Endangered elephants reclaim national park as lockdown allows them to roam freely

For as long as the elephants could remember - and that is a long time - the path to the river snaked down the hillside through jungle so dense a troop of pachyderms could simply vanish.

But about three decades ago, humans decided they, too, wanted to get to the river, to gaze at the waterfalls that cascaded into the Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand. The humans paved over part of the elephants’ trail with cement. They built toilets and snack kiosks.

The elephants, though, still needed to reach the river. They hewed close to the old route, the one imprinted on generations of pachyderm brains, but not so close that the day-trippers, with their picnics of sticky rice and grilled pork, would see them.

It was a fatal diversion. The new trail passed a cliff and an area prone to flash floods. Elephant after elephant drowned. In October, a baby elephant fell into the roiling waters. Others charged in to save the calf. All told, 11 elephants died.

Since the coronavirus pandemic accelerated in March, Khao Yai, Thailand’s oldest national park, has been closed to human visitors for the first time since it opened in 1962. Without the jeeps and the crowds, the park’s 300 or so elephants have been able to roam freely, venturing onto paths once packed with humans. Rarely spotted animals, like the Asian black bear or the gaur, the world’s largest bovine, have emerged, too.

“The park has been able to restore itself,” said Chananya Kanchanasaka, a national park department veterinarian. “We are excited to see the animals are coming out.”

In Thailand, nature rebounded quickly; In late April, a herd of about 30 dugong - a relatively rare marine mammal - showed up off a cape once crowded with tourist boats. Leatherback turtles and blacktip reef sharks have returned to other holiday hot spots, too. 

Khao Yai, which covers about 155 square miles and is part of a larger Unesco World Heritage Site, is believed to have the largest population of wild elephants of any national park in Thailand.

The park’s official Facebook account has celebrated how otters have returned to sunbathe in the river and chipmunk pups to gambol in the branches. The shy serow, which resembles a missing link between a goat and an antelope, is scampering through meadows, as is the dhole, a springy Asian wild dog.

With few cars around, the elephants, the park’s dominant species, stroll the roads, chomping on foliage without needing to retreat to dangerous corners of the forest where cliffs meet waterfalls.

“We should consider if we should close down the park every year,” said Ms Kanchanasaka, the national park veterinarian. “Nature can restore itself to its fullest.”