'Safari tours' to cut conflict with wildlife

Move mulled for western sanctuary

Forestry officials at Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary try wearing cloth leg guards to protect themselves from leech bites. (File photo by Thanarak Khunton)

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has unveiled plans to develop "safari tourism" on the edge of the world-heritage Huai Kha Kheng Wildlife Sanctuary to reduce growing conflict there between humans and wildlife.

Department spokesman Sompoch Maneerat said locally run safari tourism is an effective model to reduce confrontations between wild animals and communities living in the buffer zone of the sanctuary, which sprawls across the western Tak and Uthai Thani provinces. Efforts should be made to ensure locals and all other stakeholders benefit from the plan, he added.

"We see no reason for not going ahead [with the safari project], which is based on academic studies conducted in various fields," Mr Sompoch told a press conference on "Wildlife Tourism Based on the Truth", organised by Kasetsart University's Faculty of Forestry.

"It is a very interesting mechanism to reduce conflict between wild animals and local people, which is likely to get worse in the future," he added.

Mr Sompoch said the department had identified tourism development as one solution to the problem. But he added the controversial plans for the Huai Kha Kheng safari tour would be aired at local public hearings before the department makes a final decision on the project.

The low-lying grassland in the east of wildlife sanctuary is prime habitat for elephants, tigers, banteng and other wild animals -- but has also been designated community forestry for six local villages.

Nantachai Pongpattananurak, a Kasetsart University Faculty of Forestry lecturer who studied the project, said a proposal to merge the habitat with the wildlife sanctuary had failed after the Royal Forest Department declared it for human usage, in line with government policy.

He said a radical change in thinking was now necessary in managing the buffer zone, which is threatened by human activities such as livestock-raising and farming with herbicide and pesticide.

Currently, about 2,000 cows graze in the buffer zone, risking the spread of fatal diseases to the sanctuary's wildlife.

He said authorities' previous conservation efforts had raised the numbers of banteng and tigers, some of which had ventured into the buffer zone in search of food, resulting in more human-wildlife conflicts.

Wildlife tourism is one solution he said, but would require 15,532 rai covering two national forest reserves under the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation -- Huai Tapsalao and Huai Tab Kok Kwai. This would be divided into three zones where visitors could learn about a nature reserve that is home to 500 of the world's 12,000 banteng.