Ready for the jungle?
Tourists trekking in Thailand’s jungles often fear attacks by dangerous wild animals. As a matter of fact, such incidents are rare. But other dangers may loom.
An American couple and their friend were enjoying their holiday in Thailand. While on a trek in the North, they spent the night in a simple bamboo hut in the jungle. In the middle of the night, they awoke to the noise of cracks and rumbles. A furious elephant smashed its way into the hut and crushed the husband, while the wife watched in agony.
A fellow trekker ran out of the hut, but the elephant followed him. For a moment the crazy beast caught him up with his trunk, and then propelled him through the air. Fortunately, the man succeeded in escaping and climbed a tree.
Next morning, the shivering tourist was discovered by people from a nearby village. This happened a few years ago. It turned out that the elephant belonged to a rich villager. Because it was in musth (a state of extreme irritability which sometimes comes mainly upon the bulls), the owner had set it free so that it could give rein to its frenzy in the forest.
Almost any year, the bad mood of elephants is responsible for a number of casualties. In the wild, cows with a calf can be as fierce as a bull in musth.
Professor Warren Brockleman has spent many months in the jungle studying gibbons.
According to him, elephants are probably the most dangerous wild animals in the region. In the Khao Yai National Park, he once was forced to run for his life when attacked by a furious pachyderm.
‘But actually, I don’t worry much about them. In the jungle, encounters with large animals are very rare. Nearly all will avoid humans and make way for them.’
“Jungle” is derived from the Sanskrit word jangula which means ‘impenetrable bush”. Most people associate jungle with tropical rain forest. Actually, though, rain forest is not that impenetrable at all. Because of the thick canopy, only two percent of daylight will reach the forest floor, not enough for a lush vegetation to develop. The most dense jungle is alongside rivers and in open spots created by fallen trees. One seldom needs to cut one’s way through the vegetation. There may even be natural trails made by animals.
However, large animals are not very common. Compared to a savanna, the rain forest is a rather poor food source. Many leaves are inedible. For instance, a hectare can feed no more than two bovines. On the other hand, the tender grass of a hectare of savanna may feed up to fifteen such large herbivores. Tourists are often disappointed not to spot any wildlife at all during a jungle trek. One reason is that their rather noisy groups scare wild animals away. Furthermore, many animals are hidden in the canopy, or are only active during the night. Dense jungle also impairs detection.
Biologist Philip Watkins once could smell an elephant, but was unable to spot it! And, particularly here in the north, the populations of many large animals have dwindled or disappeared because of poaching. By the way, various types of dense forest exist in the north; tropical rain forest, however, can actually only be found in the south.
‘Many tourists have a television image of the jungle,’ explains Dwaila Armstrong, an American with over fifteen years of experience in the forests of South Thailand. ‘They think they will see an animal every few minutes!’ She has encountered numerous large animals, like tigers, elephants, bears and king cobras, but has never been attacked by them. But when she was alone in the forest, a group of Stump-tail Macaques once displayed rather aggressive behaviour towards her. And another time, a customer of her Tree Tops Jungle Safaris was attacked by a large snake. ‘Probably it was a king cobra. The man run away and was not bitten.’
Stanley Aiklone Kham Mwe is one of Chiang Mai’s most seasoned guides. Of all wild animals, he fears the King Cobra most. While trekking with tourists in the jungle along the Burmese border, he spots such a deadly serpent almost every month. ‘Often you only become aware of them at the last moment, so you must be very careful. They also hide in caves and may let themselves drop down from ridges.’
Yet deadly snake bites during a jungle trek are extremely rare. Altogether, Stanley has guided at least 5,000 tourists in the jungle, and only one was bitten by a snake. ‘It was a green pit viper, a rather poisonous snake. Within a day the victim was taken to a hospital.’
Stanley himself once had a frightening experience: ‘In the evening, I was playing my mouth harp in a jungle hut when something cold was gliding over my shoulder. From the corner of my eye, I could see it was a snake with yellow and black stripes, a very poisonous Banded Krait. With the movement of a shot-putter, I got rid of it. Since then I don’t play my mouth harp any more in the jungle.’
Tigers are no worry for Stanley. He has come upon such animals six times, and all of them sneaked away — which is their habit when you freeze. Occasionally, old or wounded tigers become man-eaters. Only in the Sundarbans, the extensive delta of the Ganges along the border of India and Bangladesh, are tigers reputed to be fierce man-eaters, who inflict numerous casualties among the local fishermen and honey collectors.
In Thailand bears are generally considered more dangerous than the “big cats”. Both the Malay Sun Bear and the Asian Black Bear have a bad reputation. Stanley Aiklone: ‘They can become very aggressive when you are alone. In September, during the corn harvest, they may roam near villages. In a Karen village, I once met with a woman who had been attacked by a bear. A blow from its forepaw, had left her unconscious. Luckily for her, because after that the animal only sniffed at her body, and then walked away. Usually bears don’t eat meat.’
When surprised by a bear, freezing may be the best response. Most animals will retreat. But if the bear intends to attack, the situation is precarious. It runs faster than a man and can easily climb trees. An experienced forest ranger’s advice is to look for a bamboo grove and hide in between the bamboo stems. Bear are likely to be too plump and broad to get at you in the grove. Hopefully, in such a case, no snake is hidden among the bamboos!
1. Many seasoned explorers of the Thai jungle consider the Malay Sun Bear as the most unfriendly of the larger animals, as it is inclined to become aggressive. 2. The venomous green pit-vipers such as this Pope’s Pit-viper are responsible for numerous serious snake bites in the northern Thai forests. 3. The Green Tree Racer, however, is harmless.
Swiss biologist Hans Bänziger from the University of Chiang Mai is an expert on the pollination of orchids. To study this he often climbs trees, for many species only live there. Sometimes he spends hours and hours for days on end sitting on tree branches, eagerly waiting for pollinating insects to land — which occurs rather infrequently. ‘Once, however, I witnessed eight pollinations within an hour.’ Bänziger has never encountered ill-intended large animals. ‘But high in a tree, I was once attacked by a swarm of wasps — which wasn’t funny. At another time I found the tree in which I had spent the previous day had fallen down. Often one cannot see that a tree is rotten through inside.’
Occasionally falling trees may be a threat. Biologists Jeremy and Patricia Raemaekers once witnessed an “epidemic” of them during a storm in the Khao Yai National Park. In their diary they wrote: ‘A hoary old giant narrowly missed the rain gauge today, and night and day we hear the dull crumb of more distant falls. The unnerving thing about a storm in the forest is that there is nowhere to run. You are surrounded by trees and, for all you know, any one is as likely to fall as any other…There was a horrible grating noise behind us and a tree toppled right across where we had been standing moments before. It was a perfectly healthy-looking tree 130 feet tall, and it took just three seconds to fall.’
But of all dangers, getting lost may be the most serious threat. Without a compass, orientation is virtually impossible in dense forest. The sun is either invisible or shining at a perpendicular to the canopy. Dusk falls rapidly; around 5 p.m.it is already pretty dark. Inexperienced trekkers may panic. They will walk faster and become careless and are more likely to disturb a snake or get wounded in a fall.
Maybe the best advice is to keep cool and follow a brook downstream. Certainly, this may not be easy. The vegetation along a stream may be dense, while wading in the water may be difficult because of slippery rocks and strong currents.
When lost, and off the trails, poachers’ traps may be a risk. Stanley Aiklone: ‘Traps are almost invisible. The sharp bamboo sticks can kill a person. They are often hidden many miles away from a village.’ If you are lost, exhausted and hungry, a wide spectrum of nasty tiny creatures may contribute to the misery. Mosquitoes, ticks, and leeches will certainly feel attracted to your sweating body.
Coming across humans does not automatically imply salvation, either. Men may even be a greater threat than wild animals. Professor Brockelman: ‘The poachers I met were in general friendly, but in wildlife sanctuaries or other protected areas they may suspect that you will be a tell-tale.’ Near the Burmese border, Hans Bänziger once came across a concealed heroin refinery. ‘People involved with drugs don’t like visitors. Fortunately, they did not see me.’ Also the members of revolutionary groups — now very rare in Thailand — will not be happy to meet you. They may think you are a spy and take no risk. And there are the occasional robbers and outlaws. Guide Stanley admits that such persons have caused him more tense moments than any wild animal.
1. Healthy-looking trees may suddenly fall down, such as this giant in Doi Inthanon National park. 2. The roads through Thailand’s jungles are accident-prone. A driver lost control of his truck in the Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary. 3. Many visitors to waterfalls are killed by falls from slippery rocks or are drowned.
When a person disappears in the jungle, we can only guess what has happened. Not a trace has ever been found of the American businessman Jim Thompson of Thai silk fame, who disappeared in 1967 in a mountain forest in Malaysia, giving rise to numerous alternative explanations, like kidnapping.
Statistics about accidents in the jungle are virtually non-existent. But nearly all seasoned explorers of the jungle agree that, if well-prepared, the jungle is as safe as any other place, with wild animals posing only a minor threat.
Most accidents result from carelessness and are completely man-made. The casualties in the Khao Yai National Park do illustrate this. Since the park’s creation in 1962, less than ten persons have been killed by large animals. On the other hand, traffic accidents on the road through the park, and the slippery rocks near the picturesque waterfalls, have killed a far larger number.
©SJON HAUSER: text and pictures
This article was first published in Guidelines Chiang Mai, December 1998, volume 5 (12): 10-12. A version of the story in Dutch was published in KIJK, July 1998: 16-19.