Welcome to the jungle, baby

Or how I learned the true meaning of eco-tourism

by Irma Nunez

KANCHANABURI, Thailand — The night before, we were each issued a backpack. Inside was a bottle of water, a packet of electrolyte drink mix, some first-aid stuff, a rain poncho, a pair of leech socks and a field notebook. But instead of studying up on the local ecology and generally preparing ourselves for the planned five-hour trek through the southern tip of Erawan National Park, we chose to drink at our floating hotel’s “jungle bar” and indulge in full-body massages by candlelight.

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At the Royal Forestry Department breeding station in Kanchanburi, Thailand, sightings of wildlife, like the massive gaur (above), are guaranteed.
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It was all right, this eco-tourism business.

Sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the trip so far had been one of ease: canoeing on the River Kwai with genuinely warm, funny guides; a visit to a Royal Forestry Department breeding station, where sightings of sambar deer and gaur (the world’s largest wild cattle species) were guaranteed; and a night on The River Kwai Jungle Rafts.

The only complaint was filed by one of the more adventurous of our group: The massage, she said, was “too soft.” But the truth of it was that we, as a group, were too soft. With the exception of the guy who took people mountain climbing for a living, we were city folk who worked in air-conditioned offices with drinks machines and heated toilets.

So the leech socks should’ve given us pause for thought.

Our forest outing was being organized by Wild Watch Thailand, one of the better examples of Thailand’s growing eco-tourism movement. Naturalist Neil Challis and wildlife biologist Peter Cutter began offering tours of Thailand’s “last remaining wilderness” with two goals in mind: education and conservation.

Clearly, mass tourism has had a devastating effect on the country, with even those visiting to appreciate Thailand’s natural environment contributing to its destruction. Boating and scuba diving impact the coral and other marine life. Logging to build beach-front accommodation for those divers and sunbathers is stripping the forests. Even “protected” areas aren’t safe from exploitation; Koh Samet, an island destination popular for its proximity to Bangkok, is actually a national park — with a string of discos just a few hundred meters beyond its entry gate.

Still, tourism is an important pillar of the Thai economy, worth $5 billion to $6 billion a year, and the country certainly has a natural environment worth sharing. Wild Watch, and other start-up eco-tourism outfits like it, are taking a symbiotic approach. The idea is that nature should be protected and appreciated and not exploited or made to dance for us. But for TV-watching consumers, this can be hard to grasp. Say flora, and we think Dial-a-Flower. Say fauna, we think Bambi. “Tour” means someone else keeping us on schedule and a souvenir shop at the end.

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While we were not the euphemistic “immorality tourists” the TAT has been aggressively trying to distance itself from since the launch of its “Amazing Thailand” campaign in 1997, we weren’t exactly “quality foreign eco-tourists” either. We wanted to be amazed, and when that wasn’t possible, we wanted things to be easy.

But like a good tour group, we did at least the minimum: up and ready at dawn in long sleeves; our leech socks pulled over our pants and tied just below the knees. And when we reached the forest’s entrance, we peed in the tall grass with little harrumping.

Our guide was young, enthusiastic and clearly familiar with the territory, though she was smartly aided by maps, a GPS tracking system, bug spray and a machete-wielding forest ranger. She was straight with us: We were more likely to encounter a leech than a photogenic tiger. (“Don’t freak out,” she said. “Once we’ve burned the leech off, you’ll bleed for about 20 minutes, but it’s OK.”) We were told to keep our eyes peeled for signs of wildlife — e.g. tracks and scat — and be realistic. See the forest for the trees. Or something like that. So we walked. And it looked like a forest. And since none of us were naturalists (or had studied our field notebooks, with its species checklists and nature appreciation tips), when our guide and ranger were quiet, conversation tended toward “Isn’t that a big palm frond?”

For the first two hours, we walked mainly among paths created by wild elephants. The ranger would point out crabs in the stream and birds’ nests in the trees (things we never would’ve spotted on our own); the guide talked earnestly about various plants and the effects of modern living on the ecosystem. It was fine, though clearly we weren’t dealing with nature on the same level; like being drawn into a play scenario with two excited children and their imaginary friend. We looked and listened where and when directed, but otherwise just walked along trying not to trip over the vines.

Until we got lost and left on our own. And then suddenly we became more sensitive to our surroundings.

What happened was the GPS got left behind during one of our breaks, and so our guide and ranger were forced to go back, leaving us in a clearing near a stream where wild elephants were said to bathe and drink. They said they would be back in 15 minutes, but after 30 wondering if that was the wind or a big pachyderm coming through the bamboo, we started to panic. Boar, she had said. Tigers. Even though we hadn’t met with any wildlife outside of bugs and a bird with a missing wing, we were still several hours into the forest with no sense of direction and suddenly very active imaginations. The forest was powerful and untamed. We were weak and domesticated. Even the mountain climber was nervous.

Then they came back. Hurrah, we thought, we may have been delayed, but there’s only an hour and half left! If we double our pace, we can still meet our friends in Bangkok for drinks at 8. Someone actually said, “Let’s go!”

Silly city people.

We were, of course, in the middle of the forest. The GPS tracking system was not for show. Nor the machete. Even so aided, we took wrong turns and the trails were so grown over in places as to be unpassable.

It was too bad for our guide that just after the GPS incident, she came upon what should have been the day’s big excitement. Fresh tiger tracks in the mud. We rolled our eyes, and she ended up having to enthuse on her own: “This is a very good sign. If the tigers are coming back, that means the whole forest is healing!”

For the last 30 minutes of what turned out to be a more than nine-hour trek, I finally got a chance to talk with our guide one on one. She asked me what I thought about our hike and I told her truthfully I wished I were better prepared. I should have studied. I couldn’t appreciate it.

She looked a little disappointed, but she wasn’t surprised. “Everybody says that. I was here with a group of students earlier this week and the first thing they asked was, ‘Will we see monkeys? Can we pet them?’ “

My stomach turned. Though I wish I’d hadn’t, I’d had similar fantasies. National Geographic. The Discovery Channel. Ueno Petting Zoo.

But she didn’t laugh at us or shake her head at our ignorance. Her job was to educate the public and help conserve the wild at the same time, to teach us respect and appreciation — that nature is amazing, but it’s not always going to be cooperative.

Because a lack of this understanding causes much more harm than too-soft tourists rolling their eyes or leaving their field notebooks uncracked. It means there aren’t enough funds to train and adequately pay forest rangers. It means poachers feel justified killing rare animals for short-term profit. It means species die off and the forest is lost.

Wild Watch was doing something about it. You don’t need to get lost in the wild or, worse, lose the forest altogether to wise up. Keep your eyes peeled and be realistic. See the forest for the trees. Or something like that.

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