The rare and illusive Malayan Tapir.Malayan Tapir Sighting

Swinging gracefully from branch to branch, high up in the thick jungle canopy, a small group of White-handed Gibbons seemed disinterested in our small group of kayakers. We were paddling in Khao Sok National Park, my favorite destination in southern Thailand for seeing wildlife. Kayaks allow us to get fairly close to animals and birds that would normally flee from trekkers. Historically, humans walking in the jungle were out to shoot animals. Approaching animals from the water obviously doesn't seem threatening to these animals.

As the gibbons moved around a bit, I paddled around to the other side of the point to see if I could get a better view. Entered the next cove, I noticed a couple of very large black and light gray figures on the far shore. They were perhaps 80 meters from my position. Through my binoculars I saw something I never even dreamed I would see… two Malayan Tapirs feeding on the grass along the banks of the Cheow Lan Reservoir! What an incredible sighting.

The other group members slowly started paddling to me. With hand signals, I tried desperately to let them know what was happening. Containing my excitement was very difficult. I didn't want to make any sudden or radical movements, but I had to their attention. Everyone finally realized that I was extremely fired up about something. Pointing to the far shore was all it took for them to realize why.

Luckily, Eugene Boyle, a guest and friend on this trip, had brought his digital video camera and his digital camera. He started shooting right away. Gradually, we crept toward these wonderful odd-looking beings. Their elephant-like snouts would wrap around stalks of tall grass, then with a slight tug, the green cuisine was moved from snout to mouth.

Sadly, the Malayan Tapir or Asian Tapir is a threatened species.Malayan Tapir facts

There are four species of Tapir in the world. The Asia or Malayan Tapir (tapirus indicus) taxonomically speaking, are actually related to horses and rhinoceroses. They are among the most primitive large mammals in existence. They have not evolved for eons. Malayan Tapirs inhabit most of Southeast Asia. Their range includes Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. They are now believed to be nearly extinct in most of these places. The remoteness and expanse of Khao Sok provide probably the only habitat available in southern Thailand for Tapirs.

Tapirs are a very threatened species. The reasons for its drop in these magnificent animals included capture for the live animal trade, hunting, logging, human encroachment and loss of habitat. Actual numbers of wild tapirs are not known.

The Malayan tapir weighs up to and occasionally over 800 pounds. They reach a length of six to eight feet and can be over three feet tall. The Malayan tapir is an odd-toed ungulate. We were able to get close enough to see that they had four toes on their front feet and three toes on their rear feet. Their middle toe is longer and larger than the others.

Captive Tapirs have lived as long as thirty years.

The tapir's diet consists of grass, leaves, shoots, aquatic plants, soft twigs, succulent herbs and shoots.

Our sighting was exceptionally rare as Malayan Tapirs are primarily nocturnal and primarily solitary. Recent studies of wild tapir however, show that they do sometimes travel in pairs. We were observing one male and one female.

Our one-in-a-million encounter is forever ingrained in our minds and hearts. Let's all hope that these lovely passive beings have a place to exist in the future.

Trekking in Khao Sok National Park

Wild pepper.In our never-ending quest to find new places to explore, we decided to add a trekking option to our Khao Sok itineraries. The day before seeing the tapirs, we went on a little walk through the jungle.

We chose a remote part of the park where no one else goes. We had no real idea what we were in for. Our first steps on terra firma were up a waterfall. The surrounding scenery was very pleasant with towering limestone karst mountains to the east and sensual feast of colors, texture and aromas encircling our small party... it was Paradise Found!Jungle insects are always amazing.

As we traveled slowly through the verdant tropical jungle, we encountered many small wonders. It sometimes seems odd to me that people desire seeing BIG things when there is a delightful small world right under our feet. Strange insects fascinate me. At one point we came upon a rather large 'rollie pollie'... well, that's what I called them when I was a kid anyway. The American version is quite small compared to what we saw. This tough bug was black and white. It assumed the defensive position as soon as I touched it. We all gathered around to check him/her out, then set him/her free.

The hard petals on the outer pod are edible.A small translucent flower... lovely isn't it?Further down the trail, we came upon an odd pod with a lovely white flower blossoming out of the hard shell. Our park guide told us that the outer petals were edible, so we sampled it. Hmmm, nothing comes to mind to compare it to; it wasn't bad though. I wondered how many Westerners had ever tasted this peculiar snack.

Our progress was slow as the terrain was rugged. Elephant dung was a common sighting. Rich mosses and tiny flowers carpeted the rocks along the creek we navigated. Again, it's the small world that is so appealing if you take the time to look at it. Sure, bushy flowers are beautiful and orchids are delightful, but there is a miniature flower population in the jungles of Thailand that are equally as beautiful in my opinion.

Intrepid jungle explorers!The trail was easy once we got out of the ravine section. The footing was good and the scenery soothed the soul. Khao Sok is a rugged setting. Finding a trail that is flat is not going to be easy.

All in all, the trek was quite rewarding. It wouldn't be a trek that anyone can do as the creekbed portion of the trek was a bit slippery and steep at times (see photo to the left). We are in search of a trek that is safe as well as stunningly beautiful. If you're sure-footed and like a bit more adventure, this trek suits the bill just fine. As it turns out, we didn't make it all the way to a cave that the park guide told us about. It looks like we'll just have to go there again. We'll do this trek again soon as well as a trek to another area of the park.

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