Save the forests — and park rangers, too
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) announced last week its master plan to reduce deforestation by 40% in the next decade. I was happy to learn of the initiative.
I am doubtful, however, of the efficiency of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which will be in charge of the plan's execution. The ministry has a number of organisations under its umbrella that protect natural resources and forests, one of which is the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP).
The department owns 207 national parks, including marine parks, forest parks and wildlife sanctuaries, and employs thousands of rangers. These rangers, whose main duty is to protect and preserve the parks, are not fully taken care of by their employer.
Take, for example, Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary in Loei province. The sanctuary employs 217 officers, but only one civil servant — the chief. The rest are contract and temporary employees who don't receive the full benefits of a government employee. Some work in the park's office, but many guard the sanctuary's 897km² area.
"I had to buy a shotgun and bullets with my own money," said Nares Sriburin, a ranger who has worked in the sanctuary for more than a decade. "If I do not have a gun while patrolling the forest, then how can I protect my own life from poachers who carry powerful weapons?"
While patrolling, he and his team are sometimes attacked by wild elephants. In the past two months, five rangers have been seriously injured by the animals. No one has been killed — yet. Nares himself has been chased by wild elephants twice this year, but luckily escaped unscathed.
"As contract employees, we do not have fringe benefits like civil servants [do]. Medical care is covered by a social security system [but is not full coverage]," he said, adding that group insurance doesn't compensate for cases that don't fit certain criteria.
It is estimated that about 105 wild elephants live in the dense forest of Phu Luang, but only a few of have shown signs of aggression.
"Normally, wild elephants give us signals, like making little sounds or breaking branches of trees to let us know we are too close to them. They also avoid us if they can detect our scent.
"But recently their behaviour has changed. I sense that they have ambushed us," he said.
Nares believed that the elephants might have been hurt by poachers and taken revenge on anyone crossing their path.
The incidents have been reported, but neither solutions nor aid have yet been issued or offered. The rangers live with the risk, as they have a duty to undertake a week-long patrol of the forest twice a month.
Additionally, they have never received vaccines nor adequate tools to perform their duties. They buy their own food and supplies for their forest patrols. Nares recalled a time when it was a dry season and the team had to walk all day without clean drinking water.
"Theories we learned in the classroom sometimes can't be applied in real life. We sometimes have to boil water in a plastic bag to kill germs. We know it is not good for our health, as some chemicals may leach into the water, but I think it is better than getting sick in the middle of the forest."
Nares, however, is luckier than rangers who are temporary employees — his salary is transferred to his account on time. Temporary employees' salaries (7,500 baht a month) are often paid from about five days to four months late.
"Late payments always happens during the end of government's yearly budget in October. Some rangers do not get paid until January," he said.
Nares said many have had to find second jobs — planting cash crops or working on rubber plantations. Some may borrow money, but often pay high interest rates.
His story reminded me of a visit to Doi Phu Kha National Park in Nan province many years ago. Rangers there also told me similar stories of late payments, especially from October to December.
It was the same at Sap Langka Wildlife Sanctuary in Lop Buri, where some rangers were not regularly paid. They had been working under these conditions for decades.
There is something seriously wrong with the DNP, and it has not been fixed. If the NCPO wants to save the forests, they must also protect the lives of rangers.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section of Bangkok Post.
Karnjana Karnjanatawe is a travel writer for Life section.