All images by the ICZ
Yochim Mackhaw has lived in the peninsular forest of Thailand all his life. As a result, he knows the forest like the back of his hand. Most of his family have moved out to the city but he still stays in a house in the forest alone and works odd jobs. He prefers life that way.
One day, two Americans appeared on his doorstep and showed him a picture of a bird that he found all too familiar. It was a Gurney’s Pitta. He knew exactly where these birds are as he often saw them when he walked to the river to replenish his water supply.
So he took the tourists to the birds, and there they were, perched on the tall trees just across the river bank. The Americans took some pictures, thanked him and paid him for his kind gesture.
A few days later, he was approached again by two other birdwatchers wanting to see the Pitta. This time, he was paid even more.
Yochim had seen these birdwatchers in the forest before but they had never approached him for his help. He had often wondered what these strange people were doing with their binoculars and why they were so besotted with a bird that was not particularly big, colourful or interesting. But one thing he knew for certain was that the ongoing logging around his house must have forced the birds deeper in the forest, making it harder for these visitors to spot the Pitta.
Well, he needed the money to support his family - they did not make a good living in the city - and he saw a golden opportunity.
He started to pick up English. He installed a telephone in his house and gave the birdwatchers his number. Word got around that he was a reliable guide in the region and birdwatchers came almost every other day. The cash rolled in, and he was finally able to send his son to university.
A group of activists managed to stop the logging. It didn’t take long for the Pitta to realize that it was safe to come out again. In two years’ time, they were starting to be common again. The birdwatchers did not need Yochim anymore as the birds were everywhere.
But he still needed the money to fund his son’s last year of education. He had to do something. With help from his son, he caught and killed all the Pitta they could find, driving them deeper into the forest and keeping the numbers low. Business resumed once more and now, Yochim even has an assistant who works for him.
I met Yochim last year when I wanted to see the Pitta. He picked me up at the hotel and I could see he was not really liked by the locals. He repeatedly told me that he would try his best to show me the Pitta and that he made no promises. I was a little disheartened as I paid almost $300 to have a glimpse of this bird.
We arrived shortly in the forest after a bit of bashing. At a clearing, there was his assistant, who has already set up a large camouflage tent in the middle of the forest. Yochim beckoned for me to enter the tent. I stepped into the tent, well aware that the Pitta would be seen very soon. There, before my very eyes, through the tiny slit of the hide, was the little bird with the blue crown, hopping around on the forest floor. How Yochim managed to keep the Pitta in my view remains a mystery to me. The whole event felt somewhat staged and patronising.
Yochim’s forest houses the last seven pairs of Gurney’s Pitta known to the world. Recently a few thousand have been found in Myanmar but access remains difficult.
This text was published in the catalogue for the exhibition “Night Song” curated by Kimiya Yui and Ding Li, showing at QM, Osaka, from 23 November 2008 to 19 January 2009.