On 14th March 2013, 33 year old forest ranger Thaweesak Chomyong, was killed trying to prevent illegal Phayung (Siamese Rosewood) logging in Pang Sida National Park. This tragedy shocked many people in Thailand. It made us stop and think, and ask the question “What is really happening in our most important protected forests?”
Since Sunday in Phnom Penh, the 37th meeting of the World Heritage Committee is making decisions about existing and proposed World Heritage Sites around the world.
Natural World Heritage is the “cream of the cream” - the most valuable and inspiring natural areas our planet has to offer. If we can’t “get it right” in taking care of World Heritage, what hope is there for the rest?
On the agenda was Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex. Khao Yai is Thailand’s first and best known National Park, created in 1961. The complex of Khao Yai, Thap Lan, Pang Sida and Ta Phraya National Parks together with Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2005. Only six years later concern about the status of the property was noted, and discussion is ongoing if it should be placed on the “World Heritage in Danger” list.
I recently joined colleagues on a trip to see for ourselves some of the things going on. Exactly 30 years ago in 1983 I came to Khao Yai on a gibbon research project under Warren Brockelman – a famous gibbon expert at Mahidol University. It was good to learn that gibbon research at Khao Yai has continued, and in Khao Yai we know more about gibbons than anywhere else in the world.
Entering the park we met monks, lay-people and youth on a two-month “Dhamma-yatra” Buddhist pilgrimage around the complex. I was delighted to find two old friends I had not seen for many years – Nikhom Puttha and Chokedee Poralokanon.
Many years ago, “Pi Uan” (Nikhom ) was a forestry department ranger in Khao Yai. Frustrated by slow progress he decided he could achieve more working outside. Wildlife Fund Thailand (WFT), started working with communities living around Khao Yai. “Pi Uan” led the project for years but when he moved on, Chokedee, “Pi Choke” continued.
Exactly 20 years ago WFT launched the reforestation of Khao Paeng Ma - denuded hillsides just outside the boundary of Khao Yai. Pi Choke showed me an old photograph with the three of us and then Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, planting the first trees there on 9th June 1993. Khao Paeng Ma today is totally transformed – a beautiful forest, home to large herds of gaur, and a growing tourism destination, an amazing example of how barren land can be restored to verdant forest in just 20 years.
If the conservation world gave out Oscars, Pi Choke would get a Lifetime Achievement award for his 20 years of dedicated efforts to restore Khao Paeng Ma.
One of my overriding impressions from this trip, is of many extremely dedicated working tirelessly and for very little reward, to ensure the continued survival of Thailand’s magnificent forests.
My other main impression, of shock and sadness, came from the situation in some parts of the complex where the lack of reward and the arduous conditions are just too extreme. Khao Yai is extremely well-known and consistently in the public eye – easily accessible from Bangkok, overall it is well resourced, and management issues are under control.
The further east one travels, the less true this becomes. Pang Sida is currently suffering from illegal logging of Siamese Rosewood – a new but very severe issue, fuelled by extremely high prices paid for this timber prized in China.
We saw store-rooms filled with confiscated rose wood, and chain saws.
At the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) meeting held in Bangkok in March, Siamese rosewood was added to CITES Appendix II, meaning permits are required for its import or export. This is an important step forward, but the war still needs to be won on the ground against the illegal loggers.
The superintendents of the protected areas are increasingly tied up in court cases. Every arrest they make involves them in a court case, then there are many counter-cases put forward against them for wrongful arrest, or use of excessive force and so on. Currently the superintendent of Pang Sida spends five days per month travelling to the provincial court to give evidence in a number of ongoing cases.
Inside the forest is a battlefield. In this particular battle the national park rangers are very much the underdogs. They are outnumbered, and out-gunned – with teams of 5 or 6 rangers armed with a couple of shotguns, chasing gangs of loggers sometimes 30-40 strong and armed with automatic weapons, backed by influential businessmen.
But more than this, what shocked me the most, was to learn that these rangers – who are putting their lives on the line to save our forests for a paltry salary of 7,500 baht a month – need to go to the temple and ask for donations of food from the monks in order to have enough to eat on their patrols. The budget available to the park is apparently not enough to buy the food needed to support the amount of patrolling they need to do.
On 18th June the World Heritage Committee noted Thailand’s efforts, but a lot more work needs to be done. We are citizens of the world, and World Heritage belongs to every one of us. At least we can show our gratitude for the daily risks the rangers are taking to save our world heritage, by ensuring they have sufficient food to eat – and life insurance to help their families if the worst happens. Surely this is not too much to ask?
By Robert Mather, Head of IUCN Southeast Asia Group
1. This article is first published in Bangkok Post, on 22 June 2013.
2. IUCN in collaboration with our members and other partners will reach out to all concerned individuals and organizations, to establish a new initiative to support the rangers of our World Heritage sites, and their families. If you are interested to help, please contact: Dararat Weerapong, Senior Communications Officer, IUCN Southeast Asia Group, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: +(66) 2 262 5029-31 ext 233.