A creaking of wings overhead and the prehistoric silhouette of a Great Hornbill flap-glides over, etched against the sunset, making for its night-time roost; darkness falls over Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. The sprawling mass of Bangkok might be just two hours' drive to the south, but the 2,168 km² park, justly famed for the richness of wildlife found within its extensive tracts of primary rainforest, feels like wilderness.
Great Hornbill (Paul Pearson).
Sunset over Khao Yai National Park (Paul Pearson).
As the last vestiges of colour drain from above the forest I make final checks on the batteries of the powerful torch and my camera flash and join my friends and park ranger in the four-wheel-drive jeep for the start of our night drive to seek out and spot-light nocturnal animals. Whilst this is a birding trip and our main targets are the famously staked-out Coral-billed Ground-cuckoo and those avian jewels Blue Pitta and Eared Pitta, I yearn to see and photograph Asian Elephants. Our tactic is to try and connect with any animals that leave the concealing forest to search for vital nutrients at a series of salt licks formed along the network of quiet park roads. In the darkening forest a Collared Owlet calls.
We set out, excited and with eyes straining. Suddenly our headlights highlight the black and yellow-hooped form of a Banded Krait scything across the road and we leave the jeep to admire the snake with its triangular-sectioned body. The 'lethal Toblerone' glares up at us from the road edge and we skittishly lean in to gaze at it, steeled to leap away at the slightest hint of movement.
Banded Krait (Paul Pearson).
Collared Owlet (Paul Pearson).
Full dark and the forest is now a cloaked mass blurring past us. Our headlights briefly but thrillingly frame a Chinese Serow — a curious blend of goat and antelope — as it bounds across the road. We also encounter several Palm Civets, whetting our anticipation for the night's larger quarry.
The signs seem hopeful. As our headlights sweep the road they pick out numerous elephant droppings punctuating the tarmac, each with its leaning shadow beyond. Surely we will find elephants! We slow down, approaching the first salt lick, hunched eagerly forward in our seats. Excited voices hush and eyes search into the darkness but the torch beam stutters across bare ground; nothing! We collectively breathe out and press on.
The jeep's instrument panel and my digital SLR screen glow in the darkness. We approach each salt lick with a growing sense of anticipation. The torch beam, light-sabre bright in the darkness, scans just bare ground; nothing! Again!
At the next salt lick we slow, cut the engine, sweep the torch beam out and this time — eye-shine! "Elephant..." breathes our ranger, but she is hesitant, doubt obvious in her voice; the animal is concealed behind vegetation. The points of light reflecting from the pair of eyes do not appear high enough for an adult elephant. We decide to move on and give whatever it is a chance to emerge from cover to feed. We edge the jeep away and wait out of sight, the stilled engine ticking quietly, our hearts racing loudly. Finally we can wait no longer, cautiously return and send the torch beam out once again. It reveals an enormous animal lifting its great head to stare at us: an immense adult male Gaur! This rarely seen and secretive denizen of the forest is the largest bovine in the world and we know we are incredibly lucky to encounter it. Like a Water Buffalo on steroids, the man-height beast is hugely muscular and powerful with its distinctive dorsal ridge and dewlaps, topped with an impressive set of horns. It stares implacably back at us, strange invaders of its nocturnal realm.
Gaur (Paul Pearson).
I realise that I am sitting in the wrong side of the car and cannot achieve a clear angle for a photograph. Frustration mounts and an idea, surely insane, takes shape. I glance at the door handle. Taking the plunge, I edge outside, every sinew straining and senses heightened. I feel the heat of the tropical night, smell the night air and hear the hum of insects and try to ignore the implored whispering of our concerned ranger. Shaking, I raise the camera and squeeze several shots off, imagining the surely inevitable bellow and charge to follow. But through my camera eyepiece the Gaur maintains its imperious calm, and the prize is mine! I scramble back inside, we douse the torch beam and quietly pull away, leaving the magnificent Gaur in darkened peace.