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Phuket History: The lost wilderness of Phuket

Until the late 19th century, a thick cloak of jungle, often quite impenetrable, almost universally covered Phuket and the whole region.

By Colin Mackay

Sunday 27 August 2017, 10:00AM

It was teeming with wildlife – elephants, various deer, tigers, clouded leopards, black panthers, tapirs, black and sun bears, pangolins, banteng (huge buffaloes), rhinoceros, dugongs, water buffaloes, koupreys (wild oxen), huge hawksbill turtles, gazelles, binturongs (Asian bear cats), great monitor lizards, crocodiles, wild pigs, peafowl, porcupines, civet cats, martens, gibbons, antelopes, sea eagles, numerous breeds of monkeys and thousands of species of reptiles, snakes, birds and marine and insect life.

Pierre Poivre, the 18th century French horticulturist, noted that “there are very fine forests and hunters find all sorts of game there in abundance… harts, wild boar, gazelles, antelopes, porcupines and roe deer. But the hunt is often interrupted by frequent encounters with elephants, tigers and bears”.

Despite some forest clearing by locals for fruit farms, it was not until the onset of large-scale tin mining in the 1850s, and particularly the development of rubber plantations in the early 20th century, that most of Phuket’s forests were cut down and most of its previously abundant wildlife was killed and eaten.

Dr Jean Gerrard Koenig was a Danish botanist who spent three months on Phuket Island on a botanical expedition in 1779.

He mentions his visit from Tharua town to a place called “Cockreau”. He went there by a road “which was very muddy … passing through a very dark wood often traversed by the rhinoceros”.

The locals killed the rhinos for their valuable horns and ate the meat. Koenig mentions that one morning “at breakfast I was treated to some rhinoceros hide”. Elephants were also plentiful as Koenig mentions, “while botanising away from town … I met a wild elephant from which I had to escape… the bamboo and sugar cane which grows to almost a man’s height, make this island a favourite resort for elephants, therefore as soon as one comes into the jungle one finds many paths made by the elephants”.

These wild elephants were captured by the locals using a variety of methods, such as driving them into a large compound where they were then left for a while to starve and weaken. Then tame elephants were sent in to dominate them.

Elephants were one of Phuket’s main exports to India where they were used as work machines or in armies. Sir Francis Light, a long-term Phuket resident in the 18th century, tells us that the main elephant loading pier was in Pak Pra (near Yacht Haven today).

It consisted of a long jetty along which elephants could be led and loaded on to the boats.

He mentioned that each elephant required 60 or 70 banana trees per animal to eat on the trip to India.

These elephants, which could easily smash apart the hull of a ship if they became excited or scared at sea, were usually drugged for the journey by being fed local marijuana bushes.

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Tigers, leopards and black panthers also prowled the island. Thomas Bowrey, an English visitor to Phuket in the 1670s, tells us of one black panther caught near Baan Lipon in Thalang, “Once when I was up at Luppone, several of the natives went out and set a trap for a Tyger that often resorted to the place where the Radjahs Goats were kept.

They took one of the smallest goats and placed him for baite to trap the Tyger and caught him by the leggs which done they seized fast his mouth as also his paws”.

They had in fact caught not a tiger but a black panther, as Bowrey explains, “his colour was cole [coal] black and although his body was but of an ordinary size, much lesse than some Tygers I have seen in Bengala (Bengal), yet his teeth and claws were the largest that I ever saw, … the Radjah ordered one of his soldiers to knock out the teeth and claws and gave them to me which I thankfully received as a great rarity”.

Dr Koenig, the same visiting Danish botanist, tells us that even in the island’s main port town of Tharua at the time, “A tiger visited our house but was satisfied with only one goose for this time, which he carried away with him to his hiding place about 200 yards from our house in a dense… wood at the back of the house”.

We are also told of one man-eating tiger in the 18th century which attacked and ate four people in one village.

When the villagers went to hunt and kill the tiger, the local monks advised them against this un-Buddhist act and persuaded them to leave it in peace.

A few days later however, the ungrateful tiger attacked and ate one of the monks that had saved him, perhaps indicating that the Buddhist karmic wheel of fortune is not always completely round.

Phuket’s last recorded wild tiger was shot in Kamala in 1974. It lived in the forest in the high hills behind Kamala and had come down nine times and carried off goats from a pen very near the old Kamala school and the local parents were becoming nervous for their children’s safety so some local villagers hunted it down and shot it.


Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at:



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