Professor rallies to save sea life
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Professor rallies to save sea life

Koh Tachai coral crisis prompts drive for World Heritage status

SOCIAL & LIFESTYLE
Professor rallies to save sea life
The damaged coral reefs around Koh Tachai. — Photo: Sirachai Shin Arunrugstichai

When Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat comes out to speak, you know that marine life is in clear and present danger.

In the last two weeks, his name returned to the spotlight after he posted an open letter online lamenting the environmental degradation of Similan National Marine Park in the Andaman Sea, especially the condition of the coral reefs and marine environment at the beautiful and popular Koh Tachai.

Asst Prof Thon, a marine biology lecturer at Kasetsart University and an established environmental writer, has focused on the effects of pollution, land encroachment and tourism on marine ecology, and how the food and tourism industries exploit the fragile environment of national parks. Asst Prof Thon, who received a Ph.D. in marine biology from James Cook University in Australia and is a member of the National Reform Council, talks to Life about the problem of conserving Thailand's marine resources.

Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat. — Photo courtesy of Thon Thamrongnawasawat

Your open letter was hugely circulated and people started worrying again about the environmental health of Similan National Marine Park. What is the outcome of your letter?

This issue has drawn massive public attention. Over one million people read my letter on social media. All I can guess is that Thai people are proud of and love the sea deeply. I have been on prime-time news shows, and just went on a helicopter with Channel 3 News to visit Koh Tachai. The environment minister also called a meeting to make a plan to reorganise park management in that area.

In the case of Koh Tachai and marine parks in the Andaman Sea, where did the problem come from?

Coral bleaching has occurred over a period of time and the causes are many, including climate change and water quality. But one thing that prevents coral reefs from recovering are intensive tourism activities. The number of tourists visiting exceeds nature's capacity.

The use of marine national parks in Thailand has shifted. Initially, the objective of national parks was the conservation of natural resources. Now, people and policymakers as well as the authorities look at national parks as tourist spots used to generate income. Conservation must be the first priority, and the tourism must come second. Unfortunately, the priority has been reversed. Now there are too many boats and too many tourists who stay on small islands. Each marine national park has a management plan that details its 'carrying capacity', however the plan is often not followed. It is time to call for a total revolution of national park management.

What is the human resource problem at the Department of National Parks?

It is the lack of knowledgeable staff. Most officials in this department are graduates from Faculty of Forestry at Kasetsart University, so our marine resources are taken care by forestry experts who might not understand the sensitivity of coral and marine biology. Thailand does not lack personnel on marine conservation, rather, it is a question of putting the right person on the right job. Universities in Thailand have been teaching marine biology for several decades, and each year there are hundreds of marine scientists graduating from universities. However, there are very few marine scientists working in the Department of National Parks.

Marine National Parks such as Similan and Moo Koh Surin struggle to find a balance between tourism and environmental concern. — AFP

What's your take on the performance of the Department of National Parks?

The department was once very strong and in Southeast Asia. We declared Khao Yai a national park over 50 years ago, and Thailand has since founded many national parks on land and sea. Our laws and regulations have always been tough. Many decades ago, we treated national parks as important zones, like an egg yolk that needed to be protected. But recently, we look at the egg yolk as a golden goose [to benefit from]. At the same time, our Asean neighbours such as Indonesia keep improving their conservation efforts. I think we need to ask ourselves why we need to include nature in the definition of national parks if we do not want to preserve it.

You advocate for the government to promote national parks in the Andaman Sea as a Unesco World Heritage Site? What is the benefit of this?

This idea is nothing new. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment came up with this initiative over a decade ago, and have already commissioned academic researchers to create a proposal. The proposal was finished several years ago, but was never presented.

Last December, the National Legislative Assembly approved the decision to propose the area as a World Heritage Site. What we need to do now is to work with Unesco during the World Heritage meeting this April. But still, I do not know why they keep dragging their feet.

There are several benefits of being named a World Heritage Site. We will have an international organisation like Unesco knocking at our door when there are problems with natural resource management in marine national parks. Take Khao Yai, for example. Unesco will warn the authorities about illegal smuggling of trees when that happens. The World Heritage status will help us bring conservation standards to a world-class level.


Charting a future course

A decade ago, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment commissioned the Science Faculty at Prince of Songkla University to conduct the study to propose marine national parks in the Andaman Sea.

Located in seas around six southern provinces from Ranong to Satun, the area would encompass 17 marine national parks, one wildlife non-hunting ground in Trang and the Ramsar Site, a watershed stretching from Krabi to Ranong to Satun.

The so-called “Andaman Sea Protected Areas” study was completed in 2007, and expected to be used in applying for Unesco World Heritage Site status. Some areas with seriously degraded ecology and illegal land encroachment such as Koh Lipae in Satun and the urbanised part of Koh Phi Phi would be excluded. If approved, the Andaman Sea would become the first Natural World Heritage Site in the Indian Ocean.

The Andaman Sea is rich in terms of biodiversity, with a third of the Indian Ocean’s coral reefs and a quarter of its fish stocks located there, according to Sakanan Plathong, a lecturer on marine biology at the Faculty of Science at Prince of Songkla University, who headed the research team that prepared the study.

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