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The surprisingly sociable sambar deer of Khao Yai

Steve Cole, Producer

We travel towards Khao Yai National Park along a freeway that is trying hard to be American, but still manages to be very Thai. One clue is that vehicles can legally perform U-turns into three lanes of oncoming traffic, a fact that both exhilarates and terrifies one of our Canadian drone pilots, who films the procedure on his phone.

Some of the finest fried insects on offer

When our drivers stop to allow us to top up our caffeine levels, it is at ‘strip malls’ that could, at first glance, be anywhere in America that is hot and humid, say Florida. These single-story collections of shops and fast food outlets even come with a 7-Eleven convenience store as standard.

Among other things, it’s the amount of fried insects on offer at pavement stalls and the huge homemade machetes laid out for sale, including triangular-tipped varieties I’m told are called ‘head-choppers’, that give the game away.

As we approach the park, the number of bars, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops and 7-Elevens multiplies and we join a queue of cars at the stone-arched entrance. Visitors flock here – foreign tourists, but also Thai. Founded in 1962, it’s the country’s oldest and best-known national park, partly due to its proximity to Bangkok – just three hours down the freeway – but also because of the abundance of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals – including wild Asian elephants.

Uniformed rangers check our credentials and wave us on. We travel along a paved road for several miles before reaching the visitor centre, where we stop to allow our Thai fixer to announce our arrival at the ranger HQ (no filming is permitted without the presence of a ranger). I stroll around the car park, shadowed by a gang of pig-tailed macaques that are hoping to heist anything that looks edible. Later we will encounter a very muscular male pig-tail ransacking an entire picnic that has been left in the back of a pickup truck by an unwary family, but this rag-tag bunch of juveniles soon lose interest in me and drift away.

I had seen a large sambar deer lying on a grass verge as we had entered the car park, so I wander over to take a closer look. I supposed the doe – at least 100kg in weight – was hoping to get a free meal from tourists. As I approach she makes no attempt to move, in fact she seems indifferent to the constant stream of people stopping to take her photograph. Then I notice what looks like a large, raw wound on her chest, roughly circular and crawling with flies. I assume she’s been hit by a car. Maybe that explains why she’s unwilling – or unable – to move.

I make my way back to our vehicles and mention the deer and her ‘injury’ to Tom Greenhalgh, my researcher. He tells me these ‘wounds’ are perfectly natural; they appear only at certain times of year and one theory is that they attract flies away from other parts of the deer. It seems a bit drastic to me, but I might not want swarms of flies around certain parts either. Back home, further research will reveal that they are known by the highly technical name of ‘sore spots’, they are glandular and secrete something for some reason. Yes, it really is that vague. They certainly look sore. Also, the blood red circle looks worryingly like the bullseye of a target, bringing to mind the two conversing deer in the ‘bummer of a birthmark’ Gary Larson cartoon.

Returning in time to hear the end of our conversation, Yuta, our fixer, chips in that the feeding of animals is strictly forbidden. If the doe wasn’t injured and couldn’t be fed, why did she choose to be so close to so many people? Sambar deer aren’t on our shopping list for this shoot, so I give it little further thought as we proceed deeper into the park.

The next day we are up at dawn to start filming lar gibbons – in particular, a family that use a rope bridge that has been provided for them to safely cross the main road. The park isn’t open yet and small herds of sambar deer graze along the roadsides and in the misty fields. Everything appears to be very ordered, but at more than 2,000 square kilometres, there’s a whole lot of territory beyond the deer-nibbled verges.

In fact, soon after our departure, two tourists will manage to get lost for three days in the forest, kicking off a search involving a hundred rangers and volunteers. According to the news reports, one half of the unlucky couple is a forestry scientist, an irony that isn’t lost on the press that cover the story, but it does go to show that we’re not talking about a walk in the woods here – it is full on jungle.

We stop at a small ranger hut by the roadside to pick up our camouflage-clad chaperone. A young buck sambar, with an already impressive rack and a shaggy neck, sniffs daintily at last night’s pots and pans stacked alongside a dripping tap at the back of the cabin.

But first, let me take a selfie

Sambar deer live on grassland and in Khao Yai the open areas are relatively small compared to the amount of jungle, so it makes sense that sambar are more visible than deer that are at home in dense forest, such as muntjac… but, as I make like a tourist and snap a selfie with the stag, I think that surely the rangers have befriended these regular visitors and are feeding them.

When our chaperone joins us, I prompt Yuta to ask why the sambar hang out with them. The answer was not what I expected. It turns out the deer are not tame at all, but they have worked out that it pays to stick close to people, actively seeking out human contact to lessen the risk of being killed and eaten by predators – one type, in particular.

Khao Yai National Park is effectively an island, surrounded by farmland, so it can only sustain a certain amount of top-of-the-food-chain predators. The few tigers that once lived here are gone. Dholes on the other hand, still haunt these forests. You may not have heard of dholes; they are not exactly A-listers when it comes to fearsome creatures.

Wittily reduced to the rank of ‘d-holes’ by Kate, our production manager, they are, nonetheless, the biggest threat to the sambar. Dholes are hunting dogs, but big, bad wolves they ain’t. They average about 15kg – smaller than a medium-sized pooch – and are golden-red in colour. They’re also endangered, but there is a seldom-seen population in Khao Yai. The sambar certainly know about them though. The dholes may be small, but they are formidable pack hunters, willing to tackle prey as big as a 350kg stag. They are also happy to snaffle smaller game and even to scavenge. That’s why they are still here and the tigers are gone. All of a sudden, this sounds like an interesting story.

Over the next few days I see sambar everywhere we go and almost always close to people, especially rangers. Since we rise at dawn and criss-cross the park regularly by road, I notice the rangers gather at their HQ at 8am every morning for a ceremonial raising of the Thai flag and to sing the national anthem. As I’ve come to expect, the deer are there too – so I think "why not film it?"

The rangers become fond of the deer that have adopted them, often stopping to coo a few words to them

We arrive early to set up and find two does and a young buck grazing right next to the ranger HQ. They even peer inquisitively through windows at the occupants seated at desks. As the appointed hour approaches, the rangers begin to make their way to the small parade ground in front of the HQ. We hold our breath as they pass the sambar, hoping the deer won’t get spooked and move away, but no, they watch impassively and continue to crop the already cropped grass.

Still tucking in their khaki shirts, stragglers join the back of the congregation. A brass bell is rung and the assembled rangers sing with varying amounts of gusto as the flag is hoisted. The deer take it all in their stride, wandering through our frame as we hoped they would. We’ll pick up more shots of sambar alongside the rangers over the next few days.

For their part, the rangers become fond of the deer that have adopted them, often stopping to coo a few words to them. A sweetly symbiotic story of the sambar deer of Khao Yai and their human saviours.