by Ian Lloyd Neubauer, The Telegraph, June 18, 2018
Far from the typical tourist haunts of southern Thailand is Koh Phra Thong, a pancake-flat island 200km north of Phuket with an ecosystem rare not only to Thailand but all of south-east Asia – a tropical savannah that bears striking resemblance to those of Africa.
In place of lions and gazelles, Koh Phra Thong's savannah supports deer, wild boar, monkeys, pythons, otters, leopard cats and various carnivorous plants.
Koh Phra Thong is also one of Thailand's premier birdwatching destinations and one of the last places in the world where you can see – if you get out of bed early enough – the endangered lesser adjutant stork.
Biologists believe the storks continue to thrive on Koh Phra Thong because of the lack of human interference. There are no taxis, no ATMs, no hospitals, no mains electricity, no hospital and only two small concrete roads on Koh Phra Thong. Subsequently, only about 3,000 tourists visit the island every year. But electricity pylons are now being planted and according to the rumour mill, Koh Phra Thong will be connected to the grid as early as November. And that, some locals fear, will unleash the kind of unregulated tourism development that has transformed many of Thailand's most beautiful islands.
“When I came from France six years ago, there were only one or two other resorts on the island,” says Valerie Blouin, general manager of Golden Buddha Resort. “But now there are five or six and people are claiming land all over the island because they're anticipating a tourism boom.”
Go your own way
When backpackers began exploring the islands of Thailand in the 1960s, they had to charter longtail fishing boats from the mainland. By the 1990s, clunky old wooden passenger ferries had connected most of the country's inhabited islands to the mainland, while today's tourists use speedboats. But at Koh Phra Thong nothing has changed: the only way to get there is chartering a fishing boat from Mangrove Pier near the town of Khuraburi. The hourlong journey tracks a course through a mangrove canal that empties into a marine estuary backdropped by the blue-grey ranges of Thailand's Andaman coast.
Can deer surf?
In lieu of their natural predators – tigers and crocodiles – sambar deer have thrived on Koh Phra Thong. Yet the animals remain extremely skittish. “It is very difficult to see them,” says Horizon Eco Resort's Lory Follador, an Italian living on the island for 22 years. “The only way to do so is by going into the savannah at night on foot because cars frighten them.” She adds: “Sometimes you can also see them on the beach but that's really rare.” Last year, a visitor filmed one of these rare sightings. Towards the end of the clip, the stag appears to try – and fail – to ride a wave into shore.
Monkeys that use tools
Primatologists from around the world have travelled to the islands of southern Thailand to study long-tail macaques that use rocks to jimmy open nuts and oysters. “We should view macaques as highly intelligent problem solvers in the same way that chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys are, and early humans were also,” Professor Tomos Proffitt of University College London told the AFP news service.
On Koh Phra Thong, macaques use tools to access another kind of prey. “They catch crabs and use stones to smash them open to make them easier to eat,” says Blouin of Golden Buddha Resort.
The mystery of the disappearing turtles
With so little development, the beaches of Koh Phra Thong remained a popular nesting ground for endangered green, olive ridley and leatherback turtles long after the massive amphibians that grow up to 700kg abandoned the busy beaches of Phuket and the mainland.
In 1996, Italian conservation group Naucrates established a voluntourism project on Koh Phra Thong to patrol the island's beaches for nests, tag females, relocate and protect hatchlings where necessary and collect data. But in the past three years, only a handful of turtle nests have been found. This year, none were found. Naucrates' Koh Phra Thong team leader Anik Levac from Canada thinks commercial shrimp boats are to blame: “Day and night, you can see them out there dragging the ocean with their nets. Essentially they've created a barricade between this island and the ocean that prevents turtles from getting here,” she says.
Though it houses many animal species, Koh Phra Thong's savannah is quite inhospitable to humans. During the day it is suffocatingly hot while the fine white sand is laborious to walk on. The most practical way to see it is on a dawn safari when some of the savannah's mostly nocturnal wildlife is still semi-active. However, uptake for safaris isn't huge.
“Most tourists are not interested in the savannah,” says Follador of Horizon Eco Resort. “They come because this is a 'lost island' and to be by the sea.” But Blouin of Golden Buddha Resort says the disinterest is a good thing. “The savannah is super fragile because the grass that holds it together, all you have to do is drive over it once and it dies,” she says.
Even more unseen than Koh Phra Thong's savannah are the mangrove forests that dominate the eastern half of the island. Though smelly and spooky-looking, with elongated roots that jut out of mud, mangroves provide an important nursery ground for fish and crustaceans and act as a filter for terrestrial runoff. Mangroves are also one of the world’s primary storers of 'blue carbon' – a term given to carbon accumulated in coastal and marine ecosystems. Koh Phra Thong's mangroves are pristine, though in many other parts of south-east Asia they haven't fared as well. Satellite images show around about 40 per cent of the region's mangrove forests have been affected by human activity.
Birds of a feather
Koh Phra Thong is listed as an Important Bird Area by Bird Life International. The island's airspace is frequented by at least 137 species of eagles, kites, kingfishers, woodpeckers, owls, bluebirds, stalks, parrots, pigeons, dove, drongos, egrets, sunbirds, quail and hornbills, including the Malaysian pied hornbill (pictured below) – one of the smallest of all Asian hornbills. The largest – the great hornbill – also found on Kho Phra Thong, has a wingspan up to 1.5m and uses the colourful casque or lump on its bill to 'casque-but' other hornbills that venture into their territory.
“If you really want to get a sense of Africa in Thailand,” says Steven Smith, an expat from the US who spends his winters on Koh Phra Thong, “you also need to visit Khao Sok National Park on the mainland. If Koh Phra Thong is the Sahara, then Khao Sok is the Congo.”
Set 100km inland, Khao Sok protects 739 sq-km of ancient rainforest and the endangered wildlife that hides within: tigers, clouded leopards, langur, barking deer, sun bears and Asian elephants – the national symbol of Thailand. A century ago, 100,000 elephants roamed Thailand. Today there are only 3,000 left in the wild, including a population of about 150 at Khao Sok. But they are as hard to see as deer at Koh Phra Thong.
The photo above of domesticated elephants rescued from a logging camp was taken at Elephant Hills, a luxury tent camp on Khao Sok's outskirts. “We don’t do rides because before our elephants had to work very hard in the logging camp and now we just want them to be happy,” says guide Suwalai Katkaew. “But now we have spoilt them and they've become quite lazy.”