A World Worth Saving
Before I departed from the United States on my journey across the world, people often asked me, "Why Thailand?" My answers generally similar, eventually getting to the point of feeling rehearsed. I love to travel and I genuinely enjoy working with kids. Or I would talk about Thailand's growing ecotourism industry and, with it, the growing need for English speaking citizens. Or sometimes I would counter their question simply with "Why not?" to which they would give me a confused look and I would inevitably give them one of the aforementioned scripted responses.
But I don't think I could really ever put into words, until now, the real reason why I chose Thailand over places like Spain or Peru or China or Morocco. My hero, and world renowned wildlife conservationist, the late Steve Irwin once said, "… if we can touch people about wildlife, then they wanna save it. Because humans wanna save things that they love…" So that is why I am here. To share my experience with the people around me, to help them fall in love with this world and see it as I do. A world worth saving.
This past weekend, I left Bangkok behind and went off adventuring with a group of friends to Khao Yai National Park. A quick and easy three hour van ride northeast to Pak Chong in the province of Nakhon Ratchasima and we had arrived safely at Bobby's Apartments. If you enjoy sleeping in on your weekends and then fulfilling your duty as the resident couch potato, then this weekend of adventure would not have been for you.
A 6:30am ham and cheese breakfast on Saturday morning quickly drifted toward our 7:00am departure from the apartments. Riding in our songtaew with our two new friends from Holland - a lovely couple on a four week holiday - we took a quick six kilometer jaunt from Bobby's to the park. Once we arrived at the front of the park, we donned our fancy new "sexy leech socks," took a gloriously cliché picture of everybody jumping in front of the park entrance sign and then we were on our way.
Those of you who know me know how passionate I am about animals and wildlife in general. I was a kid in a candy store. We drove slowly through the park and every time we stopped to look at something, I thought my heart would burst out of my chest. But it didn't stop there... This was a twelve hour tour.
If you think that the peak of my excitement hit when we got out of the songtaew, you could not be more wrong. After disembarking from our four wheeled transport, we proceeded to trek through the jungle. At first we followed a clear path. But the path quickly gave way to pure, unadulterated jungle. Without our amazing tour guide, JJ, we would have, without a shadow of a doubt, become lost within seconds without a single hope of returning to our students by Monday. When I say JJ was amazing, I mean it. Not only was she funny, calling every animal under the sun "sexy," but she knew EXACTLY where to look. Without her, we would have never even caught a glimpse of the awesome wildlife Khao Yai has to offer.
The wildlife. This is where I really got into it. Whenever JJ ran, I was right on her heels. Whenever JJ shushed the group, I too shushed the group - sometimes a little too adamantly, I will admit. But damn, did we see some incredible things. For someone such as myself, this, ladies and gentlemen, was truly what dreams are made of.
As you walk through the jungle in Khao Yai, you can actually hear gibbons calling off in the distance. To the untrained ear, these calls sound much like that of a bird. But JJ knew exactly what they were and where to find them. For those of you who don't know, a gibbon is a small, arboreal species of lesser ape, living mostly in the jungles of East and Southeast Asia. Seeing or even just hearing gibbons in the wild is an experience not to be taken lightly by anyone. Gibbon populations are seriously dwindling due mostly to deforestation, but also due to reasons such as illegal wildlife trade, poaching and sometimes their body parts (mostly their hands) are used in Chinese medicines. According to the IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red List, gibbons are listed as endangered. Luckily for us, Khao Yai National Park seems to be one of the few places left where lar, or white-handed, gibbons and pileated gibbons are found more often than not. We were lucky enough to see not one, not two, but three gibbons over the course of our tour.
Every now and again, we would wander back to the songtaew and drive to another part of the park. One stop we made was atop a hillside leading down to a crocodile infested river. Once we made it down the steep slope to the riverbank, we paced back and forth along the water's edge, passing signs that read "Danger! No swimming!" and "Beware Crocodiles." I trusted that JJ knew what she was doing. Still, part of me was both terrified and excited at the prospect of seeing one of these prehistoric reptiles. Lo and behold, after several minutes of tiptoeing up and down the river, we came across a beautiful Siamese crocodile. This scaly beauty was at least seven feet long as it lay quietly, basking on a large log in the hot Thailand sun. I was so taken aback, I forgot to notice the other tour group standing beside us, which coincidentally contained two other OEG members who had come separately from us to explore all that Khao Yai had to offer. We hurriedly said our hellos and subsequent goodbyes and were off into the green glory yet again.
After our encounter with the crocodile, we were heading back to the songtaew when I think JJ decided to check one last time for something down a pathwe'd already traveled. Whatever she was looking for, she found it. Suddenly, JJ took off sprinting down the path. This woman was on a mission. Then her sprint transformed into a quick and quiet walk before stopping completely at the edge of a clearing. "Do you see it," she asked, pointing to the trees on the other side of the clearing. I shook my head. "Do you see it?" Nope. "Do you..." She fell silent as the thing began to move. Suddenly the large grey rock I had been looking at began to shake all of the surrounding trees as it picked out its mid afternoon snack. Slowly, the massive male Asian elephant came into view. First, I saw its large torso. Then its left ear flapped as it swatted the flies away and used its trunk to pull branches off the ground and out of the trees. Last, the tusks became visible. My god, the tusks. Beautiful ivory spears protruded from the animal's mouth extending three feet to a deadly point.
I was even more excited to see this handsome male than I was to see any of the gibbons. Now let me tell you why. Asian elephants are a species that is found here in the jungles of Asia and, much like gibbons, are listed by the IUCN as endangered. But as more of Asia is converted into farmland, more and more elephants are coming into contact with humans. While this is an obvious example of deforestation, it is also the reason for many human-elephant conflicts. Elephants will sometimes destroy farmers' crops, or even occasionally kill a person. As a result, the elephant is then hunted down and killed. Some experts believe that this type of encounter is now the number one cause of elephant deaths in Asia. As many of you may know, all elephants - both African and Asian - are hunted for their tusks which are made of ivory. This is not as large of an issue for Asian elephants as it is for their African brethren, but still the issue does persist.
Unfortunately, poaching and chance encounters with wild elephants are not the only two factors contributing to their endangered status. Many elephants are also captured in the wild and then traded illegally for both the timber and tourism industries. The elephants are then used either as labor slaves or for elephant rides for the uneducated tourist. What makes these situations even more unfortunate is the quality of care which these elephants are provided and the blatant lack of humanity displayed by their mahouts (owners/trainers). I had the unfortunate opportunity to see some of these elephants on display during our trip to the floating markets of Ayutthaya. These magnificent beasts were chained to fences and housed in small yards barely big enough for them to sway side to side, let alone move in any sort of beneficial manner.
Luckily, various organizations such as the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) are working with local populations to reduce conflicts, as well as with authorities to improve law enforcement regarding the trade of elephants and their parts.
Now! Back to Khao Yai! The rest of the tour went by in a daze. Though I had many an opportunity to photograph the various creepy crawlies of Khao Yai, and we were, at one point, surrounded by a horde of macaques, my mind was back with the elephants and the gibbons.
I had an amazing time at Khao Yai National Park. I was truly in my element as I spewed fact after fact about elephants, gibbons, crocodiles and everything else we saw along the way. This past weekend was my reminder of why I am in Thailand - besides wanting to teach of course. There is so much of this world I have yet to see, which means there is equally as much of this world that I have yet to share my passion for - or maybe even develop an undiscovered passion for. I sincerely hope that that same passion came across here as I lead you through my experience with some of the most magnificent animals I have ever seen. This world can only give so much, and I hope I have begun to inspire you to take just a little less from it. We really do live in a world worth saving. So, as Steve Irwin would say, I "... thank you for coming with me. Yeah! Let's get 'em!"