THAILAND
2002


"Siamese Crocodile"

Tarutao Island, Satun Province

The OBA film crew, crocodile specialist Yosapong Temsiripong, location manager Namfon, and I caught an early morning flight down to Hat Yai in Satun Province, one of the southernmost in Thailand, with an international border with Malaysia.

Map of southern Thailand showing location of Tarutao Island.
(click on map for enlarged view)


At Hat Yai we were met by John "Caveman" Gray and his assistant Bongi who took us to Ban Pru, two hours west by road, the ferry port for our destination, Ko Tarutao or Tarutao Island, in the Tarutao National Marine Park. Tarutao is Thailand's southwestern-most point being only a short distance from the Malaysian island of Pulau Langkawi. John was a retire wrestler who had set up a sea-kayaking business on Tarutao Island and with his inflatable canoes we were going to explore the mangrove swamps and caves of the island, looking for crocodiles and anything else that took our fancy.

Tarutao Island is the largest island in this Andaman Sea archipelago. It is located 30 km off the coast but the journey from Ban Pru is longer, taking 1.5 hours. 26.5 km long and 11 km wide it rises to 700 m and is heavily forested although the lowlying coastal area at the north supports a substantial tourist resort. This is in stark contract to its colourful past. From the 1930s Tarutao was a Thai penal colony but when it was cut off from the mainland during World War Two the convicts and guards started to prey on vessels passing through the strait, aided and organised by an embittered American plantation owner and two British deserters. This unlikely band of pirates sunk 130 vessels and always killed everyone on board, but they were eradicated by the British at war's end and the island returned to more peaceful pursuits like fishing, farming and now tourism.

Views of northern Tarutao Island with the jetty visible in the bottom right picture.

 

The accommodation on Tarutao was very comfortable and reptiles were present in the chalets. We caught Common house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) and Tokay geckos (Gekko gecko gecko) but we were not the only animals watching the tokays on the walls. As I stalked a large gecko on the outside wall of the chalet occupied by Terry and Mark I saw my rival approaching from above, a large Dog-faced catsnake (Boiga cynadon). The snake retreated back into the roof cavity and by the time I had gained access it was gone.

Common house gecko, Hemidactylus frenatus
Tokay gecko, Gekko gecko gecko

 

We spnt three days exploring the tidal mangrove rivers and caves and creeks of the island's interior using John Gray's wooden launch to reach as far up the rivers as possible, a variable factor on tidal rivers, and then taking to his sea kayaks to venture further inland.

Mark & John "Caveman" Gray checking out Thai snakes in the field guide Heading for the creek mouth with the sea kayaks stowed Observing the densely forested island
from the sea

 

To reach the island's interiorwe took a larger vessel around the headland and as far up
one of the river mouths and through the mangrove swamps as the tidal waterlevel would allow
When we reached narrow, shallower watercourses we used the sea kayaks to venture further
into the island which was densely forested and seemingly untouched by man

The habitat appeared almost pristine, possibly due to the dense vegetation and steep karst nature of the geology. The area probably abounded with wildlife but we only saw monkeys on our journeys up the Lo Po River and other tidal creeks. Our route was frequently impeded by fallen logs or shallow shingles, all adding challenge to the journey to the centre of Tarutao.

There were many obstacles across our route which had to be overcome, sound recordistTterry negotiates a low log barrier...
then AP Emma and the boatman go underneath too Sometimes we had to get out and walk the kayaks through shallow stretches
(l-r) John, Yos and Mark

The karst also meant caves and we kayaked through several with interesting names like Lord of the Rings, Moria and Gollum. When ever possible Mark and Terry did their job as a film crew, although at times it was difficult for them to function as they passed under logs or down sink holes.

Cameraman Mark balanced precariously Terry records a "wild track"
And then there were the caves and tunnels to negotiate

On one branch just above the water level, on the freshwater upper reaches of a creek, we met three sleeping Giant Asian toads (Phynoidis asper) who remained oblivious to our passing underneath.

One one low branch we met some sleeping
amphibians
Three sleeping Giant Asian toads, Phrynoidis asper

As we came back down the Lo Po River on the launch I spotted a sleeping Reticulated python (Python reticulatus) on a branch above the tidal creek. I was standing on the roof of the launch beneath the python when, disturbed by Bongi climbing towards it, it launched itself out and down towards the creek. I stuck out my Midwest Gentle Giant tongs and caught the 2.0 m python in mid-flight. Nearby a second python was sighted even higher up in a tree and that too dived for the creek, only to be captured by Yos who was already in the water.

Searching for pythons on the
Lo Po River

 

Mark with his flying Reticulated python, Python reticulatus on the roof of the launch

The next day we found more juvenile pythons adopting the same sleep posture on the Lo Po River, once you start looking you can find quite a few and our few days on Tarutao resulted in eight sleeping retics.

O'Shea, Temsiriping & Lynam 2004 Python reticulatus (Reticulated python) Site Selection, Sleeping and Escape Behavior. Natural History Notes. Herpetological Review 35(1):71-72.

Young Reticulated python, Python reticulatus sleeping on a branch a few metres aloft Very young
Reticulated python
, Python reticulatus
sleeping at head height
Reticulated python, Python reticulatus

 

This set me to thinking. As will be seen from the section on our journey down the Phetchaburi River, pythons of 1.0-2.5 mfrequently sleep on narrow branches overhanging the water, into which they plunge, often from a considerable height, when pursued in the tree by a potential threat. Sleeping on narrow branches gives the snakes ample warning of the approach of danger but surely diving into a river or creek of unknown depth is also dangerous, especially from 15-20 m up in a tree. Curiously of the 13 pythons sleeping in this position that we observed on the entire trip, all very stationed over deep stretches of river or creek and none over shallow ripples where a smiliar fall could be fatal. How do they know? And even more so, how do those pythons resting above tidal creeks with their variable waterlevels determine where is safe to sleep? This formed the basis of a note published in Herpetological Review which can be downloaded here.

Mark and Namfon with the
Reticulated python, Python reticulatus

The only other amphibian, apart from the Giant Asian toad, as the Painted bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra). A number of other reptile species, apart from those already mentioned, were also recorded during our stay on Tarutao: Indo-Pacific house gecko (Hemidactylus garnotii), Common many-banded skink (Eutropis multifasciata multifasciata), Striped skink (Lipinia vittigera), and Dumeril's monitor lizard (Varanus dumerilii), but time constraints prevented much photography.

Painted bullfrog, Kaloula pulchra

 

Unfortunately none of the Tarutao Island footage made the final film.