tracks around the back of a camera trap, indicating a tiger was possibly avoiding the traps.
Unfortunately, it looks as though the tiger has probably disappeared from the park. These magnificent cats have not been seen or recorded for some time now and no camera trap photos have been collected of tigers since 2001. However, reports of sightings and tracks do come in from time to time, but these are now rare. If leopards once thrived here, it was a long time ago.
Asian wild dogs are now at the top of the food chain. A large pack of more than 20 dogs devouring a sambar in one hour has been observed by a tour guide and the rangers. These pack animals are ferocious carnivores and once a feeding frenzy has begun, it’s every dog for itself. They have been consistently seen and photographed around the headquarters area.
Khao Yai is one of the best places to see wild elephants up close during the day or night. These giants can be seen along the road down to Nakhon Nayok, but from the safety of one’s motor vehicle. They also can be seen at the mineral licks set up on the grasslands. It is definitely recommended not to exit your car and strike out on foot as the elephants can become irritated and things could get dangerous, especially an encounter with a bull in musth, or a mother with a baby. Bull elephants in the park have killed several Buddhist monks in the forest meditating.
A birdwatcher friend of mine took his family out one night and was surrounded by a herd of elephants on the road. These gentle giants dented his van, costing him thousands of baht in repairs, and scaring the heck out of them while they sat motionlessly waiting for the herd to pass.
The most famous waterfalls in Khao Yai are Haew Narok, which takes a hike of about one kilometre and Haew Suwat, not far from the road. During the rainy season all of the rivers in the park become raging torrents. Quite a few elephants have been washed over the falls at Haew Narok and killed during heavy rain with swollen rivers. A temporary ranger station has been set up to ward off any elephants trying to cross during a heavy surge. There are more than a dozen marked nature trails covering about 50km for the adventurous type, but it is advised to hire a guide from the park as some are ever-changing and one could get lost in the dense forests.
During the rainy season, leeches and malaria mosquitoes are a problem. During the dry season, ticks can be irritating and dangerous to one’s health as some carry diseases. Insect repellent, leech socks and heavy clothing are the best way to ward off the bothersome creatures. But seeing the exotic mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, butterflies and other insects in their natural habitats, plus the beautiful flora is still quite good and worth the effort.
The best time to visit is during midweek. Make your bookings in advance with the department’s online website for accommodations. Food and services are good but close shop at around 6pm. One of the biggest problems facing Khao Yai is the over-abundance of visitors during the holidays and long weekends, plus excessive spotlighting during these times. There is quite a large number of buildings, bungalows and campsites, and rubbish can be a problem for the park.
Many deer and other animals have perished from foam and plastic intact by eating discarded food containers. Khao Yai as Thailand’s first national park should be a role model for all other conservation areas. Given this important heritage, increased efforts by those responsible need to be made to save this magnificent biosphere. It is a fact that, with good protection, animals and plants will make a comeback. The park has the potential and we the people need to ensure its future survival.
Published in the Bangkok Post in the ‘Outlook’ section on 31 August 2009