The animal world of Thailand is highly diversified, though only the most attentive observer will be able to appreciate its range and variety; for most of the animals – particularly the mammals of the jungles, can be seen only with the aid of either luck or cunning.
The most famous of Thailand’s animals, still sometimes to be found in the wild state, is the elephant, which for almost a century, until 1916, was the emblem of Siam, and appeared on the country’s early coins. The very rare white elephant is still regarded as sacred, symbolising the good fortune of the Kingdom.
In early times elephants made up the greater part of the country’s armed forces, there being as many military elephants as working ones. It is estimated that at the end of the 18th century there were some 200,000 tame elephants, but since then the number has declined steadily and there are now only about 13,000.
Herds of elephants live in the jungles of the Malay peninsula, the hills in the centre of the country and northern Thailand; formerly they were also found in the thickets along the banks of rivers. Since they suffer from the heat they do not venture into the open forests or the steppes. For this reason, too, they are made to work only in the morning and are allowed to graze freely in the afternoon. During the hot season they are taken to the humid forests or into the hills. Visitors are most likely to see them at work in the forests round Chiang Mai. In view of the alarming decline in their numbers a ban on the killing or export of elephants was introduced in 1951. Every year, at Surin, there is an interesting display of the traditional methods of capturing and taming wild elephants, in which some 200 animals take part.
The tapir, found in the northern part of the Malay peninsula, extending as far as latitude 160 N, is a shy animal, preferring the darkness of the dense forests, from which it emerges only at night. Visitors are therefore unlikely to come across it. In the rain forest and the less dense forests live tigers, leopards and, particularly in the Malay peninsula, black panthers; they are common in the forests east of the Nan.
There are numerous smaller species, like the “golden cat” or Temminck’s cat (Profelis Temmincki), found everywhere from northern Thailand to Malaysia. The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is sometimes encountered in the swamp forests or the evergreen forests of western Thailand. The jungle cat (Felis chaus), a close relative of the lynx, with long legs and a short tail, lives in the open forests or preferably in thickets of reeds. The smallest of these cats is the beautifully marked ocelot (Prionailurus bengalensis).
Much more feared by the Karens than the tiger or elephant is the bear, which is fairly common in the hills of northern and western Thailand. as far south as Phetchaburi. On the other hand the Malayan bear (Helarctos) which has a short, brilliantly black pelt, is inoffensive. In the plains and the foothills of the mountains occur a species of weasel (Mustela flavigula) and a type of badger with longish legs and a trunk-like snout. Two kinds of otter are found in Thailand, one of which, the simung (Lutra perspicillatus) can reach a length of 90 cm. The Malayan red wolf or adjak (Cuon javanicus) is an unpleasant customer, hunting in packs of up to twenty which do not shrink from attacking big game and eat nothing but fresh meat. The jackal, a carrion-eater, haunts village rubbish-heaps. The linsang (Prionodon linsang) is a slender feline which lives in the evergreen forests; like the binturong, a relative of the civets, it comes out only at night, so that it is rarely seen. The binturong has a long prehensile tail. Rice-fields are a favourite habitat of the mongoose, the sworn enemy of snakes; unlike the felines which come out at night to hunt, it is strictly diurnal.
Several kinds of wild pig live in the forests of northern and southern Thailand and in the hills of the Malay peninsula. A common animal in the thick bush or grass jungle along the banks of rivers is the kanchil (Tragulus javanicus), a kind of dwarf goat 20 to 30 cm long, with a plump body and slender legs (the rear legs being longer than the front ones). The kanchil is regarded as a particularly cunning animal: in Malay folk tales he is a kind of hero who can even outwit a tiger. Species of deer found in Thailand include the muntjak (Muntiacus muntjak) and the sambara or kwang (Rusa unicolor), the largest animal in the group. The serau (Capricornus sumatrensis), a kind of chamois, lives at higher altitudes; it was formerly found also in the limestone hills on the central plain.
The hill forests are the home of the gaur (Bos gaurus), a powerful animal with a brown coat and whitish legs which may reach a height at the shoulder of 180 or 200 cm. Another species of wild ox is the banteng (Bos javanicus), with a grey or brown coat, which is smaller and slenderer than the gaur.
Monkeys abound all over Thailand, the commonest species being the gibbon (Hylobates). The white-pawed gibbon is extraordinarily skilful and highly intelligent; the Malays often keep them as pets. The macaques are commonly found in hilly country, Macaca nemestrina (the pig tailed monkey) at lower altitudes, Macaca speciosa in the western hills, the Rhesus monkey north of the 17th parallel. Macaques are fond of water, in which they bathe and swim, and even catch crabs and mussels. Another group (Pithecus), noted for its acrobatic gifts, lives mainly on leaves and fruit. There are several families, most of them quite aggressive. The plumplori (Nycticebus coucang) is exclusively nocturnal and thus difficult to observe; although mainly a fruit-eater, it catches large insects or even small birds. It nests in the tops of trees, as do the squirrels (Sciuridae). A remarkable member of this family is the flying squirrel (Pteromys petaurista), which has a membrane enabling it to take flying leaps from tree to tree; it can be as much as 60 cm long, with a bushy tail of the same length. Although nocturnal, they like to sun themselves during the day. Squirrels of the genus Ratufa are larger, exceeding the size of a marten. Close relatives of the squirrels, although belonging to a different group, are the tupayas or tree shrews (Tupaia), which also live in trees.
The porcupine (Acanthion or Atherura) makes his home in abandoned termite-hills, in which he digs a network of tunnels, emerging at night to look for food (roots, bark, grass, leaves). There are large numbers of hares in the steppe-land and scrub. A very curious animal found not only in Thailand but throughout the whole of South East Asia is the pangolin or scaly anteater, which, like the great anteater, lives exclusively on termites and ants or their larvae. Its powerful claws enable it to tear open termite hills and ant hills. Quite unique in the fauna of Thailand is the flying lemur (Dermoptera), an animal the size of a cat which spends the day rolled up in a ball, asleep, hanging from a branch, then at night climbs into the trees and leaps from branch to branch like the flying squirrel, thanks to a fur covered membrane extending from its neck to its tail which enables it to fly for some 70 m through the air.
There are numerous species of flying dogs (Pteropinae), which may have a wing span of 1.5 m and flying foxes in Thailand. They have a highly developed gregarious instinct, living in colonies and hunting for food in large packs. Since they live mainly on fruit, they can cause considerable damage in populated areas. There are more than 20 species of bats, mostly of small size, which of course feed on insects.
Among the reptiles visitors will first notice the geckos, lizardlike creatures which are able to scamper up walls and even across ceilings. They are welcome in people’s houses, since they eat insects. Sometimes in the evening visitors will hear the sharp cry of the tokee (named after its cry), a gecko between 25 and 35 cm in length. The tokee is thought to bring good luck. Also related to the lizards are the agamas, of which there are many different kinds, usually green, with very long legs and tails. They live in trees and eat insects. The butterfly agama (Leiolepis belliana) is quite different, living in tunnels which it digs for itself. Its name comes from its extraordinary colouring, a grey or olive green back with a black line and yellow spots or stripes and bluish flanks with orange stripes. Some kinds of agama are eaten by country people.
The flying dragon (Draco) lives in the forests in the plains or on the slopes of the hills. Its “wings” consist of broad strips of skin extending between the legs on either side of the body attached to bony outgrowths. It may reach a length of 20 cm. The body is dull in colour, but the wings are a brilliant orange with black spots.
The banded monitor lizard, which lives in the Malay peninsula and the wooded hills of western Thailand, is a peaceable reptile which never moves far from water, living either in the water or in hollow trees. It is the largest of its species, over 2 m in length.
There are many kinds of snakes in Thailand, including 30 species which are regarded as poisonous. The king cobra (Naja hannah), 3 m long, is probably the most dangerous, along with the common cobra (Nala naja) and the banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus), which has black and yellow stripes and can reach a length of over 1.5 m. Russell’s viper, recognisable by its reddish, black and white spots, is no less dangerous.
Among non-poisonous snakes there is the reticulated python (Python reticulatus), which lives near houses and is said to occur even in certain districts in Bangkok. This giant snake, up to 3.5 m long, lives on chickens, ducks, cats and dogs. It is not regarded as particularly aggressive, and is a good swimmer. There are other water loving snakes, like the Java horned snake (Acrochordus javanicus) as well as the true sea snakes (Hydrophidae), some of which are poisonous. They are sometimes caught in fishermen’s nets, and the fishermen simply throw them back into the water. In spite of the large number of dangerous snakes in Thailand deaths from snakebite are rare. The Saowapha Institute (formerly the Pasteur Institute) in Bangkok runs a snake farm for the production of serum and for research purposes.
Two main kinds of crocodile are found in the estuaries, the Malay peninsula and swamp land all over Thailand. Crocodilus porosus, the estuarine crocodile, which may reach a length of 3.5 to 4.5 m, is a notorious man eater. It lives only in brackish or salt water, and goes up the rivers only so far as the tides reach. It can sometimes be seen far out to sea. The Siamese crocodile, which is very common in Thailand, lives only in fresh water; it is slightly smaller (3 to 4 m).
The turtles of the Gulf of Thailand are valued for their flesh, their eggs and their shells. Tortoise shell comes almost exclusively from Eretmochelys imbricata. The eggs of Chelonia mydas, which are laid in holes in the sand, are much prized for cooking: when the eggs are cooked the white remains transparent. The flesh of Trionyx cartilagineus, a fresh-water turtle, is regarded as a particular delicacy.
There are innumerable species of birds, in the varying habitats offered by the rice fields, the hill forests and the swamps. In the rice growing areas there are considerable seasonal variations in the bird population: in the dry season there are few birds, but when the floods come, swarms of birds compete for the plants and insects. A very common bird in the rice fields is the green striped heron (Butorls striatus). The cow heron (Ardeola ralloides) perches on buffaloes’ backs and eats its insects; and there are also the grey heron (Ardea cinerea) and the little egret (Egretta garzetta). The Indian stork (Anastomus oscitans), which reaches a height of 70 cm, is rather similar to the European white stork, with its white body, dark green wings and tail and red feet; its distinguishing feature is a large green bill. The Indian ibis (Ibis leucocephalus) has black wings and a rounded, slightly down-turned bill; it stands up to 1 m high. The Indian marabou or adjutant (Leptoptilus dubius) a carrion eater, may be up to 1.5 m high; its cousin Leptoptilus javanicus is slightly smaller (110 – 130 cm) and lives on small animals. Both have bald heads and necks, whitish ruffs and black backs and necks. Among the cranes, the sarus crane (Grus antigone) is particularly notable, standing up to 1.6 m high, it has a bald red head which contrasts with its smooth grey plumage.
Towards the end of the rainy season the migrants (snipe, etc.) make their appearance. When the rice is ripe swarms of pigeons and parrots from the bamboo regions and the forests descend on the fields. Crows of various species abound in the forests and cultivated areas, stuffing themselves with insects and fruit. Some live almost in symbiosis with the water-buffaloes, freeing them of vermin like larvae, ticks and horse-flies. The striking beo (Gracula) is recognisable by its black plumage, white tipped wings and orange bill.
The myna (Acridotheres) sometimes nests under the roofs of houses. The drongos (Dicruridae) are welcome visitors to houses, since they will courageously attack any animal and protect domestic fowls against intruders. The flag drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) is of particular interest, with its brilliant steel blue plumage and the long bare quills of its tail ending in a bushy tuft of feathers; it is most commonly found on grazing land. The grey headed grackle or Malabar starling (Sturnia malabarica) is extremely common. In the rice growing regions there are numerous vultures, ever on the lookout for carrion. The Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) has a black head, the larger sarcogyps calvus, up to 80 cm, has a red head and neck.
The forest birds are more colourful. There are 16 species of kingfisher of varying size and plumage, but all with brilliant bluish green wings, tail and back. The brilliantly coloured frogmouths build spherical nests, with only one opening in the side, which are suspended from branches. The long tailed frogmouth (Psarisomus dalhousiae) is easily identifiable by its long pointed tail. Its head and the back of the neck are black, the throat is yellow, the back is green, the wings have blue spots, the tail is dark blue and green, and the underside of the body is light green. The brilliant green parakeets fill the forest with their noisy chatter. The weaver birds, whose nests can be seen hanging from branches, particularly near watercourses, swoop down on the rice-fields in great swarms and cause considerable damage. The flower peckers (Dicaeidae) and nectar birds (Nectariniidae) live, as their names indicate, on succulent tropical fruits and the nectar of flowers. All of them have brilliant plumage, shimmering in steel blue, bronze and gold. Equally splendid are the jungle fowl, with their rust coloured bodies and tail of metallic blue.
In the densest forest are found the argus pheasant (Argusianus argus), Rheinart’s pheasant (Rheinartia ocellata) and the silver pheasant (Gennaeus). The green Javanese peacock (Pavo muticus) can attain a length of 2 m. Finally there are the predators, including eagles, buzzards and falcons.
Many species of swallow build their nests in rock crevices and under the crowns of paIm trees. One, the sea swift (Collocalia), makes its nest of tiny twigs glued together with its saliva. These nests are regarded by connoisseurs as a particular delicacy, and are collected from caves and rock faces on the coasts of the Malay peninsula and the islands. Their collection is permitted only with a licence granted by the State.
Fish play an important part in the national diet, the daily rice being accompanied either by fish, fish soup or fish sauce. Fresh-water fish include at least 75 species of kinds of carp, some of which can be as much as 1.5 m long. The pla buk (Pangasioanodon gigas), a toothless fish which cats nothing but plants, is even bigger, sometimes attaining a length of 2.3 m and a weight of 120 kg. Well adapted to life in the swamps which may dry up in summer – are the lung fish (Anabantidae), which as well as gills have special organs enabling them to take in oxygen from the air; they cannot, however, survive for long out of water. The most remarkable example of this group is the climbing perch (Anabas testudineus), which can cover considerable distances in mud or on land with the help of its anal fin, and can even climb plants. It is usually about 25 cm long.
The sea round Thailand is well stocked with fish. The Gulf of Thailand in particular, which is of relatively recent formation, is rarely more than 50 m deep. Rich in plankton, with highly oxygenated water which is regularly renewed, it provides nourishment for innumerable large shoals of fish, so that even the most primitive fishing techniques bring in rich catches.
Sea perch (Serranidae) are fished all the year round. Huge shoals of herring and mackerel supply almost miraculous draughts of fishes. Among the larger fish are the shark, whose fins fetch high prices in Chinese markets, and the saw fish (Pristidae), which may be anything up to 8 m long.
Insects are found in endless variety; beetles, mosquitoes, butterflies, etc. More than 500 kinds of butterflies alone have been identified, some of them larger than small birds. The malaria carrying mosquito breeds in stagnant water. Bangkok is considered malaria free.
There are numerous termite hills on the Khorat plateau and in the Menam plain. Leeches are a plague in the rain forests: they find their way into people’s clothing and when gorged with blood swell to the size of a man’s little finger.