Monday, February 18, 2008

First Impressions

by: Erik

Friends are constantly telling me to say "Hi" to the elephants, and they're always a little heartbroken when I then break the news that the odds of actually seeing a wild elephant aren't much greater than that of spotting Elvis ... especially when your primary job function is writing HTML for the new ECN website. But when the opportunity arose last week to accompany Belinda, Heidi, and Nat into Salakphra Wildlife Preserve, I held out hope: maybe I'd get lucky?

Salakphra Wildlife Preserve is located about 70 km northwest of Kanchanaburi; it consists of a mix of deciduous, dry dipterocarp, and seasonal evergreen forest. Despite its status as a preserve, Salakphra is seriously degraded; farmers burn the forest to create grassy areas for illegally grazing cattle, and the area is routinely logged of its most valuable wood. With a mere estimated 150 remaining wild elephants remaining, it's considered the front line of elephant conservation in southeast Asia.

We encountered firsthand evidence of human encroachment in the park before we'd even officially entered: from the main highway we witnessed a farmer leading a herd of buffalo out of the park, where he'd illegally grazed them. There was evidence of recent fire (or actual fire in progress!) in several areas, and we even encountered illegal logging. In the latter case the logger had just fled, leaving behind his would-be booty of redwood, along with the cart and the saw used in the crime. The rangers confiscated the wood and all the equipment, which was destined to become park property. The logger had built a small Buddhist shrine near the tree stump as an offering of forgiveness.

We spent three days visiting transects and taking notes, traveling through the jungle on motorbike with the park rangers. It was like a real-life video game trying to stay on the back of the motorbike, saddled with a pack-load of gear while dodging branches and vines. To make things more exciting, Boonchuu, my driver, had a particular penchant for popping wheelies while navigating logs and stones -- my left leg is still black and blue from getting bucked off the bike in a moment that fondly recalled my last encounter with a mechanical bull (another story for another time).

We camped out in the forest, sleeping in mosquito-proof hammocks (not for the claustrophobic) strung between trees. The rangers prepared some succulent Thai food from the provisions we'd brought with us, and when we lacked a bowl or even a coffee cup, these trained woodsmen could quickly fashion one from bamboo.

The of late afternoon as we hacked our way through bramble and thicket en route to the last transect, the mission nearly complete. It was then that we heard branches snapping with such ferociousness that I half expected to encounter an excavator clearing a new road. In fact, I'd just heard for the first time sounds of a wild elephant feeding. Our rangers immediately beckoned to turn back, but we had no such intention, pursuing the leviathan on our own until one of the rangers reluctantly chose to join us.

We managed to get within about 300 feet of the majestic megafauna, who must have been aware of our presence, yet kindly chose not to turn us into human pancakes! We simply stared in awe of the wild elephant as she fed, still managing to find sustenance in Salakphra.

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