The Secrets of the South Thailand: Earth's Tropical Paradise


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The Secrets of the South

Southern Thailand is known for its natural beauty and wild parties, but behind this image is a place where spirituality pervades every bit of life.


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In the heart of south-east Asia is an ancient kingdom...

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..with over 3,000km of coastline.

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But beyond its golden shores,

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there are secret worlds.

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Home to mysterious creatures...

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..and forest giants...

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This is a fast-changing country

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where East and West collide.

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People and animals must work together to survive...

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..forming unique relationships.

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A spiritual land,

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full of magic and wonder.

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This is Thailand.

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South-west Thailand.

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A wild paradise of limestone castes,

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golden beaches and dense forests.

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Along this rugged coast are some close-knit families.

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A troupe of 30 long-tailed macaques has made this their home.

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This youngster has relied on his mother for the last six months.

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But he's now at an age where he needs a more varied diet.

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Trouble is, this is one of Thailand's most extreme locations...

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..a vertical rock face, 50 metres high.

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Up here, good food is scarce.

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Bark and leaves provide little energy.

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Macaques are the most resourceful and wide-ranging monkeys on earth

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and have learned to take advantage of every opportunity.

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But this one involved a precarious commute.

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It's especially risky for a mother carrying an infant.

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For a young macaque still learning the ropes,

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having a tail longer than your body gives you the edge.

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It can both grip and act as a counterbalance.

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This daily descent is well worth the effort.

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Across Thailand, there are thousands of Buddhist temples

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and families like this get a surprisingly warm welcome.

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MAN SPEAKS OWN LANGUAGE

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Thai Buddhists have a unique relationship with nature.

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For them, every living thing contributes something to the world

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and deserves respect.

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This compassionate relationship is the perfect example

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of the spiritual connection so special in southern Thailand

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where humans are not set apart from nature, but live within it.

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There are other welcome benefits for the macaques who visit this temple.

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A chance to cool off and have some fun in the heat of the day.

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Southern Thailand is a natural paradise

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for people and animals alike.

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Hidden coves and scattered islands

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give it a total of 3,000km of coastline.

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Its western shores have been carved and shaped by the Andaman Sea.

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Here, astonishing limestone castes have been created -

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towering stacks of ancient shell and coral.

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This one stands 50 metres tall.

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Once part of the seabed,

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it was thrust up by extreme geological forces.

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The power of the sea and seasonal rains

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continue to sculpt this dramatic landscape.

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Every year, millions of people are drawn here.

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Most come to relax.

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Others are here for an adrenaline rush.

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Ao Nang Tower stands nearly 100 metres high.

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The ultimate challenge for thrill seekers.

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People come from all over the world to climb these extraordinary cliffs.

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But the locals have been scaling them for centuries.

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And it's not thrills they seek.

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It's natural treasure.

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These men have their sights set on

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a cave hundreds of metres up a vertical cliff face.

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Inside, there's a hidden prize,

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but reaching it is fraught with danger.

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There's no hi-tech climbing gear here.

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Just old ropes and local knowledge.

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They must also navigate a treacherous interior...

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..a ten-metre drop into total darkness.

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This is what they're after.

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Tiny, almost translucent birds nests.

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They may not look much, but in Asia,

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they're a highly sought-after delicacy.

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Eating birds nest soup is thought to boost the immune system,

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improve skin complexion and fight ageing.

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It's no wonder one kilogram of nests is worth over 2,000.

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Wild nest collecting has been going on for over 500 years.

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Recently, the safety and sustainability

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has been brought into question.

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But an unexpected answer was found.

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BIRDSONG PLAYS FROM LOUDSPEAKERS

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Thousands of loudspeakers in the town of Pak Phanang

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play birdsong at full blast.

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Tweeting 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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What was once a traditional fishing town is now at the heart

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of a brand-new industry -

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bird nest farming.

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Windows have been sealed up.

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The darker inside, the better.

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All to accommodate a very particular resident.

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The edible nest swiftlet.

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During the breeding season, the salivary glands of the swifts expand

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and produce extra thick saliva.

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Layer upon layer over 40 days,

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the birds craft it into a cup-like nest.

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These new nesting sites are helping this bird

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make a good recovery after years of decline.

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Each day, as the swiftlets are out feeding,

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farmers like Mr Mu check the nests.

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He waits until pairs have bred successfully

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and the chicks have fledged

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before collecting their precious nests.

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The people of Pak Phanang have a risk-free,

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sustainable way to harvest the nests

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and the swiftlets have a new network of nesting sites.

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Across southern Thailand,

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people and animals are finding new ways to live together

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and that sometimes requires a bit of ingenuity.

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Over 50km off the mainland

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lie two of the remotest groups of Thai islands,

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Similan and Surin.

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With crystal clear waters

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and golden beaches...

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..this place might look like paradise,

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but dragons roam these shores.

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A giant monitor lizard,

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two metres long...

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..looking for food.

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It tastes and smells the air with its 30-centimetre tongue,

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sensing even the slightest hint of a meal.

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Hermit crabs protect themselves by hiding their soft bodies

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in the abandoned shells of other creatures.

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They live up to 30 years, so as they grow,

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they need to upsize their homes.

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But there's something of a housing crisis on this island.

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These idyllic hideaways are a magnet for tourists,

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who find it hard to resist taking the occasional souvenir.

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Every time a shell is removed, a crab loses a potential new home.

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So these canny crabs have found another source of housing.

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Each evening, the rangers clear the beaches, piling up the litter.

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And now the crabs do something extraordinary.

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This hermit has found herself a more modern home...

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..in a mackerel tin.

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With so few shells around, it's an ingenious solution.

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And she's not alone.

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This is a fast-growing trend.

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An aluminium fizzy drink can makes a lightweight home

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that's worth fighting for.

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Life in the mackerel tin isn't ideal...

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..and the local rangers know it.

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So they leave seashells near the rubbish piles

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to help the homeless crustaceans.

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The crab normally winds its body into the spiral of a shell.

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It's far harder to grip a straight and slippery can.

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There are plenty of options.

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It's all about finding a snug fit.

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Well, she can be picky if she wants.

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Moving house is an important decision.

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At last, the perfect home.

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It might look like paradise,

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but living along this coastline requires great resourcefulness.

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In southern Thailand, long-tailed macaques are sometimes known as

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"Ling Thalay" - sea monkeys.

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And it's not hard to see why.

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But this isn't just about having a good time.

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Like their temple-visiting cousins, they've got a clever plan.

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They've adapted their lives to the rhythm of the sea.

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And twice a day, low tide reveals a feast -

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nutritious shellfish.

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Trouble is, shells are tough to crack.

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But ever resourceful, these macaques have found a smart solution.

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They've worked out that rocks make perfect shellfish hammers.

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Although clearly some macaques are a little smarter than others.

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Either way, low tide provides a seafood bounty.

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Stone tool use is a rare skill among monkeys.

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But these macaques can only benefit from it by being completely in tune

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with the cycles of nature...

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..something many of Thailand's human residents aspire to.

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The south of the country is rich in Buddhist temples and shrines.

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MONKS CHANT

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Sacred places where monks seek to understand themselves and the world

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in which they live.

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Buddhist principles place human life in the context of a series of cycles

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like those in the natural world.

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For more than 2,000 years,

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the full moon has been celebrated as an embodiment of this idea.

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This celebration of the full moon is embraced by visitors to Thailand,

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but their version is rather more exuberant.

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LOUD MUSIC BLARES

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Koh Phangan's famous beach party is a rite of passage for backpackers

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passing through southern Thailand.

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Partygoers are bathed in ultraviolet light

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and their fluorescent body paint glows.

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But hidden from view, just below the water's surface,

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there's an equally vibrant display.

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By shining the same ultraviolet light underwater,

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an unexpected wonder is revealed.

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These tropical waters are home to an abundance of coral reefs.

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A protein within them absorbs the ultraviolet light,

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emitting back a whole new spectrum.

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These corals are all fluorescing.

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First discovered in the 1930s,

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scientists are still debating why this happens.

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One theory is that fluorescent proteins

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might act as a type of sunblock...

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..protecting the coral from the sun's intense rays.

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But it isn't just corals that glow under ultraviolet.

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It's possible that other creatures are able to see this show, too,

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and use it to their advantage.

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One reef resident's behaviour seems to support this theory.

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The scorpion fish is an ambush predator

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so camouflage is key.

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Passing fish need to beware.

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Come too close and his cavernous mouth will suck them up

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in a split second.

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For this scorpion fish,

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red fluorescing algae appears to be the perfect disguise.

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Southern Thailand's secret worlds go far beyond its dazzling coastline.

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In the very centre of the peninsula is a freshwater lake called

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Cheow Lan, surrounded by great mountains.

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Limestone peaks intercept moisture-laden clouds,

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producing much-needed water for this rainforest.

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3,000 square kilometres of it.

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It is home to an exceptional diversity of plants and animals.

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For 12 million years, the forest has

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echoed to strange and haunting sounds.

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BIRDS CHIRPING

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WINGS BEATING

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The wing beats of a giant.

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The great hornbill.

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WINGS BEATING

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BIRD CRIES

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For this male, it's an important time of year.

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Inside this nest hole is his lifelong partner.

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There's a slit just wide enough for a bill.

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But she's sealed in and won't come out until her chicks fledge

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in four months' time.

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For now, she's completely reliant on him to find food for them all.

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A long bill makes fruit easier to reach.

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It's tossed to the back of the throat and stored in a pouch.

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Remarkably, hornbills can carry

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over 250 berries at a time.

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Delicately regurgitating one at a time,

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he eases his beak through the narrow hole.

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This devoted couple have raised

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chicks in this tree for over a decade.

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And because they might live to the age of 40,

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they should be back here for many more years to come.

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On the east coast of Southern Thailand,

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there is another secret world far from

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the tourist trails, teeming with wildlife.

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Flat coastal plains are home to four expansive lagoons,

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covering over 8,000 square kilometres.

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In Thailand's largest lake,

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local people are finding unique ways to make a living.

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Somjai is a farmer.

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He's raising the only large animals to be found here.

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Somewhere amongst this expanse is his herd of water buffalo.

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GRUNTING

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Although their wild ancestors are native to Thailand,

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these are domesticated buffalo.

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Somjai lets them live a mostly wild life.

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But in the evening, he tracks them down.

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In the shallowest parts of the lake, punting is the only option.

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The buffalo spend the day feeding on the rich aquatic plants.

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In the 40 degree heat,

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a mud bath cools them off and repels insects.

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The buffaloes' splayed hooves stop them sinking into the soft ground.

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But the constant exposure to water can be damaging.

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So he must round them up and steer them into a dry pen for the night.

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HE SHOUTS

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For Somjai, this work is about much

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more than making a living.

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The dry pen not only protects their feet,

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but gives them a chance to rest for the night.

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This free range partnership also has

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unexpected benefits for the wider ecosystem.

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Ploughing their way through the wetlands,

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spreading seeds as they go,

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the buffalo help important plants to regenerate.

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Carpets of lotus flowers create a haven for over a million birds...

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..making this a wetland of global importance.

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It's the perfect place for specialists,

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those with a light step...

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..and fast reactions.

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This purple swamp hen may look ungainly,

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but he's got a secret weapon.

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Huge feet to spread his body weight over the floating foliage.

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This helps a lot when stealth is not your style.

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He also has a particular taste in food,

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unwittingly helping to protect his habitat.

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Golden apple snails aren't native to Thailand and can harm natural

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habitats when numbers boom.

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Luckily, swamp hens love them.

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If they can find them.

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A secure footing is vital when you're trying to haul in your catch.

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Long toes mean a foot can act as a hand.

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Purple swamp hens are perfectly adapted to this environment,

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and in a small way,

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these accidental conservationists are helping to preserve it.

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These aren't the only animals

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helping to conserve the natural beauty of Southern Thailand.

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This is Kui Buri National Park.

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Formerly thick forest,

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it was cleared for farmland and the wildlife forced out.

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In the 1990s,

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public support for Buddhist-inspired

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environmental principles started to grow.

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Respecting the natural world was not simply a spiritual notion.

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It had to become a reality.

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In 1999, the government gave this area back to nature.

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BELLOWING

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These native elephants reclaimed land

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and have had a remarkable impact on the ecosystem.

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Asian elephants need to eat 150kg of food each day.

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They eat over 50 different plant types,

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spreading seeds far and wide in their dung,

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replanting Kui Buri's forest.

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BELLOWING

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And by pushing through the undergrowth,

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they create pathways for smaller animals like sambar deer.

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They also give birds an opportunity to pick off scattering insects.

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Elephants were allowed to rebuild the ecosystem

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and they have done just that,

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creating a wild paradise.

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Turning this habitat back over to

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the animals has restored the balance.

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But in other habitats,

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sometimes only human intervention will do.

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Although these boards are being used for a bit of fun,

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the Thai people invented them long before the wake board.

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And when used in the traditional way,

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they are a vital form of transport,

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and the best way to get safely around a mangrove swamp at low tide.

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These men are here on urgent business.

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Mangroves once covered much of Thailand's coastline...

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..but since the 1960s,

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half have been uprooted to make way for shrimp farms.

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When people began to realise the devastating impact

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of shrimp farming on the landscape,

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they started looking more closely at this vitally important ecosystem.

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Decomposing leaves provide valuable nutrients

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which support a rich biodiversity.

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Mangroves also act as a barrier between the land and the sea,

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protecting low-lying communities from storms and coastal flooding.

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They produce seeds that are buoyant,

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floating away and germinating in far away places.

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As their roots grow outwards,

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they trap sediment,

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and are one of the few habitats

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that can actually build up the coastline.

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Cutting down the trees is now illegal,

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and over the last 30 years,

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volunteers from all over the south

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have been replanting the mangrove forests.

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Little by little, this crucial habitat is reclaiming the land.

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And mud skippers are moving in -

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a tangible sign of recovery.

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Seeing them here means there is a healthy supply of food.

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And a good tidal flow creating lots of fresh puddles

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to keep their skin wet.

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For ecologists,

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seeing them living in a new forest

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is a sign the ecosystem is functioning once again.

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And this mangrove restoration has far-reaching effects.

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The coral reef owes its clear waters to the mangroves' natural filtering

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of silt and pollutants.

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South-east Asia has more coral reef

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than any other region of the world.

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Lying at the heart of this area,

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Thai waters are home to more than 2,000 types of fish...

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..such as the moray eel,

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clownfish,

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and cuttlefish.

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When the reef is in balance,

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every individual plays a crucial role.

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The crown of thorns starfish grazes on the fastest-growing coral,

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giving the slower-growing corals a chance to catch up.

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Long-spined sea urchins feed on algae,

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clearing the way for coral growth.

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But the reef is a delicate ecosystem

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that can easily be knocked out of balance.

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Pollution and a loss of natural predators

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can cause starfish and urchin numbers to explode.

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Both are covered in venomous spines.

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But there is one renowned reef resident able to take them on.

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The titan triggerfish.

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They've got a fearsome reputation...

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..aggressively defending their patch of reef.

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A sea urchin's spines are no

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protection against teeth like these.

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Although the crown of thorns is well protected on top,

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it has a soft underside.

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Titan triggerfish play an important role

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in keeping numbers at healthy levels.

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And with this much food around,

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it's a great place to start a family.

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This couple have a little bundle of eggs to care for.

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While the female blows water over the eggs to oxygenate them,

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the male is on guard patrol.

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This sort of parental care might be surprising,

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but it's vitally important they protect

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the next generation of reef helpers.

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All the creatures here play their part.

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And this has a direct influence on the open ocean.

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When the coral and other reef animals spawn,

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it helps to feed the plankton.

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Some of this is swept up by large filter feeding animals...

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..like the manta ray...

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..and whale shark.

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The rest can drift far away,

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forming a floating food supply.

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This not only supports life under the sea,

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but also above it.

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Fish is the most important source of protein in Southern Thailand.

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Almost two million Thai people keep

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the country supplied with this staple.

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In this village on the east coast of Thailand,

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Bang, his wife Patima,

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and their son Thongchai rely on a good daily catch.

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Early every morning, they head out to sea.

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Before they cast their nets,

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there's a sign from nature they always hope to see...

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..something that helps guide them to the biggest shoals of fish.

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This is the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin,

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a species found in coastal waters from India to Australia.

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It's sometimes called the pink dolphin.

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Grey in their juvenile years,

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they slowly lose this colour in blotches,

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turning bright pink when they fully mature.

0:48:200:48:23

These unusual-looking dolphins

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scour the coastline in search of the

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small fish that feed on plankton.

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Anchovies are a favourite for dolphin and fishermen alike.

0:48:370:48:41

And today it's a good haul.

0:48:520:48:54

There's one more thing they want to do before heading back to shore.

0:49:060:49:10

Across their range,

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pink dolphins often forge special relationships with people.

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Southern Thailand is a natural paradise

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where people and nature are deeply connected.

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For many Thai people,

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their existence is no more important than those creatures

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with whom they share their world.

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Habitat to habitat,

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surprising connections and partnerships run deep.

0:50:040:50:08

This is a place that draws people from all over the world

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to enjoy its beauty.

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It's a wild wonderland

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full of unexpected surprises.

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The coral reefs of southern Thailand are world-renowned.

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But there's an animal that lives on

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the reef that strikes fear in all who enter the water.

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It's definitely the fish that everyone is scared of.

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Like, we have some sharks, no problem.

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I don't want to get on the wrong side of them.

0:51:060:51:09

This woman got bitten or rammed on her head or something.

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And there was just blood pouring down her head.

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The titan triggerfish.

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It may be only 60 centimetres long,

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but its huge teeth are built to bite

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through coral and shell.

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During the breeding season, they're particularly aggressive

0:51:300:51:34

when caring for their eggs.

0:51:340:51:36

And this is what the BBC crew were here to film.

0:51:360:51:40

Producer Lara Bickerton has just one week to get what she needs.

0:51:430:51:48

Seeing a triggerfish at all would be a start on this shoot.

0:51:500:51:52

But cameramen Johnny Rogers and Simon Enderby are highly skilled

0:51:530:51:57

underwater cinematographers.

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The waters surrounding Thailand are famous for their incredible clarity.

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But not today.

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No triggers. No titans.

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No titans. Visibility about no more than five metres.

0:52:170:52:21

Apparently the visibility is better on the other side of the island,

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so shall we go and give that a go?

0:52:240:52:26

Yeah.

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It's a good plan, but the crew don't get far.

0:52:280:52:30

ENGINE RUMBLES

0:52:300:52:34

We're just on our way to another dive site and found out our boat's

0:52:370:52:41

broken down. The ironic result is the boat that is now towing us is

0:52:410:52:44

actually towing us faster than what this boat

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was doing under its own power.

0:52:460:52:48

At last Simon gets a second dive in.

0:52:520:52:56

Got it?

0:52:590:53:01

Although the visibility is still poor,

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he captures the odd glimpse of a titan.

0:53:050:53:07

They are certainly around.

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They're there, but we just can't see them.

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Visibility is too bad.

0:53:180:53:20

The crew are told normal weather patterns

0:53:230:53:25

are running three weeks late,

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and that could be what's reducing the visibility.

0:53:270:53:30

Things only get worse.

0:53:330:53:35

Lara is increasingly concerned.

0:53:400:53:42

High winds, heavy rain and rough seas.

0:53:450:53:48

The team need their luck to change.

0:53:500:53:52

Three days later, the storm passes.

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The crew hope the water visibility has improved, too.

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The challenge now is not finding more triggerfish,

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but filming a complete behavioural sequence.

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So the crew focus their attention at a site where the triggerfish's prey,

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the crown of thorns starfish, is most abundant.

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It's a place that marine biologist Spencer Arnold knows well.

0:54:270:54:31

Sometimes starfish numbers can explode and damage the reef.

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So Spencer and the volunteers from New Heaven Dive School

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work hard to remove them.

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But there are still plenty left for the triggerfish.

0:54:490:54:53

The titan triggerfish will eat a crown of thorns sea star.

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So obviously very,

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very important keystone species on the island of Koh Tao in terms of

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controlling these, these pest species.

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The challenge for the crew now is finding and filming the triggerfish.

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With so little time left,

0:55:100:55:12

Lara decides to form a tag team, with both Johnny and Simon working

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back-to-back, maximising their time underwater.

0:55:160:55:20

Johnny Rogers is also using a re-breather diving system,

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allowing him to spend over two hours at a time underwater.

0:55:260:55:30

And as soon as Simon comes out,

0:55:320:55:34

Johnny gets in.

0:55:340:55:36

This allows them eight hours a day of uninterrupted filming.

0:55:400:55:44

With the visibility much better, the team make progress.

0:55:480:55:52

Johnny captures footage of a triggerfish

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attacking the soft underside of a crown of thorns starfish.

0:55:560:55:59

It's a great start to the sequence.

0:56:020:56:04

We got her on a crown of thorns.

0:56:090:56:11

-Did you?

-Yeah.

-Awesome.

-Great news.

0:56:110:56:14

And Johnny's seen a triggerfish.

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Well, I've seen one before, but not on this trip.

0:56:160:56:19

It's only taken four days.

0:56:190:56:21

The team are soon back underwater,

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making the most of the time they have left.

0:56:250:56:27

And Johnny gets a remarkable bit of behaviour no one expected.

0:56:290:56:33

The triggerfish bites each individual spine off the sea urchin

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before devouring the whole thing.

0:56:460:56:48

Finally we're actually getting somewhere.

0:56:510:56:53

Simon captures the final bit of the puzzle.

0:56:570:56:59

It's when the titans are guarding

0:57:020:57:04

their nests they get most aggressive.

0:57:040:57:07

But this couple are surprisingly chilled,

0:57:070:57:10

letting Simon get an intimate view of the female aerating her eggs.

0:57:100:57:14

Well, patience finally paid off.

0:57:200:57:22

That's the closest I've ever come to a nesting

0:57:220:57:24

titan triggerfish in my entire life.

0:57:240:57:27

Male and female. Male, we found the male first, defending his territory.

0:57:280:57:32

Thought, OK. Actually swam over the female looking at the male,

0:57:320:57:36

didn't notice that. I went, "Oh, hello."

0:57:360:57:38

So I was basically this much from her, puffing away on her eggs.

0:57:380:57:42

Sunshine, blue water,

0:57:440:57:46

target animals.

0:57:460:57:48

Amazing, amazing news.

0:57:480:57:50

I am so chuffed at that.

0:57:500:57:53

Today has paid off.

0:57:530:57:54

The team finally had the conclusion they needed.

0:57:560:57:59

And along the way learned that if you catch

0:58:000:58:03

this notorious fish on a good day, they're remarkably easy-going.

0:58:030:58:07

Next time, we head to Thailand's bustling capital.

0:58:140:58:17

Here, spirituality can be found in human and animal relationships.

0:58:200:58:26

Both likely and unlikely.

0:58:260:58:28

This is the very heart of Thailand.

0:58:300:58:32

Home to mysterious giants and striking beauty.

0:58:320:58:37

Southern Thailand is the Thailand we think we all know. It is a place of both spectacular natural beauty and of wild parties, but behind this well-known image is also a place of unexpected surprise, where spirituality pervades every bit of life. For the animals that live here, this is natural wonderland.