Anyway, here is video to show you...
Shortly afterwards, the cloud disappeared as fast as it arrived, leaving rain-soaked trees and wind-swept mountains. A stillness fell upon the valley and I was left with a sense of peace.
In my short and uneventful career in tiger conservation so far, I haven’t been faced with very many tough decisions. I’ve only really been faced with one major decision and it was quite easy: help save tigers or not. Naturally, I chose the former and it was that decision that put me where I am today. I wouldn’t expect any decision after that to be terribly difficult...at least not until I started making decisions that would directly affect wild tigers. For example, when I joined the Thailand Year Abroad program I had to choose what kind of placement I wanted. That was very easy as well...I wanted to get my hands dirty in tiger conservation and make a difference. However, it wasn’t that simple.
Before I left for Thailand, I wanted to figure out my field placement as soon as possible and talked to a personal hero of mine at World Wildlife Fund. She was the individual who invited me to be a member of the International Tiger Coalition, which is an organization that has some of the best and brightest tiger conservation has to offer. She welcomed me into the world of the greats and did everything she could to make me feel welcome and accepted. She also offered to help me get in touch with people who could arrange a field placement for me. I figured she would give me contacts at World Wildlife Fund – Thailand, but she pulled a fast one on me and mentioned the possibility of going to Sumatra to help out WWF-Indonesia.
It came out of nowhere and took me off-guard.
I don’t take any opportunity in tiger conservation lightly so I started to consider both WWF-Indonesia and WWF-Thailand equally. I considered...and considered...and considered...
There were many things to think about. There is no doubt the benefits of staying in Thailand are many. I wouldn’t have to travel as far and I would already know the official language. From what I hear, there is a lot of experience and knowledge to be tapped in the Thailand program and I would also have the benefit of living in a country where the government is more apt to help the conservation cause (compared to other countries). Lastly, I would be in a more agreeable climate and there would probably be less things that could kill me in Thailand compared to Sumatra.
On the other side, going to Sumatra has its benefits too. In regards to conservation, Sumatra seems to be worse off and there could be a greater potential to have a greater impact. My contact at WWF is more familiar with the staff there and she listed a number of opportunities. The government is less responsive to conservation and big business and corruption is wide-spread...it could be a challenge, but such a challenge might be what I need. Also, given the incredible species diversity there, any benefit I can achieve for tigers could help many others such as elephants, rhinos and orangutans...and increases in the well being of these species could potentially be linked with increases in local community standards of living too. I am already linked to WWF-Indonesia to some degree...in 2007 I started a petition to address illegal coffee being grown in a national park in Sumatra. The goal was to gain signatures to help WWF negotiate with the buyers of this coffee, which was threatening species like tigers, to implement better controls on purchases. Word must have gotten around because the contact I mentioned who works for WWF-International somehow knew about me from the petition when I first emailed her. Lastly, tigers in Sumatra seem to be in more desperate need for help...Indonesia has already lost two subspecies of tigers in the past half-century and it is believed the Sumatran tiger is well on its way out.
I struggled with deciding what I wanted to pursue for over a month – after all, the decision I make could have a profound effect on my career...and on tigers. I tried as much as possible to leave superficial elements out of the picture such as what is “easy”. What is easy isn’t necessarily what is right. Through difficulties, we can better ourselves. Some of the cons about going to Sumatra fail to matter when put up against the real issue: making a difference and truly getting the skills and experience I need. It doesn’t matter how expensive, how unpleasant, or how dangerous things are, what matters is the work I do.
I didn’t ask for opportunities in Sumatra, but they were offered. After the initial surprise of having Sumatra mentioned and I found myself evaluating Sumatra more than Thailand: trying to find out all the bad things and good things and using Thailand as a baseline. In this sense, I tended to have a bias. Perhaps the opportunity tempted me. Like a game show...you could take the prize you’ve won or give it up and open door number two!
In the end, both are excellent choices and it inevitably comes down to instinct or intuition.
One night, I sat in bed thinking. At the time I was leaning slightly toward Sumatra, but had not been sure enough to make any sort of decision. There was no superior benefit to going there that inspired a confident decision and I felt no matter what I chose, it would benefit me greatly. I was in my bedroom, staring at the ceiling and looking for a sign... I was prompted to look at “animal cards” that were given to me one Christmas. Each card has a description of a certain animal and by drawing an animal card, you can get insight, lessons...a sign that could point you in the right direction. You see, those closest to nature, like indigenous populations, learn lessons from nature. The appearance of a wolf-pack can bring attention to social needs and a tiger is associated with power and independence. Usually one shuffles the cards, letting chance dictate what comes up. However, I didn’t have to shuffle...the tiger card was sitting on top. In my curiosity, I looked at the description on the back of the card. In the description, the author made several references to Sumatra. Of the possible 14 tiger range countries that could have been mentioned, it was Indonesia, and specifically, Sumatra that was used.
Okay... I was in bed looking for a sign and on a whim, got up to a deck of animal cards, looked at the tiger card which happened to be the first card I saw and saw Sumatra mentioned more than 3 times. It was too coincidental and I felt that was the final push. I shrugged and said to myself, “Sumatra it is!”
The course of my life as it pertains to tigers has been one of curious events and coincidences that have reinforced my belief that I am meant to be doing what I am doing. I don’t give up all my thinking to serendipity... I prefer the use of logic. Nevertheless, sometimes the signs are there and I am learning to embrace them as a complementary force to my own judgement.
During September, my school week consisted purely of the Thai oral language course, whereby I would be able to learn Thai and thus, fit in better with daily life. Class starts at 9:30am and runs until 3:30pm with a lunch break in between (I have found consistence in eating Chicken Fried Rice everyday for about USD $1). This occurs for most of the week excluding the weekend and, thankfully, Wednesday.
I took the opportunity one Wednesday to visit the Chiang Mai Zoo, which has since become a key part of local tourism after the introduction of two giant pandas. The two panda’s (and the zoo) enjoy great popularity in Chiang Mai and an extra charge was established at the zoo just to see them. Captive pandas are, like their wild cousins, rare and only a handful exist outside China. I saw this as an exciting bonus.
The first thing to be noted about the zoo is that it is built upon the side of a mountain. Anyone who is not a fan of the trek to the North American exhibit at the Toronto Zoo would likely elect to patronize the zoo’s monorail system. I chose to walk and although the heat was occasionally oppressive, I’ve done enough volunteering at Jungle Cat World to handle a bit of physical exertion in less than ideal environments.
I will make no qualms about it: I went straight to the big cats, which were conveniently located together in a large system of adjoining enclosures with mock-rock ridges dividing them. Though I came to see the Bengal tigers (a sub-species I have not seen since the summer of 2004), I was interested to see the other cats as well which included a jaguar with two cubs, three leopards (one melanistic or “black”), two white tigers (actually leucystic), a pair of African lions with a cub (a few months old) and a pair of white lions. The latter showed signs of inbreeding, which is what happens when a rare genetic trait in big cats meets overwhelming popularity. However, I was pleased to see that the information given at the white tiger enclosure noted that they are not a separate subspecies in need of special wild conservation plans (which is a far too common misconception exploited by some nefarious “zoo” operators). It seemed as though they were breeding them though, which is something I don’t really feel comfortable with given the problems arising from aforementioned inbreeding.
I found it interesting that for a good part of the day, a table was set up in front of the jaguar enclosure advertising the prospect of feeding them for a small fee. This entailed giving visitors a long stick with a piece of meat to wave around and give the cats through the fence. From what I saw, the zoo staff member was demonstrating that it is more interesting to let them work for their food. I’m not entirely sure whether there are limits to how much gets fed to the jaguars or if it really is such a good idea for joe public to have such close contact, but if funding goes back to the zoo to better the care of the animals and if the animals are enriched by having to work for their food, perhaps it is a good idea. It is an interesting enrichment idea, but I’d have to check with greater minds to see if this is a valid practice.
The African lion enclosure was very spacious , not to mention gorgeous and the male lion seemed active enough. He seemed to be wary of me, but his attention didn’t hold for long. The cub made great sport out of bothering his dad, which was quite fun to watch, although part of me worried the male would give a good swat. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and the big male simply got up in frustration and walked to another location to nap.
I spent most of the day at the Bengal tiger enclosure, which seemed not as generous with space as the lion enclosure and for want of enrichment, but respectable, compared to most zoos. I arrived to see a male (distinguished by his big boofy head) grooming himself near the back of the enclosure. He was soon prompted to get up and start patrolling the front of his enclosure, which has likely become routine with the number of guests that visit – he’s got to protect his mate after all. When the guests slowed to a trickle and I became part of the scenery, the male retired to the shade and began napping. I returned later and he eventually patrolling his enclosure again, but this time, the female joined him, who was naturally a bit smaller. I’m different from most people in that, I can go to a zoo and spent almost the entire time in front of the tiger enclosure, even when they are not active; this is why I will go to a zoo alone: people wouldn’t be able to put up with my stubbornness. I firmly believe that tigers are one of the most beautiful animals to ever live on this planet and their behaviour fascinates me to no end. If I’m not simply consumed by their presence, I will try to predict their behaviour and occasionally I throw out the occasional chuff to see if they would reply (it worked at the Toronto Zoo a few times, albeit in closer proximity). When they rest, I’ll think. If my fateful experience at that zoo in 2004 has taught me anything (aside from purpose), it is that for all the beautiful photos of tigers, they fail to compare with seeing one alive and in the flesh. I get drunk on the experience and it often inspires me for an extended period after I leave.
I did visit other areas of the zoo, include the pandas. I was quite amused by their behaviour, which seemed to match the characature that was engrained in my mind. One of them seemed quite content with a large bush of bamboo in front of it, sitting upright to inspect the best pieces and chomping away blissfully. It eventually climbed on to a log for a snooze.
I scaled parts of the mountain where no visitor seemed to want to go, but I was able to see some interesting ungulates like bantang (an endangered SE Asian bovid), and even Eld’s deer (one of the most endangered, if not the most endangered deer on the planet. The latter formed a large heard that completely surrounded me as I walked through them, watching me in silent unease. It was quite eerie, but at the same time amusing to have so many eyes following your every move. I couldn’t help but remind myself of a tiger strolling through a grassland occupied by deer.
While up on the mountain, I began to feel the trickle of rain. I whipped out the umbrella not a moment too soon as the trickle soon turned into a torrent. This seems to be usual for Thailand: rain will appear virtually from out of nowhere only to give way soon afterwards to a sunny sky. I assume this is especially true for mountainous areas as the topography means air pushed up their slopes cools, looses the ability to hold moisture and dumps the moisture as rain. However, this time, the rain continued to fall in large quantities for longer. I stayed at the tiger enclosure, which had a walkway shielded from the rain. The rain lasted for an hour or two (the lions didn’t seem to happy) and as it died down I decided to make the trip back home. A red-taxi ride through town showed me just how much rain had fallen. One street seemed to be flooded with about 6 inches of rain.
...and this was at the end of the rainy season.