Tourist trails helped push elephants to their deaths in Thailand’s oldest nature preserve. The coronavirus lockdown is allowing them to roam freely again.
KHAO YAI, Thailand — 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. Last October, a baby elephant fell into the roiling waters. Others charged in to save the calf. All told, 11 elephants died.