Did you ever see the movie The Beach where Leonardo DiCaprio discovers a fictitious island paradise far from the traffic and chaos of the modern world? Well I’m going to let you in on a little secret. It’s a real place.
Down in the southern reaches of Thailand, where the Thai-Malay Peninsula makes a bend to the southeast on its way towards the city state of Singapore, there’s a place called Khlong Saeng – which in Thai means “the canyon of light” – where I’ve been catching moonrats, treeshrews and occasionally (and unintentionally) falciparum malaria for my PhD research. It’s part of the largest block of forest in southern Thailand – covering 3500 square kilometers – but in the middle of it sits a large reservoir which provides electricity to Surat Thani province and an excellent site to study forest fragmentation and community disassembly.
The primary forest surrounding the lake is itself a reservoir of tropical biodiversity. You can find the largest terrestrial animal on the planet, the longest reptile in the world, and a diverse community of primates, carnivores, hornbills, and raptors. This past year, I saw gaurs – a heavily muscled bovid and the second largest animal in the forest – 15 times, usually grazing next to the lakeshore. Once I even spotted a group of gaurs while resting in my hammock after a day checking traplines spread across a few of the islands in the reservoir. Unlike the mainland forest, the reservoir archipelago is, as John Terborgh would say, “in ecological meltdown”. Just a few of the original medium- and large-sized mammals remain on the islands, and native small mammals have been nearly completely annihilated and displaced by an invasive species: Rattus tiomanicus.
My field station is based on one of the islands in the reservoir, inside a spectacular gorge and surrounded on all sides by karst mountains. In some places, the vertical limestone walls extend down into the depths of the reservoir, where we sometimes jump into the lake to cool off before returning to our base island. AIS – the largest mobile phone company in Thailand – installed a cell phone tower on the island to accommodate tourists’ needs to upload photos of the surrounding landscape that may actually be worth posting on Facebook (it is a beautiful place), and which I can use to check whether my manuscript has been rejected from Biotropica yet. That cell phone tower is powered by an array of solar panels, which also conveniently charges the batteries for my camera traps and for my laptop. It’s a comfortable field station, but still outside the delivery distance of the nearest Pizza Hut, 72 kilometers from the dam.
To get around the different islands on the lake, we use a long-tail boat, which is traditionally designed for use in shallow water and is widely used throughout Thailand’s river systems and in the seas surrounding the country. During visits to our sampling sites in the upper reaches of the reservoir, we park our boat on the shore and string our hammocks between dipterocarp trees next to the lake. After a meal of barbecued pork – and occasionally a fish caught by spear in the surrounding waters – we fall asleep to the sound of tokay geckos and wake to the calls of white-handed gibbons, or sometimes to the screams of my Thai field assistants if they have been covered by weaver ants during their sleep.
Little has been explored in this remote forest, which is like a ripe durian fruit awaiting further research. Contact me if interested!
National University of Singapore