Life after death at the Kui Buri National Park

Life after death at the Kui Buri National Park

Lingering doubt concerning wildlife killings casts a pall over ecology success story

SOCIAL & LIFESTYLE
Life after death at the Kui Buri National Park

A dark cloud descended over the beautiful Kui Buri National Park in December of last year after the discovery of 18 mysterious deaths of gaurs (Indian bison) — the investigation is still ongoing, the park is still closed and the troubled history of the national park continues.

Elephants in Kui Buri graze on the 12,000 rai man-made prairie.

Located in the Prachuap Khiri Khan province, around 290km from Bangkok, Kui Buri National Park was once home to one of the largest pineapple plantations in the country until controversy enveloped the area in the late 90s when pineapple farmers, desperate to protect their crops, poisoned, electrocuted and shot scores of elephants.

It is for this reason that, unlike the majority of foreign tourists, many Thais of a certain age do not associate Kui Buri National Park with safari. Up until December, however, that’s exactly what it was — teeming with elephants, gaurs and even tigers. ‘’Unmissable”, “Must See” and “Unseen Safari of Thailand’’ are typical comments from foreign tourists who have visited.

The attraction of Kui Buri National Park is that travellers can see elephants in droves and it’s quite a common sight to see 30 or 50 of them grazing. Both the proximity to Bangkok and affordability has helped place this national park into a noteworthy attraction during the last few years.

The national park entrance fee is 40 baht for Thai citizens and 100 baht for foreigners, while car rental is available for around 700 baht for a day-long adventure. 

Although nature lovers have been going to Khao Yai or Thungyai Naresuan to watch animals in the wild for many years, there are still qualities about the Kui Buri National Park that sets it apart from its competitors.

Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy secretarygeneral of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation inspects gaur skulls at Kui Buri National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan in December last year.

“Wildlife watching at Kui Buri National Park is unique and a success case because local villagers helped protect the forest and then launched eco-friendly tourism.

“Wildlife-spotting tours enable these villagers to create sustainable local businesses,’’ said Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy director-general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

“The park,” he said, “was once a problematic area but has now been transformed into a showcase of wildlife and environmental conservation thanks to the cooperation between the DNP, conservation groups and villagers.”

An example of such cooperation is the huge 12,000 rai grass prairie — the first designated food zone for wild animals in the country. The alternative food source was the brainchild of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Another notable achievement is that local villagers now help safeguard wild animals.

“The villagers were once enemies of wildlife. Decades ago, they were poachers, hunters and farmers who tried to drive these wild animals away. Now they are guardians of elephants and other wildlife,” said Phongphan Wichiansamut, the Kui Buri district chief.

Explaining the villagers’ change of heart, Phongphan said: “They volunteered because they respect His Majesty’s initiatives.

“I would say  conservation in Kui Buri is a labour of love.”

It is not only tourists and wildlife lovers who came to Kui Buri National Park; it has also become a hot spot for wildlife researchers to study the so-called “local villagers-inclusive conservation” model and special food zone.

Last year, researchers from India and Bhutan came to study the elephant conservation efforts. Every March 13, local villagers and the WWF hold  special events to mark “National Elephant Day” at Kui Buri National Park.

But for now, those who wish to go see elephants and gaurs in Kui Buri may have to wait a little bit longer. The dead gaur scandal has put a dent in the park’s smooth run, despite the DNP insisting that it will reopen the park as soon as the case of dead gaurs is cleared. Netizens have made their feelings clear, with some taking to Tripadvisor to vent on the closure. One wrote that he had biked all the way from Hua Hin to the Kui Buri National Park only to be let down by the closure.

Local villagers are also becoming increasingly frustrated with the authorities’ failure to provide conclusive answers about the dead animals. The mysterious deaths have indeed harmed the good ties between the DNP and local villagers.

Last month, villagers chipped in for 100,000 baht of their own money for a bounty reward for those who could help catch those responsible for the death of the gaurs.

“Villagers are enraged and disappointed by the DNP,” said Phongphan. Many interpret the DNP being unable to provide an explanation for the death (laboratory test results released on Jan 17 were inconclusive) as giving weight to conspiracy theories regarding deliberate poisoning or power grabbing within the DNP. The DNP’s Theerapat dismissed the rumours as “fanciful” and “biased.”

Power grabbing is suspected because Kui Buri has become a lucrative destination due to the safari business and its bright future. The DNP is proposing Kui Buri National Park be turned into a Unesco World Heritage site and, if approved, would mean a substantial increase in budget allocation. Interestingly, the previous Kui Buri National Park chief was recently relocated. Local villagers protested against the relocation because the chief was well known and encouraged cooperation with local villagers and conservationists.

“The future of Kui Buri National Park and its wildlife depends on local participation,” said Phongphan, voicing concern the DNP may soon exclude local villagers and conservationists from the park management and conservation project. “Nobody knows what will happen. But villagers know one thing. It is locals and public participation that helped develop Kui Buri National Park and protect the animals. The place might change if the public is excluded from the conservation project.’’

BACKGROUND OF KUI BURI NATIONAL PARK

Before being declared a National Park in 1999, forests in the Kui Buri area were in a bad shape.

In the 1980s, pineapple plantations were brought in to supply the booming food processing and export industry. Forest land was cleared by farmers who transformed the lush region into one of the largest pineapple plantations in the country. This change of land use affected wildlife behaviour immeasurably. From 1997-2002, pineapple crops and land were temporarily abandoned after prices fell and the market took a nosedive. Farmers subsequently abandoned their land, which led to wild jumbos straying in and eating leftover pineapples. The barrier between wildlife and human habitat thus disappeared.

When the price of pineapples once again rose and farmers returned to their land, they discovered it was now occupied by elephants. Electric fences, poison and guns were then used in an attempt to deter them and in the process many elephants were killed, prompting His Majesty to address the problem on July 5, 1998.

The Conservation and Restoration of Kui Buri National Forest Project under His Majesty the King’s Royal Initiation began soon after. The initiative provided a much-needed area and food source for animals in order to keep them away from farmers’ land and communities. A grass prairie was thus created on 12,000 rai of land.

Small dams and an irrigation system were built to supply water to this man-made wildlife food source. Illegal land titles were returned to the authorities and thus became part of the Royal Initiation’s project. At a management level, it became a success story of cooperation between the public and private sector. In June 2012, the so-called “Tanesserim Agreement” was signed by 13 organisations, including the DPN, Forestry Department, border polic, army, local administration, non-governmental organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and representatives from the commercial sector, such as Siam Winery. These organisations helped donate funds and contributions to create the prairie that later served as the sustainable food source for animals, bulls and gaurs.

The grassland was finally completed in 2007 on 12,000 rai of land. The wildlife population has since increased, with there now being over 200 elephants and 150 gaurs.

A gaur in Kui Buri.

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