Khao Sok National Park’s 739 square kilometers of virgin rainforest contain spectacular waterfalls cascading down majestically towering limestone cliffs, and a large and particularly atmospheric lake.
The first accounts of people living in Khao Sok date back to the reign of King Rama II, when the Burmese attacked southwestern coastal towns and people fled into the jungle for safety. As news spread that the region was rich in animal life and had fertile soils, more people moved to the region. Then a deadly epidemic swept through the region, decimating the population. Almost all of those who survived moved out of the area and the main village became known as “Ban Sop” – or “Village of the Dead”.
In 1961 a new road opened up the area for plantations, logging and mining, to the detriment of the rainforest and of the Sok river, which began to run brown with sediment runoff as a result of soil erosion. In the 1970’s radical Thai students joined the then communist insurgency and set up a stronghold in Khao Sok, since it was ideal territory in which to hide and wage guerilla warfare. Between 1975 and 1982 these ex-students not only kept the Thai Army at bay, they also kept out the loggers, miners and hunters who were threatening the region’s ecology. Had it not been for this seven year occupation, Khao Sok’s forests may well have gone the same way as much of the rest of Thailand’s wilderness – up in smoke. In 1982 the Paseng river was dammed in order to generate hydroelectric power, creating the park’s 165 square kilometer lake.
A good way to see the park is by joining a tour run by http://www.khaosok.com, which combines foot and elephant trekking with canoeing on the Sok River and longtail boat exploration of the lake. The accommodation is clean but very basic; if you have time, choose the 3-day tour in order to spend a whole day at the stunning Cheow Larn Lake, which is a very special place. After sleeping like a baby, rocked by the gentle swells of the lake on which your bungalow floats, you awaken to the territorial cries of gibbons in the canopy above. The surrounding hills are often covered in an atmospheric mist which, as it is slowly melted by the rising sun, is suffused with subtle shades of pink and amber.
Species diversity is high in Khao Sok. The number of different species present in the fossil record increased markedly during the last ice age, when sea levels fell to such an extent that new land bridges formed from the Malaysian mainland to Borneo and to some of the Indonesian islands. This opened up new migration routes to land based animals. Notes on some of the more interesting creatures follow.
The park’s wild elephant and tiger populations are under threat from poachers, who sell ivory and tiger body parts for use in Chinese so-called medicine. The maximum punishment is a three-year jail term and a fine of 40,000 Baht, but convictions from the 50-100 arrests each year generally result in fines of only 2,000 Baht, a paltry deterrent. The Clouded Leopard has the longest canines, relatively speaking, of any living cat species and is thought to be a descendant of the huge and long-extinct Sabre Tooth Tiger.
The gibbon is hard to see, since it spends most of its life high in the canopy, but it is common to hear its songs, which are used to mark out territory and warn family members of approaching predators. Gibbons have long arms, enabling them to swing between tree branches at speeds as high as 35 mph.
Most people think that the Leopard and the Black Panther are two different species, but they are actually both leopards. ‘Melanism’ (the opposite of albinism) occurs due to the expression of a single recessive gene, resulting in individual cats that are all black. The Malaysian Sun bear, which is the smallest bear in the world, has no predators other than man, who uses their bile in Chinese medicine. Sun bears, so named because of the gold crescent on their chest, have loose skin on their necks and, if attacked from behind, can turn their heads and aggressively defend themselves.
A bite from a King Cobra, the longest venomous snake in the world and intelligent enough to be trained, has enough volume and toxicity to kill an elephant. The likelihood of this actually happening in the wild is however low, since the strike would have to be in a place where the elephant’s skin is thin, like the end of its trunk.
Spitting Cobras can accurately spit venom into the eyes from as far away as 3 metres, causing temporary or, if untreated, permanent blindness.
There are 48 different species of venomous snake in Khao Sok. Lethal bites are very rare, since the snake does not always deliver a full dose of poison, unless it is either really irritated or is a juvenile that doesn’t yet have full control of its biting anatomy. There are only about 10 to 20 snake-related deaths in Thailand each year. If you come very close to a snake hanging in the vegetation, freeze and blow in its direction: it will hopefully go away. Stay stock still and do not call for assistance from other people. Do not handle dead snakes; they can still bite through reflex. If bitten, do not attempt to suck the poison out by mouth, you can cause infection to the wound and poison yourself in the process. Also, do not apply ice, which inhibits the body’s natural defences.
The Thailand Black Tarantula moves fast and is quite aggressive, so it is advisable to give it a wide berth. They have a poisonous bite, but are not deadly to humans unless the victim is allergic. They can also eject stiff, sharp, barbed hairs from their abdomen, which they use like miniature spears.
One of the largest and heaviest scorpions in the world lives in Khao Sok: it has a large pair of powerful pincers in front, with a long poison-tipped tail at the rear with which it repeatedly stabs its victims into paralysis. The poison from scorpions usually has no more effect on humans than that of a bee sting but it can, if a person is allergic, be fatal.
During reproduction, the male will grab the female pincer-to-pincer, which then leads to what has been described as a dance. In fact the male is searching for a flat place to lay his spermatophore, whilst attempting to avoid being eaten by his partner. The female is then pulled over this deposit and absorbs it into her body in order to fertilise her eggs. This ‘dance’, which can last anything from one to twenty five hours, often ends with the male being devoured by his much larger lover.
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