Sanctuary with a proud past

Sanctuary with a proud past

Premchai arrest helps keep conservation in limelight

Thungyai sanctuary is one of the country's greatest areas of biodiversity. Bigger than Bangkok and Phuket combined, it has a security force totalling just 200 men and women. (Photos FB/Thungyai-Naresuan-Wildlife-Sanctuary)
Thungyai sanctuary is one of the country's greatest areas of biodiversity. Bigger than Bangkok and Phuket combined, it has a security force totalling just 200 men and women. (Photos FB/Thungyai-Naresuan-Wildlife-Sanctuary)

All eyes have turned to the Thungyai Nareasuan Wildlife Sanctuary and Unesco World Heritage site in Kanchanaburi province where construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta and his entourage were caught allegedly hunting wildlife in one of the world’s most renowned forest ecological systems.

But it is not first time Thungyai Naresuan has been in the media limelight.

Thais are fascinated by this gigantic western forest complex, located in mountainous areas along the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The news of a wildlife hunting spree by soldiers and influential figures in the 1970s ignited resistance to the then military government in 1973.

The state’s plan to build the Nam Chon dam in the heart of Thungyai Naresuan forest in the 1990s ignited the country’s first environmental protest in which protesters won.

The death of Seub Nakhasathien, a forest conservator who committed suicide in 1990, also helped transform the status of Thungyai Naresuan and the adjacent Huay Kha Kaeng Western Forest Complex into a sacrosanct site and inspired many youth to become forest patrol staff.

Wichien Chinnawong, chief of the Thungyai Nareasuan wildlife sanctuary who arrested Mr Premchai and his entourage early this month, is inspired by the life of the late Seub.

A job in Thungyai Nareasuan wildlife sanctuary is highly sought after by conservation staff. It is known only those at the top of their game will be promoted to take care of the Thungyai Naresuan site.

“It is an important and high-profile post because it is the richest ecological forest in the region,” said Petch Manopawitr, deputy head of Southeast Asia Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“It is the only forest that has high-profile non-profit conservation groups such as the New-York-based World Conservation Society and the Seub Nakhathien Foundation conducting research there.

“The performance of conservation department officials is checked by these third-party NGOs, which also help manage the forest and also develop conservation research,” he added.

Mr Wichien, the man who arrested Mr Premchai, said he has been proud to serve there despite the heavy workload.

There are around 200 staff to take care of over 1.3 million rai. Thungyai Naresuan wiuldlife sancturary is larger than the total area of Bangkok, which is 98,000 rai in size. There are 25 stations located inside the sanctuary with three guns in each station. Some of them are broken.

Each year, staff from Thungyai wildlife sanctuary patrol a forest which is 12,000 kilometres long, compared with 10,000 kilometres for Huaikha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary.

Information from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) says one forest staff member needs to take care of 2,083 rai, equivalent to six Lumpini Parks in Bangkok. There are 443 protected forest zones with 66.3 million rai, or 20.68% of the country’s total area. Meanwhile, the government provides a budget of around 61 baht per rai to take care of them.

Mr Wichien also lamented the lack of officials for academic research. The forest is rich in terms of biodiversity but lacks a decent budget.

The Thungyai-Huaikha Khaeng wildlife sanctuaries contain examples of almost all forest types in continental South-East Asia. It is home to a diverse array of animals, including 77% of the large mammals (especially elephants and tigers), 50% of the large birds and 33% of the land vertebrates to be found in this region. It was given World Heritage status in 1991.

It is one part of the Western Forest Complex, which is the largest tiger habitat in the Southeast Asia region, with around 200 of the animals living there. The area is known as a natural breeding site for tigers to forest in Thailand and Myanmar as well.

Thungyai Nareasuan wildlife sanctuary connects Sino-Himalayan, Sundaic, IndoBurmese and Indo-Chinese biogeographical elements. The savanna forest of Thungyai is the most complete and secure example of Southeast Asia’s dry tropical forest.

It is also main source of biodiversity endowed with genetic plant and wildlife in the world. Local forest expert once found rare golden-skin rambutan in Thungyai.

Utis Kutintara, special lecturer of the Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University, said the wildlife sanctuary faces inadequate management and smaller budgets for study in the area, compared with the connected area of Huaikha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary, which is fully equipped with staff and researchers.

He said additional training for forest staff is important so they would have enough skill and knowledge to take care of the pristine site.

“Thungyai Naresuan has been ignored for long time. The death of Khun Seub awakened public awareness on wildlife. I hope the death of the panther [involved in the Premchai case] will also help raise awareness of the need to protect the area better,” he said.

He referred to Seub, the forest official who shot himself to death to raise the government’s awareness on conservation.

But the toughest challenge of Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary is not only finding more money and staff.

It is how to find a way to make the traditional community which has been living there for centuries maintain its traditional way of life in the forest. A Karen community comprising six villages with 2,000 villagers is located in the heart of the forest in Rai Wo district.

Some forest experts and officials have advocated relocating this traditional community to Um Phang district in Tak province. But the idea is seen as backward by many conservationists.

“It is impossible to move these villagers out because society will not accept it. The challenge is to find a way to let these villagers live in the forest and help the conservation department protect it, said Sasin Chalermlarp, secretary-general of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation.

The foundation launched a project so called Joint Management of the Protected Area (JPMPA) during 2004-2015. The project asked Karen villagers living in Thungyai Naresuan to help protect the forest.

Surapong Kongchantuk, director of the Karen Studies and Development Centre, said these traditional villagers pulled their weight.

“The reason that makes Thungyai Naresuan so special in terms of conservation is because there is cooperation among the department, NGOs and local community to help protect the forest. “Many of the local patrol staff working there come from villages in the forest. The staff and villagers help keep an eye on poachers,” he said.

The forest has just 200 staff to take care of an area the size of Bangkok and Phuket combined. photos by Facebook page, Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary

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