Just about every afternoon, a natural phenomenon has evolved into one of Thailand's greatest wildlife shows. A savannah situated in Kui Buri National Park in the southwest province of Prachuap Khiri Khan provides a backdrop for three of the Kingdom's majestic wild animals.
Elephants and gaur in Kui Buri grassland.
Elephants, gaur and banteng seen in daylight are rare occurrences in other protected areas around the country, but not here. Due to increased attention, conservation, research, funding and better protective enforcement, the park is now world famous as a place to see these creatures. Even a tiger was recently seen in broad daylight.
This has taken place because many people are now realising the importance and value of protecting Thailand's natural resources for the world to see.
Conservation success stories are as rare as intact ecosystems. Kui Buri has become a role model for wildlife conservation in the nation.
His Majesty the King and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit have taken special interest in Kui Buri from the early 1970s when Their Majesties provided assistance in the construction of the Yang Chum earthen irrigation dam. Through their guidance, when the Royal Project was completed in 1979 it provided access to 32 million m3 of water for the lowland people.
After a big flood in 1996, the dam's height was raised 2m with His Majesty providing funding to retain more water.
This was the first dam in Thailand that used earthen material from the United States to raise the dam's height. Volume was increased another 9 million m3. It operates to this day, providing water for farming and subsistence to the people in the province.
His Majesty was also instrumental in coaxing villagers and farmers out of Kui Buri in the early 1990s, and in 1999 the protected area was finally established as a national park encompassing an area of 969km2. A large portion of the interior had already been cleared for agriculture with pineapples as the main crop plus sugar cane, vegetables, and several pine and eucalyptus tree plantations.
Many people-elephant conflicts arose, becoming a serious problem for all. The degradation was quite severe but the park was saved just in the nick of time due to His Majesty's efforts.
Chalerm Yoovidhya, of Red Bull fame and owner of Siam Winery, has financed many projects improving the habitat for elephants and wild cattle. His first efforts were to develop firebreaks during drought periods and build check dams in some streams to provide water in case of forest fire.
Another important programme his team, led by Chayapol Sornsil, implemented also improved salt licks and the grassland that attract these huge herbivores. Other programmes like helping the rangers with food and equipment for patrolling have been undertaken.
Chalerm recently started the Thai Gaur Conservation Group based just outside the park.
He is also organising a foundation to help the infrastructure, up-keep of the grasslands and rangers.
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Thailand has also been busy in Kui Buri, trying to deal with the elephant-people conflict plus conducting research and camera trapping in the interior to see what has survived the poaching and encroachment over the years.
Banteng cow and gaur.
Illegal hunting still goes on but now on a limited scale. It is tough to stamp out completely but under proper guidance and supervision with outreach programmes, there is a chance for zero poaching and no encroachment over the long run. They have also been involved in the grassland, salt lick and check dam projects.
According to the WWF's Dr Robert Steinmetz, there are five confirmed tigers, probably more, plus a multitude of other carnivores and prey species. Rare animals like tapir, Fea's muntjac, clouded leopard plus Asiatic jackals, black bear, sun bear and golden cat have also been camera trapped. Wayuphong Jitvijak, also with WWF, has been busy coordinating with the park's personnel and local villagers on conservation, with particular emphasis on the fate of the elephants.
The most important aspect was the establishment four years ago of grassland compatible with the wildlife. Huge areas of invasive Guinea grass Megathyrsus maximus var maximus unsuitable to wildlife were removed, and replaced with Ruzi grass Brachiaria ruziziensis, a species that elephants, gaur and banteng can live on and propagate.
More than 12,000 rai has been developed. Major funding from the National Lottery Bureau and grass seed from the Department of Livestock in conjunction with more funding from Siam Winery and WWF has been invested.
Another man has also been a very important asset for Kui Buri. He is Boonlue Pulnil, a former superintendent who took a vested interest in the continued existence of the park. He managed to get funding to establish 11 waterholes that now provide water for the animals, especially during drought periods. He still works for the Department of National Parks and with several NGOs and groups on improving Kui Buri's ecosystems and wildlife. One such group is the Foundation for the King's Wild Elephant.
Other people have taken an interest in Kui Buri's long-term survival. The present chief of Kui Buri, Cholathorn Chamnankid, is actively involved in improving protection and enforcement with a programme of wildlife conservation and zero poaching. Other dignitaries include the governor of Prachuap Khiri Khan, Weera Sriwathanatrakoon, who has been at the forefront of protecting Kui Buri. General Noppadol Wathanotai, adviser to His Majesty's Projects, Office of the Principal Private Secretary is also working with the group. Kui Buri District Chief Officer Phongphan Wichiansamut, an avid nature fan, is supporting all activities on wildlife conservation and protecting the park for the future.
In July, a memorandum of understanding signed between the main agencies in Kui Buri including the Royal Thai Army (First Army Area of Thailand), Border Patrol Police Bureau and Provincial Police Operation Centre made a dedicated effort in the province supporting the Tenasserim Agreement at Yang Chum Dam. The results are positive, showing a 100% increase in the populations of both gaur and elephants. The grassland north of the headquarters is the key.
From near extinction, there are now herds of about 250 elephants and more than 150 gaur, and the road to recovery is looking positive. These amazing animals are now thriving very well, mainly around the savannah. The banteng, however, are still highly endangered with just a few individuals remaining. Two mature bulls and one cow have been seen mixing with gaur. It is hoped there are more banteng in the park's interior.
The need to protect these forests and wildlife in the lower Tenasserim Range is of vital importance. In the old days before roads, Kui Buri, Practakor reserve forest and Kaeng Krachan National Park to the north were all connected by a natural corridor of thick rainforest along the border with Myanmar.
Some 50 years ago, Thung Plai Ngam _ a hunter's paradise _ was a favourite place of the rich for hunting trips. It is situated behind Pran Buri reservoir but is now completely void of wildlife. Back then there were crocodiles in the river and large herds of elephant, rhino, gaur and tiger were common. Kui Buri was famous for its tigers in the old days.
As humans built roads and expanded into virgin forests after wood and other resources, agriculture and villages followed and replaced the jungle. All the classic Asian animals and ecosystems were systematically wiped out in man's eager quest for expansion. It is impossible to get all this back but it is imperative that the remaining patches of forest and wildlife be saved and protected to the full extent of the law.
One of the most important aspects of wildlife conservation is to educate people on the importance of saving Kui Buri for future generations and the world to see.
Also, to keep any expansion in the park to an absolute minimum, and make sure the rangers undertake constant patrols, and arrest and put law-breakers behind bars for long periods of time. It is a fact, with zero poaching and no encroachment, the forest and wildlife will come back over time.
It now seems that Kui Buri is a special place in Thailand, and we all should be proud of the people who are or have been involved it its continued survival.
They should be commended for their efforts. It has made the difference and the Kingdom's natural heritage has benefited from this. Finally, constant pressure must be applied to all aspects of protecting the Kui Buri forests so generations to come will see the successes of today.
US-born L. Bruce Kekule has lived in Thailand for 48 years, photographing the country's wild creatures and habitats for 15 years. Visit: www.brucekekule.com.
A gaur bull.
An elephant blows water.
About the author
Writer: L. Bruce Kekule