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Chang Spirit on Elephant Island

By Rachel Jones

March 22, 2009

Three months ago I visited the island of Koh Chang and my heart melted.  Previously not even on my list of places I want to visit in Thailand it’s now the place I can’t wait to get back to.  Thailand’s second biggest island looms out of the glistening Gulf of Thailand exposing it’s tree covered mountainous slopes and clear blue sea to those who wish to explore it.

One main road almost makes a complete lap of the island with the two ends not quite meeting. Only a few roads lead off this meaning the majority of the island remains untouched and covered in tropical rainforest. On these forest covered mountainous slopes falls an abundance of annual rainwater. In turn it feeds many streams, rivers and waterfalls across the island and ensures a constant supply of fresh clean water. At certain times of the year the waterfalls splendid and gushing attract many visitors and each year the brave (or foolhardy) tourists rent motorbike to admire the water falling amidst the jungle and its inhabitants. Many species of all categories of animals reside here including the Barking Deer, Javan Mongoose and Monitor Lizards. The island itself is an ecological paradise. Surrounded by pristine and spectacular sea, white sandy beaches or mangrove forest laden with nature Koh Chang’s scenery does not fail to impress.

You can take a kayak or arrange a boat trip to one of the near by islands. 52 islands make up the archipelago that Koh Chang is a part of and lie five hours away from busy Bangkok. Koh Chang was made a national marine park in 1982. It and its 51 neighbouring islands are protrected and known as  Mu Ko Chang Marine National Park.

Despite this protection the island is beginning to suffer the disease of over development.  The island is very popular with holiday makers, foreigners and nationals alike. It’s very popular with Thai tourists and it’s close proximity to Bangkok means this paradise is relatively easy to arrive at. Developers have caught on quickly and hotels are springing up equally as swiflty. Elegant resorts are on offer alongside backpackers bungalows.

Fortunately for Koh Chang (and it’s local population) an island resident has had enough and began to bring the danger of over development to people’s minds. Mr Pittaya Homkrailas, director of The Asian Elephant Foundation, is a man who believes strongly in conservation and so he has started a Koh Chang conservation project significantly named Chang Spirit. He aims to do what he can to promote the neccessity of conservation. His love of elephants and of nature prompted his permanent move here 11 years ago. With his admiration for the elephant, Thailand’s national animal, it seems only right that he should live on Koh Chang, literally meaning Elephant Island. He first arrived in Koh Chang 16 years ago when as a young freelance journalist he was covering a story on elephants.

His beginning as a journalist his knowledge of his country and love of elephants combined led him to write a book about the unique history of Thailands relationship with elephants. The book is called ‘Ta Klang, The Elephant Valley of the Mool River Basin’.  He explains in the foreword how ‘over the past 3-4 millenia the Elephant has played a major role throughout Asia and how the Elephant still continues to be an integral part of Thai culture. The book tells of the relationship (which continues even in this day) between the Guay Ethnic community of  Baan Ta Klang Village and elephants. Here age-old traditions of elephant raising are practised and passed down from one generation to the next. As well wonderfully detailed text about all aspects of their traditions and the methods used the book also conatins some beautiful photos to give us an insight into a fascinating feature of Thai culture.

16 years ago he saw that no one was looking after the well being of the elephants on Koh Chang so as well as writing his book Mr Pittaya set about changing this unhappy situaion. He says that when he came to Koh Chang his life changed. He came to cover a story about the elephants but he soon realised that protecting the endangered species was what he was meant to do.  When he decided to provide refuge for elepeplants rescued from the streets of Bangkok he knew that Koh Chnag would be the place for them to have a better life. As well as starting the elephant conservation project, ‘Asian Elephant Foundation’ Mr Pittaya has also set up the well respected elephant camp on Koh Chang ‘Baan Kwan Chang’. In the midst of the jungle this is  highly recommed for jumgle and elephant trekking and you won’t see any elepahnt tricks performed here, just wonderful, gleaming well kept elephants and their happy mahouts.

Like many others the elephanst are one of my favourite animals, their loyalty and intelligence lends an admiration like no other.  I first started talking to Mr Pittaya about his camp and we got onto the subject of his next project, the conservation of Koh Chang.  He sees Koh Chang as his holy place and says on the island life is better for him and it is better for the elephnats.  It is crucal for the elephants to live in their natural surroundings and so why stop here, of course all animals should live in their natural surroundings.  From this idea and the frightening speed of development on the island came the idea for Koh Chang’s own conservation project, ‘Chang Spirit’.  Mr Pittaya vows, like other conversationists, to work as hard sa possible to keep nature as it always has been on our planet.

One of the more worrying aspects of the development of Koh Chang is the speed of things changing.  Mr Pittaya notices it happening all too quickly which leads to a frightening lack of control. He likens it the change to driving; a careful driver can observe and admire his surroundings and not hurt anyone on his journey, a fast driver however notices not what is around him, he just careers through not caring who or what he hurts along the way, a danger to himself and to anyone near him.

Investors see the natural beauty and holiday appeal of Koh Chang and they are fighting to have their business there. On even a short journey you will witness numerous hotels being built and many ‘land for sale’ signs. Coupled with the many resorts that are already standing you can’t help but worry for the island and its poplulation. The offers of employment from the big businesses to the locals are never that fruitful although of course the added trade helps.  More often than not the case is that the developers take what is good of the inhabitant’s island and ruin it. To quote Mr Pittaya ‘the big fish get the profit and the locals get the pollution.’

So although he cannot stop big businesses three years ago Mr Pittaya set up his conservation project. Chang Spirit does not aim to protest and fight the development companies but directs focus towards teaching the local population how they can help protect their own island. Through this they can see what a difference can and they are encouraged to see the benefis of looking out for their island. The project is also an important tool in get people working together. It’s important that people feel involved and the Thai community spirit is prevalent.

In the beginnings Mr Pittaya set up a mobile unit to go around different communities on the island.  From this he would show films about conservation.  He would talk to villagers and explain how they could help.  Suggestions such as less cutitng down of trees, or less hunting were put fowward alongside ways to take care of the litter and show the  results of when actions, no matter how small, have occurred. Now litter on the island is hardly a problem.

Taking care of litter has even meant financial benefits for some people on the island. To interest and involve people a community business group was set up as part of Chang Spirit. The community group’s first project was to take care of the Mangrove forest on the south of the island. They cleared the mangrove forest of rubbish, tidied the area and improved living conditions for the diverity of the forest’s natural inhabitants. The muddy swamps are homes and breeding grounds for fish, molluscs and wetlands birds bith indigenous and migrating. At certain times the year the area swarms with fireflies and at night trees are illuminated with flashing clouds of these flying insects.

The hardwork paid off and now this rare forest and it’s creatures are accessible for toursits. Two years ago in a ceremony held on Salok Kok Bay the community business was presented with the ‘Outstanding Performance Of Thailand Tourism Award 2007.’ So, with pride the group’s work continues, people get paid and tourists get to enjoy the unusual mangrove forest knowing any work here is done by locals and not a business man from elsewhere. So far a positive movement in conservation and connecting local people with their own natural resources. Here you will also be sure sure to receive a very warm welcome from the whole village.

The government, as well as locals and  tourists, are also full of support for the project. They appreciate the work and the coming together of all sectors. Even with all this support still more help is needed. More money is required to set up a more permanent organisation and help from tourists, locals and government alike is always going to be appreciated.  The project was funded using Mr Pittaya’s own money.  He continues to fund his dream but more now various fund raising projects are also in place to help it along the way. Those visting the Baan Kwan Chang elephant camp can make donations and there are also locally made products for sale which will help fund either of Mr Pittaya’s important conservation projects.  But for budding conservationalists (or those interested in helpuing the cause) who also like a party there is an opportunity to combine both if you make your way to Big Elk Restaurant & Resort, Klong Prao on the 1st and 15th of every month.  Here, as well as socialising which of course is always fun, there are opportunities to find out what projects are in store for the project (and how you can help) and what is on offer elsewhere on the island.

I believe in what Mr Pittaya is doing.  It only takes one person to stand up and try to make a difference but with more and more people involved notice will be taken and a community can feel pride in saving what is around them; which on Koh Chang is a truly beautiful island.  If you visit the island why not visit Baan Kwan Chang, where you will be truly rewarded, or the bi-monthly party on Klong Prao and show support to an important cause.

I would like to give you a message straight from the mouth and heart from Mr Pittaya as a means to ending this article. I hope you remember it not only for Koh Chang but for the many places of beauty in the world which because of man’s interference are sadly disappearing; ‘ You have one life, one world, you have to help each other, follow your dreams and look after the world.  Then you, and the one you help come together to help the environment and make it sustainable’.

You can find more information on the bi-monthly events held in aid of Chang Spirit on www.changspirit.com.

Mt Pittaya’s book ‘Ta Klang, The Elephant Valley Of Mool River Basin’ is published by Thunkamol Press Ltd, 2002 and more information is available on line.

References  - Mr Pittaya Homkrailis interview.

                   ‘Ta Klang, The Elephant Valley Of Mool River Basin’.

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