KHAO YAI NATIONAL PARK, Thailand – As animal lovers throughout the world grieved for the 11 wild elephants that were recently killed while attempting to save each other from a deadly waterfall at a national park in eastern Thailand, new details of the sequence of events that led to the tragedy emerged on Wednesday.
EFE went to Khao Yai National Park, the country’s oldest protected area, to visit the Haew Narok (“Hell’s Abyss”) waterfall where the pachyderms met their demise as they fell from a vertiginous height after being dragged by a powerful river current.
This dramatic loss of wildlife, the biggest since a similar incident in 1992 – when eight elephant carcasses were found at the same site – has sparked a heated public debate over whether the disaster could have been prevented or if humans were responsible by encroaching on the animals’ habitat.
Park ranger Narongrit “Tee” led the EFE-epa team along the river, which was overflowing at the apex of the rainy season. He pointed at the visible elephant tracks of varying sizes and the beasts’ unmistakable excrements.
Next to concrete posts warped in barbed wire intending to barr the behemoths’ passage through the popular hiking trail leading to the waterfall, broken bamboo branches and footprints seemed to indicate that elephants had swerved directly into the Tha Dan river.
Apparently, the unfortunate event started when a young calf, probably aged between 3-5 years old, was swept away by the current after attempting to circumvent the barrier.
The young one’s relatives sprang into the water in a bid to save it, but they too were helpless in the face of the current.
According to the ranger, based on the tracks, the herd may have been initially made up of 15 members in total, although that number could not be confirmed by other officials.
He recounted how on Friday night, he and his colleagues heard loud braying, which they initially attributed to a mother elephant giving birth. But this process generally takes three hours, and the noise went on throughout the night, which made them suspect that something was amiss.
After sunrise, the rangers approached the waterfall and found two surviving elephants – a 35-year-old mother and a five-year-old calf – floundering on large rocks on the opposite bank of the river.
The two survivors managed to cross back on their own after the mother tested the water levels with her trunk, but were greatly weakened by the effort. Rangers gave them buckets with bananas, pineapples and sugar cane to provide them with glucose for an energy boost, and kept watch over them while they recovered. But the traumatized animals refused to eat and were visibly nervous as by then, a crowd had gathered at the site.
The officials decided to leave them alone there, watched them hidden from afar and checked up on them periodically. The mother-and-calf duo spent the night recuperating and eventually left the river bank at 5 am the next day.
They were later spotted by villagers who took pictures and recognized the white spots that speckled the mother’s ears. The feces found nearby also contained traces of pineapple, confirming their identity.
The ranger said they were probably still within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius as they were too weak from the struggle against the current to stray further away.
He showed a second area where something that was clearly big had damaged the infrastructure: the clues included a completely broken stair railing and cracked cement steps.
It was hard to picture an animal the size of a school bus being able to traverse that muddy and extremely slippery area with the nimbleness of a mountain goat. If it was a challenge for a puny human not to skid, it must have been even harder for a jumbo-sized elephant to keep its balance.
Several offerings of jackfruit and bananas adorned with yellow flower garlands stood perched next to the waterfall. They had been left there by Buddhist monks in the morning after performing a ritual in which they asked the guardian spirits of the forest to protect other elephants living there.
Next, the expedition climbed up to the highest point in the area, braving a downpour in a taxing 20-minute hike to reach a vantage point that showed Haew Narok in all its awful glory.
“There!” the ranger cried out, pointing at the basal lake below the howling cataract.
It was the carcass of a young calf, floating listlessly in the basin, unaffected by the ferocious current as it was jammed between rocks.
The ranger gave out the alarm through his walkie talkie, unsure if this marked the discovery of a 12th victim. It turned out it was one of the 11 that had been identified and was a 3-to-5-year-old calf – possibly the one that unwittingly unleashed the cataclysm.
The infant elephant bobbed around in the water, its relatively tiny pink ears visible from the distance, before disappearing from view as it was engulfed by the mist.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
The Regional Director of Protected Areas for Prachinburi province, Witthaya Hongwiangchan, told EFE in an interview at his office that complex recovery efforts were underway to retrieve the carcasses, some of which were found at a great distance downstream from the waterfall, to prevent them from reaching a dam further to the east.
Giant nets have been set up, engineers have deployed cranes and industrial chainsaws are being used to cut up the animals to facilitate their removal from the water.
In addition, heavy drones capable of bearing loads of up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds) will spray a cocktail of chemicals made up predominantly of calcium hydroxide (better known as slaked lime) to help decompose the carcasses and kill the bacteria ensuing from rotting organic matter.
“Tomorrow, the team will bring in the trash bags to carry the dissected parts of the first two elephants we were able to retrieve,” he told EFE. “The elephants will be brought to the Tha Dan temple for their funeral. We will cremate them there.”
He added that their bones and ashes would be buried at the same spot where they fell into the rapids, right before their mortal plunge into Hell’s Abyss.