Thailand has set aside 102 national parks and 55 wildlife sanctuaries covering 17 percent of its land—one of the world’s highest ratios of protected areas (the U.S. has 10.5 percent, for example). A rich diversity of flora and fauna in them includes tigers, leopards— both common and clouded—wild, trumpeting Asian elephants and more than 940 bird species.
In monsoonal forests in the north and rain forest in the south are over 27,000 flowering plant species, including many varieties of Thailand’s national flower, the orchid, and more kinds of bamboo than any country outside China.
Huge wild oxen—gaur and banteng— graze in forest openings. Mouse deer hardly bigger than small rabbits, with ancestry going back 38 million years, forage on fruits and vegetation in deep woods, along with glossy Asiatic blackbears and great lumbering tapirs, relatives of rhinoceros. Malayan sun bears climb trees for tender leaves and fruit, sometimes building tree nests of branches and foliage. Armored pangolins shuffle through leaf litter. Rare small jungle cats pounce on rodents. Endangered “chanting” pileated gibbons swing through the canopy.
Four kinds of endangered sea turtles crawl up on white sand beaches and, weeping, lay eggs during full moons—green, hawksbill, olive ridley, and enormous rare leatherbacks, largest turtles in the world, weighing up to 1,500 pounds (680 kg) with shells up to six feet (2 m) across. Offshore, endangered dugongs like giant underwater blimps munch on shallowgrowing sea grass alongside the world’s smallest fish—little gobies 0.7 inch (20 mm) long—and, farther out, world’s largest, whale sharks up to 60 feet (18 m) weighing several tons (3,600 kg).
Slithering among some 327 reptiles are king cobras up to 20 feet (6 m) long and, even more formidable, reticulated pythons growing to almost 50 feet (15 m), whose young emerge from eggs up to 2.5 feet (0.75 m) long. Geckos are everywhere, including inside homes, as are, sometimes, black jungle monitors, searching, fortunately, for insects and small rodents.
Silver pheasants scratch for insects and fallen seeds in broad-leaved evergreen and mixed deciduous woods. Chinese and Javan pond herons forage along stream edges with quiet yellow and cinnamon bitterns. Crested serpent-eagles and mountain hawk-eagles patrol airways. Brown hawk-owls and collared scops owls hunt at night. Heart-spotted woodpeckers batter at tree trunks—and there are seven colorful kinds of pittas, six kinds of broadbills, four forktails, sunbirds, parrotbills and scarlet finches. Coastal and inland waterways are important waterfowl habitats.
Some reserves until recently have been protected more on paper than in practice, but the trend is in the right direction.
Forests once covered 70 percent of Thailand, but by the early 1990s timber demands and pressures from growing population reduced it to less than 30 percent. This and other environmentaldegradation aroused public support for the government to set aside reserves and pass laws for their protection, setting environmental standards and limiting logging and exploitative coastal tourist facilities. The aim is to increase forest cover to 40–50 percent by mid-21st century, develop reserve management plans with jobs for local populations (most reserves now lack even boundary signs, and some, annual budgets), and provide ecotourism accommodations and facilities, presently limited. But the country must deal with problems including shortage of funds to control timber and wildlife poaching, the latter for purposes ranging from international trade in rare animals and their parts to local restaurant menus featuring endangered species. Of 138 large mammals, 53 are listed as endangered or threatened. Birds are in trouble too, including little swiftlets whose hardened-saliva nests are prized for birds’ nest soup. Barn swallows, melodious thrushes, hornbills and their chicks are trapped and sold in markets for food, as pets, and for the illegal wildlife trade.
Poachers are serious. More than 40 ill-equipped, poorly-paid rangers have died in conflicts with them. Once idyllic, wildlife-rich Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park is widely regarded as lost, its habitat destroyed by Thai-Chinese business interests allied with provincial politicians. Despite laws, hill tribes have continued to denude Doi Inthanon, national park site of Thailand’s highest mountain and home to some 900 bird species.
Overdevelopment of sensitive coastal areas, including illegal construction of large hotels on the coral-fringed national park island of Phi Phi, is starving coral reefs by blocking freshwater runoff from the interior while smothering them with pollution from large-scale sewage dumping.
But there are environmental victories. Four years of citizen protest blocked dam construction in two major sanctuaries, one in HUAI KHA KHAENG, a U.N. World Heritage Site and one of the largest and best preserved monsoon forests in Southeast Asia. Government pressure has all but eliminated fish industry dynamiting of coral reefs in some sensitive areas.
Ecotourists can help by buying no items derived from either marine or land animals; avoiding restaurants serving “exotic” animals and reporting those that do; insisting boat operators do not lower anchors onto coral formations and that they collect rubbish and dispose of it properly (not at sea or in parks).
Bangkok connects with international airlines, and internally there’s a good domestic road and air network as well as frequent, fast busses, reliable, comfortable trains, vehicles for hire and a range of accommodations. Camping is possible in or near most national parks. Most sites are accessible for 2WD.
Best times are November–February in the center and north, April onwards in south Thailand. June–October are wettest months.
More about the Reserves in Thailand
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