The 'steel lady' of the forest
Against the odds, Viraya Ochakul has become defender of habitats.
Viraya Ochakul, who is referred to by her colleagues at the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) as the "steel flower of Western Forest Complex", said she was surprised to be one of six recipients of the National Geographic Thailand Explorer Awards 2019.
However, in the eyes of the public, the award is yet more confirmation of her outstanding performance in protecting natural resources. Ms Viraya is a state official at the DNP under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the state body responsible for protecting forestry and wild animals in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
The award this year was granted to six people who were able to perform an outstanding job on natural and environmental protection and conservation. The recipients are academics, activists, a state nature photographer and a state official.
Ms Viraya is a graduate of the Faculty of Forestry at Kasetsart University, a faculty which has long been dominated by men.
Her family wanted her to become a nurse, yet young Viraya fell in love with the forest after trekking in Phu Kradueng National Park in Loei province during her high school years. She was so determined to become a forest guardian that one day, Ms Viraya, walked into the office of Phu Kradueng National Park in Loei province and volunteered to serve as a forest ranger in exchange for a daily allowance of only 178 baht.
She applied for the job at the DNP in 1996 and gradually climbed the civil service career ladder by working in tough areas, including anti-poaching hotspots.
With her fondness for the outdoors and straightforward manner, she was quickly accepted among her male colleagues.
"Actually I have found no difficulty in my job. I can do all duties that forest rangers are supposed to do. But it was very hard at the beginning to create acceptance among my team, of which 98% are men," she said.
During the early years, she did not carry a weapon but finally obtained one after being encircled by wildlife traffickers who believed that a female forest ranger could be easily intimidated. Since then, she has always carried a weapon because she does not want to be a burden for her team.
"If I fail, opportunities for women in this career will be cut short too," she once told the BBC (Thailand) in an interview.
In 2008, she was appointed as chief of Thung Yai Nareasuan Wildlife Sanctuary which made her the first female chief of a national wildlife sanctuary.
Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary is a tough and high profile post because the sanctuary is the largest in the country. Moreover, some parts of Thung Yai Naresuan-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary have been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1991.
The sanctuary covers areas in Tak and Kanchanaburi provinces, sharing a border with Myanmar.
The challenge was not only coming to terms with the sheer size and magnitude of natural resources within. Instead, the first female chief of the wildlife sanctuary also had to deal with 250 subordinates, more than 90% of them who were men.
She won their acceptance by working hard, day in day out.
"I am a firm believer that if you are willing to toil, you can succeed in anything," she said.
It was reported that her subordinates placed a banner reading "Steel Woman" in front of her home in the wildlife sanctuary, in praise of their tough female leader. She reportedly tried to have the placard removed, yet her subordinates insisted that it remain.
She told the Bangkok Post that her secret to success was team building.
"My goal is how to make people who share the same passion in protecting forests work together smoothly and achieve larger goals," she said. "Fostering good teamwork and enabling them to work takes time and patience, but if you can do it, the reward is sweet and sustainable."
Another secret of her success was to involve ethnic people and local communities who live in the vicinity in conservation work. The task requires the ability to win the hearts and trust of the people. Ms Viraya said she had spent time convincing ethnic villagers to wear ranger uniforms and stand up for the morning and evening national anthems to create a sense of belonging and teamwork.
She was transferred to chief of Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Uthai Thani province in 2017, another high profile post for a forest ranger.
Huai Kha Kaeng is also part of a Unesco World Heritage site, known for its biodiversity rich in natural habitats and wildlife. It has also been known as a wildlife trafficking hot spot.
More than 25 years ago, the former chief of this wildlife sanctuary, the late Sueb Nakhasathien, committed suicide. A heavy workload and frustrations with bureaucracy were seen as the causes of him taking his own life.
Ms Viraya worked at Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuary for one year before being promoted to director of the wildlife conservation division, the Office of 12th Conservation Management Area based in Nakhon Sawan province.
The current post has its own challenges as it is an executive job. The downside of this is that Ms Viraya is not always able to patrol the forest. However, on the bright side, as an executive, she can manage resources and come up with policies to make forest rangers and conservation better.
She said her goal is to create a good system, one that encourages people to work and do the right thing without fear or favour.
"I always tell my staff that they must always do the right thing. The boss comes and goes. If they have the goals in their minds and follow it, there is no reason to fear," she said.