Magazine article Geographical

Thai & Wild: Although Thailand Is Home to a Rich Array of Wildlife, Poor Environmental Legislation Means Its Future Is in the Balance. Tourists Can Help Change That

Magazine article Geographical

Thai & Wild: Although Thailand Is Home to a Rich Array of Wildlife, Poor Environmental Legislation Means Its Future Is in the Balance. Tourists Can Help Change That

Article excerpt

Thailand's wildlife has had a rough time of it. Its national parks are young--the first, Khao Yai, was declared in 1961--and most of them are seriously underfunded and face the threat of land clearing by subsistence farmers, illegal logging and both opportunistic and systematic poaching. Thailand's forests have been depleted to a greater extent than those of any other Southeast Asian nation, with the exception of Singapore.

So, although nearly 15 per cent of its land is protected in some way, it's probably too little, too late for many of its species--more than 40 mammal, 190 bird and 30 reptile and amphibian species are currently endangered. The Sumatran and Javan rhinos are among several species that are probably already extinct in Thailand. Several others are living on borrowed time, including the tiger--only about 500 remain--and the Malayan tapir, an odd-looking creature with an elongated, flexible snout.

But if the country's wildlife is in such a parlous state, why would anyone want to go to see it?

Well, first, there are still plenty of other animals to see. Sitting on the boundaries of three zoogeographical regions, Thailand supports an incredibly high diversity of species--ten per cent of the world's bird species alone can be found within its borders.

And, second, the only hope for the country's wildlife is for a cultural change in attitudes towards wildlife, both at governmental and local levels. The first step in the growth of grassroots conservation is to cultivate an appreciation of the intrinsic value of the environment, and wildlife tourism is an effective way of making such a change.

One area where that change appears to be taking place already is in Thailand's seas, which have been attracting tourists for decades. Indeed, when most people think of Thailand, they think of lazing around on white-sand beaches sipping brightly coloured, umbrella-sporting drinks. But slip into the warm, crystal waters and you'll meet an equally brightly coloured collection of creatures.

Thailand offers some of the world's best diving and snorkelling. The water temperature sits at a very comfortable 27-29[degrees]C throughout the year--perfect for both divers and marine life--and with two coastlines and countless islands, underwater explorers are truly spoilt for choice. Many of the reefs are no deeper than a few metres, making them easily accessible to snorkellers and extending the length of dives. A system of national marine parks also helps to maintain the diversity and abundance of marine life, although cyanide fishing for the aquarium trade has devastated reefs in some areas.

Owing to its proximity to Bangkok and its year-round dive season, Pattaya is the country's largest dive centre. Phuket comes in second in terms of size, but has the largest variety of sites. Beyond these areas, dive operations are popping up all over Thailand's coasts.

Two increasingly popular destinations are the Similan and Surin islands. Located in the Andaman Sea, both island groups are protected by national marine parks. Some of the best diving is to be had in the channels between the islands, but the region also supports numerous granite seamounts that are encrusted with teeming coral cities. The best time to visit is between December and May, when visibility reaches more than 25 metres.

As well as the abundant resident sealife, the waters around the islands are visited by whale sharks, the world's largest fish, and majestic manta rays. Both typically turn up during March and April, when warm water temperatures cause the local plankton population to surge.

If you're feeling lazy, you can stay on the beach and wait for the marine life to come to you. Four of the world's six species of marine turtle visit Thai waters--the Pacific ridley, hawksbill, green and leatherback turtles--and each year between October and March, under cover of darkness, the females haul themselves from the water to lay their eggs in nests on the beaches. …

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