Like many wild places, Khao Yai National Park faces threats from human development and encroachment. Agriculture is expanding to the east, luxury resorts and golf courses are springing up to the west, and the park is bisected in some places by highways that cross wildlife corridors and result in traffic accidents and animal fatalities.
Wild Asian elephants are the marquee attraction at Khao Yai, Thailand’s oldest and largest national park. There are 120 of them still in the wild here—surely you ought to see some. After all, they are omnivorous vegetarians, eating grass, branches, leaves, and fruit as they ramble in the course of a day through many different vegetation zones. An elephant is an awfully big animal—how could you miss it?
So you hike through the jungle—mainland Asia’s largest swath of monsoon forest, where towering moss-draped trees support a bewildering mass of creepers, climbers, lianas, strangler figs, orchids, lichens—and you spot your first evidence: birds pecking at a ball of elephant dung. In a bamboo forest on the lower slopes of the mountain, you spy gentle guars munching shreds of bamboo stalks left behind by choosy elephants, who only like the middle parts. You take a night safari in a jeep, using spotlights to catch nighttime wildlife activity—civets, sambars, a wild hog . . . but no elephant.
But then you get distracted. You cross the grasslands and hear the barking deer utter their distinctive cry. You hike up to a waterfall and surprise a waddling porcupine. You spend time in the observation towers, bird-watching for magnificent giant hornbills, or great flocks of Indian Pieds. A gibbon hoots in the trees above you; comical macaques loiter alongside the roads like furry little hitchhikers. At evening, your guide leads you to the bat cave on the edge of the park, where hundreds of thousands of tiny insect-eating bats swarm out to do their night’s hunting. (Hiring a local guide is a very good idea, with over 50km/30 miles of trails to navigate, and so many different wildlife species to scout out.)
After all, Khao Yai is a big park, and only 20% is open to visitors, which is why really elusive species like tigers and clouded leopards can escape tourists completely. Khao Yai’s size enables it to support large roaming species like elephants. Even better, a chain of parks across this region has almost completed a continuous wildlife corridor, so animals can range from park to park. Rangers and conservationists are joining forces to end the rampant poaching that endangers so many of Thailand’s rare species.
Early next morning, as you head for the salt lick—the jungle equivalent of the village green—you’re not expecting elephants anymore. And then, you come around a bend in the trail and see the great gray pachyderm, placidly working at the salt with her pink tongue. You stand stock still, awed and overcome. She lifts her head, gazes at you, then swings her trunk and trots away.