Tigers are in the news again. First, rare camera-trap footage released last week showed a three-legged victim of poaching, a female tiger, hopping through the jungles of western Thailand, eating domestic animals (and possibly attacking people too). Days later: an undercover bust of traffickers with tiger skins in the same region. To keep hope alive for the critically endangered big cat, authorities must now act on two levels. First, they must rescue the amputee before she or poachers strike again. Second, they need to address the underlying causes of poaching before other tigers, animals and people suffer.
On the surface, the story of "I-Douan", the hobbling Indochinese tiger in Khao Laem National Park, looks like this: a handicapped, hungry carnivore stalking local cattle and people, now pitted against angry villagers who are scared about losing their livelihoods and lives. A perfect setup for a tiger lynch mob is in the making.
For I-Douan and Thailand's wildlife to survive, authorities need to support, and harness this country's capable frontline conservationists -- both government and civil society. For this to happen, a progressive majority inside the Department of National Parks (DNP) must regain its position over conservatives who prioritise national image over the impact of conservation.
My team helped Khao Laem's rangers take the photos of I-Douan. We've been collaborating with Thai parks for 22 years to inventory the presence of wild animals and train rangers to protect them. Reams of data reveal the magical, natural wonders across this county's wilderness, as well as the threats facing hard-working, under-resourced park officers every day.
I-Douan is a survivor of poaching. She lost her leg to a trap set by people who carry guns, shepherd cattle and bring hunting dogs through national parks on a regular basis. Some herders opportunistically set traps for wild animals, while others join herders and peel off once they are inside the park to pursue their real mission: catching prized animals ordered by traffickers.
I-Douan is not a lone victim: Two other tigers were killed on Jan 12 in Thong Pha Phum National Park which adjoins Khao Laem. Five poachers were caught the next day. They claimed the big cats were attacking their domestic animals, so they had to kill them. The two men were found to possess professionally prepared tiger skins and bones. Amid concerns that officers would look more sympathetic to a wild animal than to local people, the investigation ended there. Quietly we carried on with Kanchanaburi police to find the buyers, resulting in Tuesday's bust. Time will tell where their tiger skins and bones came from.
Many "local" herders are not the owners of the cattle. Each cow and buffalo costs between 20,000-30,000 baht, with some herds reaching in the hundreds. The owners are wealthy people based in Bangkok and Kanchanaburi who pay day labourers to supervise the grazing. Many herders are in fact, migrant workers. Local communities are not benefiting from cattle herding.
We have heard this story before. And we've been signalling the alarm for Khao Laem and other parks, but some wildlife authorities don't want to hear or deal with it. More poaching and conflicts with local communities will happen unless we apply important lessons learned over recent decades. The most important one: listen to, and support, the frontline.
My organisation's collaboration with the DNP started 22 years ago, when we teamed up to monitor and protect the tigers of Khao Yai National Park. It was a tight partnership between a government agency and an NGO. A newcomer to Thailand then, I was immediately impressed by the talent and passion of DNP staff, and their openness to work with us; especially park-based staff.
However, it was clear there was a split in the DNP between a more conservative guard that did not like NGOs or foreigners, and a progressive majority that was eager to join forces. That majority and us agreed that the cross-border nature of wildlife trade, which threatened the kingdom's animals and made Thailand a major transit point, suggested the need for collaboration. The DNP leadership was comfortable with the partnership, so long as we were delivering equipment and training and kept them briefed. HQ's delegation to park officers to implement the tiger project facilitated efficient frontline work.
The DNP estimate of tigers in Khao Yai then was 32, but they admitted they needed a recount. Our other partner, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), did the camera trapping, while we trained the park's rangers in counter-poaching.
We also set up an alternative livelihoods programme to get locals to stop entering Khao Yai to hunt and fell trees. The joint DNP-NGO team gained valuable insights simply by talking to veteran rangers and local villagers. We learned that poaching in the park was highly organised and sponsored by traffickers based outside the area. Big tusker elephants had already been hunted out, leaving the small tuskers behind. Criminal focus had turned to extracting the park's aloe-wood trees that were processed into expensive perfume and sold to the Middle East, as well as on lower Sukhumvit Road. Local villagers were paid as trackers and porters for poaching gangs. A select few graduated to becoming lead poachers, and travelled to other Thai parks and Malaysia to hunt and cut. They told us we were too late with the tiger. They were right: After three years of intensive surveys, we found just one.
We took our data-driven lessons to other parts of the Dong Phayayen Khao Yai Forest Complex, a Unesco World Heritage Site. In Thap Lan National Park, our camera traps discovered a different threat: thousands of cattle herding through the park, and a correlating absence of wildlife along grazing pathways. Based on this data, the park chief invited local villagers and cattle owners to a series of meetings to discuss the illegality and show them the environmental impact of their herding. A few owners complied with requests to move their animals out, while others carried on. Additional friendly meetings over 18 months, combined with enforced deadlines, led to virtually all domestic stock being removed from Thap Lan. Within 18 months, camera traps were documenting deer, clouded leopard, and tigers back in the area. No tiger-human conflicts ensued. No villagers went hungry. Today Thap Lan and adjoining protected areas boast a globally significant population of Indochinese tigers.
Following a more recent joint survey of tigers in Khao Laem, the DNP and Freeland officers planned to apply the same conflict mitigation measures that worked in Thap Lan to Khao Laem. Covid slowed plans. But so did something else: a British TV documentary that raised the ire of some officers at the DNP's HQ. The story depicted, as a positive development, the emerging recovery of Thailand's tigers. It also showed that illegal tiger farms and poaching still posed a threat, but that Thai officers were on it and making arrests. We had participated in TV coverage of Thai conservation before, spotlighting brave rangers and police officers on patrols. This time was different. The conservatives were in power. Anything that showed a less-than-perfect picture was unacceptable. Because we had taken the TV correspondent to Khao Laem, we were thrown out of the DNP's tiger protection meeting, where data is shared. This signalled to other NGOs to suppress their negative information.
Three things need to happen if I-Douan and Thailand's wildlife are to be saved. First, a rescue operation should be conducted. Second, the DNP needs to harness the capacity of this country's frontline wildlife officers and NGOs.
Third, the minister of environment, backed by the full cabinet, needs to confront the destroyers of Thailand's protected areas. The same bravery that backed a park ranger for arresting a fat cat who shot a rare leopard inside a national park needs to be applied to a wider elite that is destroying the kingdom's natural heritage. The government's enemies are wildlife crooks and habitat encroachers, not straight-talking NGOs. If I-Douan could speak to us, she'd shout for any help she could get. Let us rescue her now.
Steven R. Galster is the Founder of Freeland, a Thailand-based, international NGO that counters wildlife and human trafficking.