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Thailand's Threatened Wildlife

As Thailand's development continues apace, with more farmland needed each year to feed the people, and land and forest resources exploited to fuel the increasing demands of industry for natural raw materials, so does the pressure increase on this amazing country's formerly abundant wildlife. Many native creatures have found their habitats eroded and, amongst the birds, seasonal visitors flying in to escape the rigours of the northern winter, can no longer discover the welcoming forests, fields and wetlands of old, and take their winter breaks elsewhere.

Three birds in particular highlight the impact of development and modernisation on Thailand's fauna. These are the White-eyed River Martin, the Sarus Crane and Gurney's Pitta. Each has a different habitat and lifestyle and each suffers from a different type of habitat destruction.

The White-eyed River Martin, Pseudochelidon sirintarae, is named in honour of Thailand's Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, a bird-watcher of great renown. This plump, dark-plumaged, swallow-like bird is characterised by a distinct white ring around the eye and two needlelike extended tail feathers. A winter visitor, it has only been recorded from the great wetland of Bueng Boraphet near Nakhon Sawan, where it roosts in the reed beds with the commoner Barn Swallow. Its numbers have greatly declined and visitors have not been recorded for many years possibly because of changes in its summer home far to the north, or because the insects that make up its specific diet have declined in its winter habitat. This elegant little bird is considered by many to be on the verge of extinction.

In total contrast is the huge Sarus Crane, Grus antigone, some 1.5 metres tall. Its slate-gray body contrasting with a bright red hood was once a common sight throughout Thailand. Pairing for life, these great birds could once be seen performing their courting and pair-bonding dances in the grain fields of the Kingdom, just as they still may across much of northern India. Sadly this beautiful creature is no longer found in Thailand possibly because of increased use of pesticides, which accumulate in the flesh of the frogs that form the bulk of its diet.

Gurney's Pitta, Pitta gurneyi, is one of those birds that only the ardent ornithologist ever sees. Living in the under-brush of thick lowland rain forest, their presence can often only be confirmed by their distinctive voice characteristics. These stocky little birds are quite beautiful, even though they keep their finery to themselves, the male especially, with his bright blue cap, jet-black face, yellow throat and striped chest, is particularly striking. As the lowland forests of Southern Thailand are felled to make way for more rubber and oil palm plantations, so the habitat of these lovely birds is eroded daily, with only one remaining and closely-guarded patch of forest being known to support a few pairs. Still present in small numbers in the southern Tenasserim forests of Myanmar and, possibly, in the north of the Malay peninsula, these jewels of the forest are on the verge of extinction.

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