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Search for water truce in Thailand

An elephant forest in Thailand. As forests and food sources dry out, animals are affected as well, especially elephants, who on average drink about 200 litres of water every day.
An elephant forest in Thailand. As forests and food sources dry out, animals are affected as well, especially elephants, who on average drink about 200 litres of water every day. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Across much of South-east Asia, from the dry zones of central Myanmar baking in the sun, to the creaking leafless bamboo forests of northern Thailand, there is a smell of smoke in the air.

Drought and fires are not strangers here. Every summer, farmers brace themselves as reservoirs fall and streams dry up. Fires once set - often to clear land - tear slowly through fields and forests, and an acrid haze shrouds the region.

On a recent flight from Bangkok to Naypyitaw, as night fell and we began our descent, I saw the forest fires far below - in the dark of night, arcs of bright flickering orange eating their way through the landscape.

But this year is worse than usual. Last week in Hanoi, Nguyen Dang Quang, a drought expert at the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, said temperatures in central and southern Vietnam in April and May will be around 1 deg C higher than the recent yearly average.

"April will be an extremely dangerous time for drought and saltwater intrusion," he said.

 In the cities of Bangkok and Yangon, temperatures have soared to the high 30s - heat reminiscent of drier desert regions.

In Thailand, water is being pumped from the muddy bottom of dried-out reservoirs. Thais have even been warned by the military regime not to use water during the water festival that begins next week across the region.

That is not the only warning. As forests and food sources dry out, it affects animals as well, especially elephants who drink an average of 200 litres of water a day.

Across Thailand's remaining wild elephant habitats, elephants have increasingly emerged in surrounding farmland in search of water, as forest pools dry out.

The Department of National Parks fills forest pools with water from tankers, but it is often not enough. Elephants do best with running water, and also do not like sharing water which buffaloes have used.

But their search for water in human habitats can bring them in dangerously close proximity to people. Warnings to people have been issued in some farm and forest areas close to wild elephant habitats.

This week, The Nation reported that a helicopter survey of Kaeng Krachan National Park - Thailand's largest national park - had found all the creeks dried up, and small nearby water sources drastically depleted.  

Authorities were filling water sources in the national park at the rate of 100,000 litres per day, but even then, 20 to 40 elephants from the park have been coming out for water in two locations, Pa La Oo and Pa Deng, every evening. These are outside the forest and near farmlands.

They are being closely monitored. It is the same situation in several other smaller elephant habitats. All told, there are some 2,700 wild elephants in various habitats across the country; often the habitats are relatively small and surrounded by farms with plentiful water and attractive crops.

I recently visited a forest where the water holes were drying up. The slow-rising heat was stifling as I set out on a walk. Underfoot dry leaves crackled as I stooped below thorny branches, climbing slowly up the hill following a dry stream bed.

The small pools of water had dried up leaving only rock and brittle yellowed leaves. In the late afternoon heat, even the birds sat still, knowing somewhere, somehow, sometime, it must rain.

As I walked, a fragment of a book came back to me. During a time of terrible drought in the forest, Hathi, the big male elephant of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, announced a "water truce" in which all the animals of the forest, subduing natural instincts of predator and prey, gathered amicably at the last pool of water.

There is considerable artistic licence in the description, but it is a fact that wildlife must congregate near water.

That night, I slept in a light sleeping bag on the covered wooden deck of a cabin in a large clearing in the bamboo forest, next to some other small buildings and a field kitchen. This is the base of the park rangers who live here, occasionally going out to patrol the forest.

Deer wander around the clearing. Elephants often come by to drink; the rangers leave them alone, the elephants in return, leave them alone. Their objective is a water tank.

I awoke, startled by a loud noise. I later worked out that it came from a tin can knocked over by an elephant, but as I opened my eyes, there he was to my right, just a few metres away. It was a big tuskless bull. He was also in musth; I could smell the testosterone discharge from his temples. Bull elephants in musth become irritable and unpredictable.

I moved slightly, and he saw the movement and stopped, turning towards me and walking right up to the wooden platform. As he strode up, I inched a little to the left to put some distance between him and me, but then realised I could do little in a sleeping bag. I then froze.

He loomed over me, black against the moonlit sky, his trunk reaching out to check the flimsy wooden railing, and then reaching out to sniff me. I lay there looking at the end of his trunk just a metre away. My heart was hammering and my brain was racing with scenarios, but I didn't twitch. I meant no harm to the elephant and hoped he would sense that.

After an interminable time which must have realistically been about 15 seconds with his trunk checking me, he took a breath and turned aside, slightly withdrawing his trunk. He then reached with his trunk into a black drum a few feet away from my head, which had some water at the bottom of it. He sucked up two trunks full noisily, splashing water right next to me. I could see his eyeball; he was watching me all the time. I did not move.

Then he backed off and walked around the back of the cabin and vanished into the night. Suddenly, there was a sound like a pistol shot; the next morning we found he had broken the windshield of one of the rangers' pickup trucks.

It was the most uniquely close encounter I have had with a wild elephant. These are conflict elephants, often venturing out into fields. Yet when not bothered, they are inherently placid and don't do any harm if they don't feel threatened.

Perhaps it had been our own water truce.