Lawrence Bruce Kekule, an American by birth, has lived in Thailand for more than four decades.

Bruce has photographed Thailand’s wild creatures and habitats for 15 years. He has travelled all over the country on a photographic odyssey portraying the natural world. Bruce’s passion for the Kingdom and its wildlife, and his mission to show the world this beauty, will surely create awareness amongst the present generation that action is needed now to save Thailand’s wild places and animals for the future.

Chasing a Wild Dream

He published his first book Wildlife in the Kingdom of Thailand in 1999. His second book entitled Thailand’s Natural Heritage was published in 2004 and Wild Rivers, his third, was completed in 2008. He has also written many newspaper and magazine articles about wildlife. Born in the United States, he has lived in Thailand since 1964. His dream to produce wildlife photographic books continues.

Kekule is married to a Thai national and they live in Bangkok with their daughter, son-in-law and two grand daughters. His main objective is to educate the Thai people about their natural heritage before it is too late. A second objective is to help the park rangers who patrol the forests with food, clothing and equipment to create incentive among these men who put their lives on the line for the Kingdom’s forest and wildlife.

Tiger research in the Western Forest Complex (WFC) of Thailand

indochinese tiger female sporting a 'radio collar'

Indochinese tiger female sporting a ‘radio collar’ at the tiger log…!

First off, I want everyone to know that I’m not against research that is extremely important for knowledge of the natural world. The practice of studying animals and behavior is needed to understand how Mother Nature’s beings and biospheres live in a complex world. Some people might take offence to the relevant facts stated below but things need to change quickly in order to really save the tiger, and other creatures and ecosystems of Thailand’s natural heritage.

indochinese tiger female sporting a 'radio collar'

Close-up: A serial numbered tiger and the number can be seen written on the collar.

Frankly, there are some projects that are on-going and not up to standard that have caused many tiger deaths, directly and indirectly. Such is the ‘tiger research’ carried out that is mediocre to very poor to say the least. The researchers working on tigers here have a track record that simply is not acceptable…!

Many problems have come to the forefront about the system of capturing the big cats with snares and then shooting them with darts to sedate them. Some tigers have escaped the snare and ended up with a limp because of pulled joints, tendons and ligaments. This is a serious problem as the cat now cannot chase down its normal prey like deer and pigs, and quickly dies of malnutrition. Botched tiger captures using wrongly administered drugs to sedate tigers has also been noted. The tigers could not be revived and the animals were simply buried and the news suppressed.

indochinese tiger female sporting a 'radio collar'

Serial numbered tiger – #164 900 – 2014

Another problem of making broad statements about the amount of tigers in certain areas and broadcasting this plus other pertinent ‘radio collaring’ information on national TV channel is like sounding the death knoll to come and get these magnificent creatures. There are still many bad elements in our society and these cold-blooded killers think nothing about dispatching a tiger for its bones used in the making of Chinese medicine and wine. It’s all about money and human greed…!

This has also happened in India where researchers published their work in the local newspapers, and on the radio and TV how many tigers were in Panna Tiger Reserve and within one year, the cats completely disappeared as poachers moved in and systematically killed them all in one quick swoop. Tigers like all big cats, come to carrion and if a carcass is tainted with poison, it’s just a matter of time before the whole local wild feline population is wiped out. They disappeared under the forestry staff and researcher’s noses. Because it is in open forest, other animals like bears, civets, all the cats, wild pigs. vultures also perish. How could this happen..?

Other stories on the Internet can be found about tigers with collars not breeding very well was also documented in India. Finally, researcher’s laptops have been hacked into and important GPS data on tiger whereabouts was stolen. These high tech poachers can kill a population in a jiffy.

Putting collars on young tigers is a serious no-no but this has been done here in the name of research with the researchers finding the collar had stopped moving and the cub found dead having quickly out-grown the leather strap suffocating it. Another serious occurrence of taking tiger cubs out of their den for research data gathering purposes, and then coming back a second time to photograph the researchers holding the cubs. The mother tiger abandon the den and the cubs ended up dead. This is a serious breach of protocol and the National Parks law…!

Needless to say, these people continue to carry on like nothing has happened but these are facts backed-up by reliable sources and boots on the ground. And what is really worrisome is the fact that several international NGOs and a U.S. University are backing this program.

Other tribulations like bringing domestic cattle to act as ‘tiger bait’ was ongoing until recently, and who knows if any disease like ‘foot and mouth’ or ‘anthrax’ was introduced into the sanctuary during this time. The cattle were purchased locally (sometimes, diseased cows are illegally imported from nearby Burma). This baiting technique was used for several years and the researchers brought these domesticated cattle in by the truckload. A cow was then tied to a stake and a bamboo enclosure built around it with only one opening and they built scores of them in the forest. Of course hay and water were provided to the cow. A tiger would step in and maybe get snared. This practice fortunately has been suspended. This is just another breach of the law where domesticated animals are not allowed in wildlife sanctuaries that have been set aside for biodiversity and research.

The researchers already have loads of data including identifying individuals and home-range information through camera trapping, plus the data from the 8-10 collared tigers. My feeling is that the collaring process should cease as there are far to few tigers left in the wild. No amount of research can justify even one tiger getting killed in the name of science. There are only about 2,300 left in the world, and maybe less than 250 in Thailand. It is time to seriously concentrate on protection and enforcement only and less emphasis put on research. We already know there are tigers in WFC, one of the greatest tiger reserves in the world.

Most unfortunate are the old laws that apply to wildlife and protected areas that seem to perpetuate lawless people from being put away in jail. Most poachers and forest product gatherers get light fines and a slap on the wrist when apprehended in national park land, even with solid evidence. The park officials must bring all poachers to the local police station, which then starts another wheel of corruption at a higher level. If the case gets into the courts, pay-offs are used to get light sentences and sometime off ‘Scott-free’. There are very few convictions and long-term jail sentences although once in awhile, some do end-up in jail as a consequence but the ratio of convicted poachers to released offenders is small.

The biggest problem is simply there are not enough ranger personnel to look after these remaining tiger reserves and, budgets are slim and sometime non-existent. My biggest concern is that everything will come too late to save the tiger from extinction. Lawmakers and budget people need to get their head out of the sand but that will take an act of god (AOG) to get going in a culture that thrives on corruption.

One of the most important things to get established in Thailand is a dedicated ‘ranger school’ so that the ranks can be filled with well trained and equipped personnel. The present ranger numbers need to be increased by over 100%. Several revolving 5-man teams need to patrol with men always in the forest from their respective ranger stations. This is the only way to keep the poachers at bay. Again, this will basically need an AOG to get done.

Once again, I’m not against research, but a line must be drawn in the sand. Too much money and effort goes towards this activity and very little into protecting the wildlife and biospheres here that the researchers are researching. This is just not right and I for one, want to try and change things here so that wildlife at least gets a fair shake.

At the end of the day, the only thing that will help Thailand’s tigers in the long run is also a serious look into­ the middlemen and end-users of tiger bones and other forest products. These people must be apprehended and the masses educated to see the fallacy in using wild animal parts to cure ailments. The Asian medicine trade is still in full swing and will be next to impossible to stop.

But this practice has been going on for hundreds to thousands of years in China where the tiger first evolved two million years ago. The Chinese tiger is extinct in the wild but they now have loads of ‘tiger farms’. Unfortunately, wild tigers are the most sought after for the black market trade. It is a bad situation out there that seems to be getting worse and on the increase due to the ever-increasing population explosion. Sadly and in the long-run, the tiger will simply disappear if things do not change..!

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