On this day three years ago, I was boarding a plane to Bangkok, full of hopes and a few fears. I would spend four months there as an exchange student, at Mahidol University International College. I had never been to Thailand before, but what I had heard and read about its culture and nature fascinated me enough to list MUIC as my top destination when I applied- and boy, did I pick well. Of course, four months are nowhere near enough to get even a most superficial knowledge of the biodiversity and/or cultural history of a place, and I remain just some student like any other to this day. In fact, I am particularly grateful for that exchange period for allowing me to realize how little I actually knew.
Of the courses I enrolled into at MUIC, the one that truly left a mark on me was the Conservation Biology module, taught by ajarn (“teacher” in Thai, the “r” is deaf) Ramesh Boonratana- member of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group and involved in the conservation of several highly endangered species (e.g. the nearly extinct Sumatran rhino) Believe me, there was a lot to learn from that guy. The classes were interactive and instructive, I can hardly think of a moment when I lost interest- except that Monday when I almost fell asleep after partying all night the day before, that is (sorry ajarn). Anyway, when it was announced that we would go on a field excursion to Khao Yai National Park, I was confident that I would be able to recognize the patterns and phenomena we were studying in so much detail on books and slides once there.
Oh, was I wrong.
The minute we stepped foot on park ground, it became perfectly clear that the trip wouldn’t be just like any other. While ajarn Ramesh was briefing us about the itinerary we were going to follow and such, a massive bull elephant (recognizable fro the tusks, which are absent in females) emerged from the forest around the visitors’ centre. Now, coming across domesticated elephants in Thailand is more than frequent enough, but that behemoth was 100% wild. And it showed.
The visitors’ centre offered food and snacks of all kinds to tourists- including delicious, juicy fruit that might well attract herbivorous animals. Indeed, the elephant had a clear target in mind- he smashed the fruit stand like it was nobody’s business and savoured the fruit with all the chill in the whole wide world. Luckily, nobody was hurt in the process- visitors and guards alike stepped well out of the elephant’s way and let him do his thing. Standing in the presence of such a majestic creature was simply breathtaking- an animal like this commands respect to the beholder. However, things might have taken a turn for the worse when a ranger barged in driving- I kid you not- a freaking bulldozer to chase the elephant back into the jungle. The vehicle charged at the elephant repeatedly- thank God the animal did not retaliate and just walked away instead.
It took me a few seconds to process what had just happened in my mind- I mean, that was a straight-up WTF moment right there. However, I got even more confused when I tried to rationalize it. How would someone deal with a hungry bull elephant casually walking among tourists and vendors? What kind of measures could have been implemented to prevent such a thing to begin with? Despite all the preparation I naively thought I had, I didn’t know at all. However (and fortunately), someone else did.
A delightful read I enjoyed while in Bangkok was the Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen, a Thai folk epic from the 16th century narrating the adventures and feats of friends-turned-foes Khun Chang and Khun Phaen, both madly in love with the beautiful Wanthong (who- what a surprise- in the end is blamed and executed for the trail of death and destruction left by the other two). In the story, while Khun Chang is rich and powerful, Khun Phaen can rely on a deep knowledge and mastery of the spirits and forces of nature, which grant him nigh-unlimited control of mind and matter alike. This body of knowledge and arcane wisdom (wicha in Thai, from the same Sanskrit root that gave origin to the English “witch”) acquired through years of study and practice is referred to as the “Inner Ways”. When I ponder about that trip to Khao Yai, I can’t help but think that conservation has its own inner ways.
Right after the elephant incident, ajarn Ramesh quickly answered the turmoil of doubts in my mind. First, he said, the visitors’ centre shouldn’t be placed in the middle of the park, where wildlife roams on a regular basis. Then, one does not simply confront an elephant with a bulldozer in a crowded area- the most reasonable action to take would be letting the animal do its thing and move the visitors as far away as possible until the giant leaves. This certainly sounds obious to you- and to me as well right now- but in that moment, it didn’t even cross my mind until ajarn Ramesh brought it up like it was the most self-explanatory thing in the world. Unbeknownst to my clueless self, more such moments were to come once we entered the depths of the jungle.
The combination and synergy of sensorial stimuli left me stunned. I had never walked into a tropical rainforest before, and suddenly I found myself amidst trees so tall I couldn’t believe, and a canopy so thick sunlight was barely able to reach the ground in some spots. However, if you think you would encounter wildlife all over the place in a jungle, you are oh so wrong. Barely any animal in sight- camouflage is an art in such ecosystems, and even large species can move around unheard and unseen with astonishing ease. At least, to my completely untrained senses.
Next to us, ajarn Ramesh was pointing to multiple clues that betrayed the presence of animals all around us. Tree trunks slightly bent sideways, the layer of dead plant matter on the ground bearing signs of compaction- elephants must have walked through the area. Small twigs and rotten fruit pieces scattered on the ground- macaques and/or gibbons must have picked them from up in the trees and dropped them for some reason. Gibbons were a hot topic of discussion that day- we all hoped to see them resting or swinging high up in the canopy. In the end, we didn’t- however, the arboreal apes did make their presence known thanks to one of their trademarks: morning calls.
Gibbon calls are distinctly audible even from quite a distance and clearly recognizable in their pattern. In fact, the apes start with deep vocalizations and then gradually switch to increasingly more high-pitched sounds- nature’s opera singers treating us with a free performance for a moment of pure delight. To my great surprise, I found myself more than happy of just listening to an animal without even knowing where it was- because I felt I was learning and experiencing something remarkable already.
After the gibbons fell silent again, we resumed our walk in the forest- thank God my leech socks (i.e. cloth bags we all wore to make sure no leeches would stick to our feet and ankles) were working. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like leeches- they are weird little blobby sausages with a passion for blood, am I right? However, the idea of bleeding in my shoes was certainly not attractive. Anyway, at some point ajarn Ramesh stopped in front of a tree with deep marks on its bark. Tiger claw marks. The biggest cat of ’em all must have been around, then? Sadly, that was not the case.
As ajarn Ramesh pointed out, the marks were high up on the trunk- way too high for any adult tiger to reach. Thus, the tree must have been way shorter when the feline scraped the bark to mark its territory- meaning that the episode occurred a long time ago. In fact, no tigers have been sighted in Khao Yai- where they were once common- since the 1990s, leading experts to consider the mighty predator extirpated from the area. Those marks were among the last relics left by the once dominant carnivore- a sight that reminded us all why we need conservation and what brought us to devote our lives to it.
After a day so full of invaluable lessons and awe-inspiring wildlife encounters, it was time to go back to campus. Up in the sky, a flock of hornbills joined us for a brief moment before disappearing beyond the canopy horizon. That day, I realized how oblivious and naive I was when faced with the incredible complexity of such a diverse ecosystem. Perhaps I will never even get to the point of mastering the Inner Ways like ajarn Ramesh and others who have spent decades learning and observing the tiniest details can. Honestly, I feel it would be pretentious of me- and of many conservationists, arguably- to believe otherwise. Some knowledge, maybe, just is not for anyone to acquire.