A different killer lurking in the forest

With resources stretched to near breaking point, forest rangers and the tigers they are trying to protect are coming under threat from well-armed poachers

Yoo-ae, 18, could not decide whether or not to leave the cemetery. The Karen girl's mother and friends were urging her to go, but she replied, ''No, I want to stay a little longer,'' her eyes filling with tears.

BURNING BRIGHT: This tiger once roamed Thung Yai-Naresuan and Huay Kha Kheng sanctuaries but was later seen dead in a picture with a Mong poacher. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION SOCIETY AND SAYAN CHUENUDOMSAVAD

Yoo-ae was pregnant and due to give birth at the end of this month.

Outside the cemetery hall was the body of her husband, Anthong Ngamying, 22, undergoing cremation following a Buddhist funeral ceremony.

Yoo-ae kept staring at his remains and sobbing. ''I don't know what to do with my life now,'' she said softly after regaining her composure.

A few weeks earlier, Yoo-ae was in a happy mood when she and her young husband received the good news from a doctor in Umphang that their baby would be delivered on Sept 30.

But on the night of Sept 12, forest ranger Anthong died after two bullets from an AK-47 tore through his chest during a clash with a gang of tiger poachers in Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary, on the Myanmar border in Tak province.

POACHERS' NEW PREY

This was not the first violent clash with tiger poachers. Over the past few years, tiger poaching has become more common in the 18,000 square kilometre Western Forest Complex (Wefcom), and four forest rangers have been killed, and six injured by poachers.

The area is home to 11 national parks and six wildlife sanctuaries, including Thailand's first Natural World Heritage site, the 6,400 sq km Thung Yai-Naresuan and Huay Kha Kheng sanctuaries that form the heart of the Wefcom.

The chief of the eastern side of the sanctuary, Superintendent Sompong Thongsikhem has taken a personal interest in cases of poaching.

''The problems with poachers have become much worse recently,'' he said when Spectrum visited him in his office deep in the Thung Yai-Naresuan, the sanctuary furthest to the east.

''But we've been working hard to protect wildlife in the area,'' he said, recalling the first time tiger poachers were found to be operating in the area, especially in Thung Yai-Naresuan and Huay Kha Kheng.

It was just three years ago that news arrived that tiger poachers were in the area. In early 2010, Supt Sompong and his team learned that at least three tigers had been killed in Huay Kha Kheng, only 10km from the ranger's office in Thung Yai-Naresuan.

The three killed were two cubs and their mother. What shocked the forest rangers was that they had been poisoned, apparently at random, and the poachers took everything from the mother, leaving only the carcass.

Following an investigation, the rangers learned more about the suspects. It was believed that some hilltribe people living near the forest may have been responsible. No arrests have been made.

EVER VIGILANT: Supt Sompong and his forest rangers search for evidence left by poachers.

Following that incident, forest rangers found more evidence of the use of poison. Some wild animals, including muntjac deer, were found poisoned and used as bait _ a method that recalled an incident that occurred more than 15 years ago, when a flock of vultures was found dead after feeding on carrion, leading forest officials to believe the dead animals had been poisoned.

Around the end of 2010, two adult elephants were killed and poisoned, presumed to have been killed to be used as tiger bait. Forest rangers from three wildlife sanctuaries _ Thung Yai-Naresuan, Huay Kha Kheng and Umphang _ teamed up to investigate the case, and in mid-2011, they encountered a gang of tiger poachers.

On June 6, 2011, a group of six or seven members of the Mong hilltribe travelled to Thung Yai-Naresuan to check on the deployment and number of rangers at a local checkpoint. The next day, one returned, but the rest were not with him. On June 24, Huay Kha Kheng rangers reported a clash with a group of poachers, and the hunt for them began.

The forest rangers tracked them and were finally able to arrest one Mong injured by gunshot and a Vietnamese national in a resort in Umphang district.

What shocked the forest rangers was a picture of the Mong poacher posing with a dead tiger. The forest rangers compared the tiger's markings with those on their database and learned it was a tiger that had been spotted in Huay Kha Kheng and Thung Yai-Naresuan, not a tiger in Myanmar as claimed by the suspects.

''By coming to check on us first, this incident showed me that they were well-prepared for the hunt. It made me to believe that we were encountering an organised poaching gang,'' said Supt Sompong.

''But these were only the poachers we managed to detect. We have no idea whether there are more in the forest.''

After the arrest and eventual conviction of the two suspects _ they received jail terms of five and four years _ the forest rangers stepped up their efforts to detect poachers.

One of the tactics they employ is the ''smart patrol'', a group of forest rangers equipped with GPS and other technology that enables them to detect and report anything unusual they come across in the forest quickly and accurately.

Supt Sompong noted that the forest rangers' new tactics seemed to be working, and that poaching seemed to have been eradicated for around 18 months. That is, until his men encountered the gang of Mong poachers earlier this month.

On Sept 5, Huay Kha Kheng forest rangers reported an encounter with a gang of Mong poachers. They called in reinforcements to help track them down. They later found bait ranging from muntjac, bears, wild pig and gibbon on the forest floor in Huay Kha Kheng.

The forest rangers tracked the poachers until learning that they had sneaked into eastern Thung Yai-Naresuan. Thirteen forest rangers tracked the poachers when they entered Umphang.

On night of Sept 12, they couldn't see that the poachers were armed. Suddenly, as the team prepared to make arrests, the poachers opened fire, spraying them with bullets from an AK-47.

As a result, Anthong and fellow forest ranger Boonsin Inthapanyawere, 51, were shot and killed. Two other forest rangers were badly injured. One poacher was killed.

The forest rangers tracked the rest of the gang and a few days later managed to arrest another two. Unbelievably, one of them was a friend of Anthong's father, an ex-comrade whom he had fought alongside against the government during the communist insurgency nearly 40 years ago.

''Anthong's father insisted on seeing him. When they met, he kept asking his former comrade, 'Why did you kill my son?''' said Chief Sompong.

So far, Umphang police have helped the forest rangers to track a further two poachers.

According to Pol Col Wirat Poung-in, police chief at Umphang Police Station, the police have been tracking them and according to their informants, the two have likely escaped and hidden in a Mong village on the other side of the border.

The police have contacted Myanmar police and asked for their help. They have provided them with photos of the two, and hopefully they will find them and arrest them soon.

A few days ago, while awaiting the poachers' capture, another forest ranger in Huay Kha Kheng was shot in the neck, and is in critical condition in Sirirat Hospital, after encountering a gang of poachers. Evidence of poisoning was found, including 10 dead gibbons, likely to be used as bait.

GOING BY THE NUMBERS

In Wefcom, especially in its heart, the Thung Yai-Naresuan and Huay Kha Kheng wildlife sanctuaries and the adjacent Umphang sanctuary, tigers and other big animals have been used as indicators to help target protection and conservation measures in the area.

This is because these animals, especially tigers, are a flagship species categorised as a protection dependent species, meaning they need protection in order to survive.

And their survival is vital to the success of forest protection and conservation as a whole. Tigers are at the top of food chain. Their survival and existence means the survival and existence of other species, and therefore the survival of the forest.

Anak Pattanavibool, the country programme director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and a lecturer at Kasetsat University's Forestry Faculty said the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, has been working with the WCS and WWF to study tigers in order to create a database to help better manage conservation efforts.

Led by its prime researcher Saksit Simcharoen, who has more than 20 years experience tracking tiger populations, the department has learned that around 100-120 tigers roam the forests. There are around 60-65 in the three main sanctuaries _ Thung Yai-Naresuan (east and west) and Huay Kha Kheng _ and the rest are in Mea Wong park, Klong Lan park and other nearby reserves. Such a population, Mr Anak said, makes it the best in Southeast Asia.

The researchers understood the danger that poaching posed to the tiger population, so, in mid-2000, they developed early threat detection via the implementation of smart patrols. In eastern Thung Yai-Naresuan, for example, nine forest ranger teams are assigned to patrol the forest.

But there are limitations on what can be done. Wefcom has rough terrain that is not easy to access, and there are only a limited number of forest rangers. In addition, some sanctuaries and parks have communities either next to them, or within them, and poaching can be a temptation to an accomplished hunter.

For eastern Thung Yai-Naresuan, which covers around 1,520 sq km, Supt Sompong has only around 100 forest rangers, meaning each man is responsible for more than 15 sq km.

Mr Anak said the smart patrol system is still the best way to deal with the problem of poaching, but it needs to be strengthened by the provision of adequate resources and manpower.

While acknowledging that poaching may be linked with criminal networks the sanctuaries, Mr Anak believes that if the forest rangers can protect their areas, then they can effectively deal with the threat.

Mr Anak said the sizes of the forest areas are outpacing the available human resources. With each forest ranger having to take care of an average of 15 sq km of forest, this, he said, is far behind manpower levels in countries such as India.

At Kaziranga National Park in Assum State, for example, up to 600 rangers protect an area of less than 1,000 sq km. This means each ranger has much area to cover than those in Wefcom, and that is part of the reason why the around 100 tigers there are better protected protected.

In Nepal's Chitwan National Park, Mr Anak added, military officers are recruited to help protect the forest. Around 1,000 of them patrol about 1,000 sq km, and because of that around 100 tigers live safely there.

''If we had the resources, we would not be so concerned by the situation, but the fact is we don't, and we are stretched thin because of the area we have to cover,'' said Mr Anak. ''This is part of the reason why we cannot say definitely that we are being successful in protecting the areas via the patrols.''

Mr Anak suggests the department prioritise tasks in order to manage its limited resources better. For instance, he said, the pristine areas of the World Heritage sites should be a priority, and should be given adequate resources.

Even if poachers do sneak into these areas, with intensive and blanket patrols they will be detected early and arrested.

But forest rangers need to be trained and equipped in order to perform at their best. Currently, their weapons are outdated and often cannot fire because they are old and broken.

''I would like to say that we have a system in place, and that we are getting what we need,'' said Mr Anak. ''The areas that have tigers tell us that they are well protected, so it is not acceptable that forest officials are punished every time tigers are killed in their areas.

''Scientific monitoring via smart patrols and transparent reporting, rather than punishment, will help this. We need this because wildlife conservation is something scientific and it needs transparency for effective management.''

Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy park chief, agrees with Mr Anak that forest rangers need more support. He said the department is planning to discuss the issue with the Budget Bureau in order to ask it for more financial support.

Mr Theerapat said tigers are crucial to the ecosystem of Wefcom and the department has been trying every way it can to protect the species.

In addition to bolstering the management of the sanctuaries, the department will try to explore an action plan and set goals for tiger conservation up to 2022 and stress support for forest rangers' work as well as education among nearby communities.

Mr Theerapat also believes that poaching here links to networks across the border, and the department has been trying to work bilaterally with other states in order to have the criminal gangs suppressed.

''But in the long term, it's really about public awareness. If they care about wildlife and the forest, they will not go poaching,'' said Mr Theerapat.

FALLEN COMRADE: Forest rangers from Wefcom carry the body of Anthong Ngamying at his royally sponsored cremation ceremony last Sunday.

MORE EVIDENCE: Forest rangers find a temporary shelter and drug paraphernalia in Thung Yai- Naresuan forest.

About the author

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Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang
Position: Reporter