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Mark Graham

Courtesy of The Nation (Thailand), December 1998

Mark with CameraAn amateur naturalist and photographer, Mark Graham turned his love of the outdoors into a career, writes James Fahn.

Mark Graham was a very civilised environmentalist. Whenever he went off to spot some wildlife, company was always welcome. Once in the blind, he would offer you some cheese and crackers, some soft-edged advice, and maybe something a bit stiffer to drink. Perhaps the animals would show up at the watering hole, and perhaps they wouldn't. Either way, by the end of the day, you'd have learned something about nature -- human or otherwise.

Mark Graham, 57, died last Friday along with 100 other passengers aboard the ill-fated Thai Airways International flight TG 261, which crashed into the swamps of Surat Thani amidst a driving rainstorm. A resident of Thailand for 30 years, Graham was an avid photographer and sportsman who resigned from a senior post with a multinational firm, and turned his life-long love of the outdoors into a new career as an author and naturalist, using his extensive business contacts to help support the causes he believed in so passionately.

Graham was born in Singapore in 1941, the eldest of three sons of a Scottish family which was soon forced to flee the advancing Japanese on the proverbial ''last boat out''. His father, an officer in the British Army, was captured and became a POW, but survived imprisonment and still lives along with Graham's mother in Oxfordshire.

Mark OutdoorsGraham was educated in Scotland and in Italy, where he trained as a classical artist. After a three-year stint with the Seaforth Highlanders in the British Army, where he served as an adjutant to the chief of general staff in Singapore and Malaya, he joined up with the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather in London. But Asia seemed to call to him, and in 1967 he moved out to Hong Kong, arriving in Thailand the following year. Once settled in Bangkok, he continued his career in advertising and later became the area representative for GD Searle, an American pharmaceutical firm.

Work was only a small part of Graham's life, however. He helped out with several charitable causes, including serving as project director for the Bangkok Nursing Home. He was also by all accounts a formidable athlete, whether it was cutting a dashing figure atop his stallion at the Polo Club, waxing opponents on the golf course or running past them on the rugby pitch. And in many ways, Bangkok was only a base for him; he seemed to find real solace trekking through the forests of Khao Yai National Park or exploring more distant but still pristine corners of the region.

About 10 years ago, he managed the difficult feat of turning his hobby as an amateur photographer and naturalist into a full-time career, serving as a consultant on a variety of environmental projects ranging from tiger conservation to reforestation to protecting plant diversity. Graham was the first to acknowledge that he was not a trained ecologist, but what he lacked in terms of an academic background, he made up for with his on-the-ground experience, his knowledge of Thailand and his extensive contacts.

He was also the author of Thailand's Vanishing Flora and Fauna, National Parks of Thailand, Thai Wood, and several other books, many of which also featured his own photos and drawings. He was working on a guidebook to Khao Yai and an extensive study of ecotourism in Thailand when he passed away.

Like many farang who come to Thailand, he was amazed by the country's natural beauty and distressed at the way it has been so terribly abused. But he also came to know and love the people of Thailand, and was that rare person who could be at ease chatting with both Bangkok bankers and rural villagers. He went about his work in a quiet way, and served a most valuable role as a bridge between the people who had money and the worthwhile causes that needed it so desperately. There are now plans to set up a memorial fund in his name which would be used to support nature conservation.

Graham passed on his love of the outdoors to his two children, Tarini Fiona Graham, 26, and Karin James Graham, 23. His personal life may not have always been happy -- he was divorced from his wife of many years Chanipa Krabuanrat -- but the birth of their granddaughter Saengfaa helped bring the family together again in recent years. It was Chanipa who went down to Surat Thani to claim his body.

Mark Graham's love also went far beyond his immediate family. There is virtually an entire generation of young Bangkokians -- Thai, farang, and luuk kreung -- who simply knew him as ''Loong Mark'' or ''Na Mark''. As everyone's favorite uncle, he would hold court at home wearing his pha khao ma, dispensing seemingly limitless amounts of affection and nam-jay. Far from the hills of Scotland, he managed to create his own clan here in Thailand.

In retrospect, it's sad to think that Mark Graham did not have a chance to retire and pursue his hobbies at a more leisurely pace. But if his was not a complete life, at least it was a full one. Surely it is his very extended family and adopted country which have suffered the greatest loss.

Last Friday, Graham was headed to Surat Thani in order to meet an ABC/Kane team of filmmakers, with whom he was producing a documentary on Thailand's wildlife. When getting away from Bangkok, Graham usually preferred to climb into his trusty Pajero and head upcountry at the wheel. But for whatever reason, this time he chose to fly.

Several dozen passengers miraculously managed to survive the subsequent crash, whose cause is still under investigation, but Graham was trapped in the wreckage and never had a chance to escape. It seems like too random and messy a way for him to have gone. Mark Graham much preferred to make his own path into the wilderness. Funeral services for Mark Graham are being held at Wat Mongkutkasatayalam, where cremation rites will take place next Tuesday, Dec 22, at 2 pm. Rather than flowers, donations will be accepted for the Mark Graham Foundation, which aims to continue his work.

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