Thailand’s workforce of the National Parks and Royal Forest departments
Forest rangers going on patrol in Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary
Nit packed his bag and said goodbye to his wife and two daughters. It would be the last time he saw his family. He jumped on his new motorcycle and left the village heading to the national park headquarters, some 30 kilometers away. On the way, he made a quick stop at the market to buy some rice and foodstuffs for a weeks’ trip into the forest. His salary was about 150 U.S. dollars a month, and he wondered how the family was going to make ends meet.
Arriving at the headquarters, Nit greeted the rest of the forest rangers scheduled to go on patrol. He checked in and pulled a shotgun from the armory. Jumping in the back of a pick-up, the team headed out for a long ride into the forest. As he bounced around the back of the truck, his thoughts wandered back home to his wife and daughters. After awhile, they arrived at the drop-off point. From there, it was a four-hour walk along a leech-infested trail to the first camp. The long day was near its end, and everyone pitched in with camp chores.
Rangers praying to the ‘Spirits of the Forest’ before leaving on patrol
Setting up camp was quick and easy. A simple lightweight hammock and a flysheet were set between two trees. Dinner was cooked and everyone slept well that night. Early the next morning after breakfast, the team hiked in further. Along the way, fresh human footprints were detected. The team went into danger mode. Poachers were nearby, but it was not certain how many were in the group. As the team got closer, Nit spotted the poacher’s camp. Just then, shots were fired from the trees and a bullet hit Nit in the chest. He died instantly.
In another real-life near tragedy, a ranger working in a wildlife sanctuary in the East trips a trap gun meant for deer. He is hit by shrapnel in the stomach and rushed to the nearest hospital. Luckily, he survived. These scenarios have happened in the past and will surely happen in the future – a sad reality.
Dangerous poachers in a protected area photographed by the author
Half of the ranger force is temporarily hired, low paid, and have very few benefits like medical and life insurance. Most often they have to pay for their own uniforms, boots, sleeping gear and equipment, even their own food while on patrol. It gives them very little incentive to go out into a dangerous environment like the forest where poachers shoot to kill. Unfortunately, many senior and lower-ranking rangers have left the force due to the poor situation concerning these men.
If the protected areas are to be managed and protected for the future, grass-root needs like helping the rangers must be addressed. They need to be taken care of by the government and the public. Even though things have improved slightly, it still is not good enough.
There are many so-called conservation NGOs who care only about what data and other benefits they get from their work. Supposedly, some are helping the rangers but only a very few of them really care about these true protectors of the forest. The rangers who put their lives on the line for Thailand’s magnificent natural heritage need to be compensated.
Indochinese tiger known as ‘4-spots’ camera trapped by the Phetchaburi River in 2004. This cat was caught at many locations identified by the row of four spots on its left flank.
An example of none or very little ranger patrolling: From 2001 to 2006 and then again in 2008, I conducted presence/absence surveys in conjunction with the Department of National Parks and World Wide Fund (WWF Thailand) catching many tigers (more than 10 individuals) in Kaeng Krachan National Park along the Phetchaburi River, on the road past Phanern Thung (closed for two years in 2004-2006 due to landslides), and the road and mineral licks around kilometer 12 inside the park.
These beautiful cats were recorded on film walking the trails and hunting at all times of the day and night on almost every set. Leopards were also present. I was able to capture/recapture many individual tigers over a large area and it was determined that the protected area was intact with carnivores and prey species in abundance. After four camera traps were stolen, I decided to suspend my program.
In late-2011 and early-2012, DNP research personnel and wildlife NGO conducted a large survey in Kaeng Krachan using some 40-camera traps in many areas previously known for tigers over a four-month period. They did not catch a single tiger in the program!
Rangers setting a camera trap in Huai Khas Khaeng
It seems the Indochinese tiger and other species have already been wiped out or almost so. Some tiger tracks were discovered during the study and a few survivors might still exist. However, this is serious news which means extinction is looming for the big cat in Kaeng Krachan!
It is common knowledge there has been very little patrolling done here due to poor protective management, no planning and very little funding. The consequences are now clear after a serious influx of wildlife and plant poachers plus jungle encroachers.
Too much emphasis has been placed on excessive tourism and expanding the facilities to over capacity, and this has also been extremely detrimental to the natural ecology. Construction with heavy equipment has been carried out at several locations disturbing the animals that are now seen less and less.
One of the biggest problems is absolutely no control by the park rangers on who enters the park and from where. This is difficult to control under the present system and I have seen many large back-packing groups being taken to the end of the road at kilometer 36, left off, and their vehicles returned back down the mountain by a driver. Who knows what and where these groups have gone (usually with Karen guides accompanying them).
It is probably all ready too late for Kaeng Krachan that is a shame to allow this magnificent park to become devoid of tigers. Sounds like a repeat of Khao Yai National Park where tigers have not been seen for more than five years and it is confirmed they are now gone. Nearby Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks have some tigers, but for how long?
Without intense patrolling, unscrupulous people will slip through the cracks using simple tools of wildlife poaching: rope or wire snares and poison where a deer or pig is caught and the carcass poisoned. Tiger bones are in big demand. Guns are not carried `much anymore judging from recent camera trap photos of these poachers.
The only way to look after the forests anymore is constantly revolving patrols. Say out of one ranger station, three to four teams of five men each would be out with one resting at the station. With a constant presence in known haunts, law-breakers would find it hard to slip in. These rangers would all be permanent hire so that they would be paid every month with good benefits and longevity. They would be well trained, well armed and have incentive.
Another critical aspect is to monitor all trails frequented by illegal intruders using modern camera traps in video mode, as most people will not know they are being recorded. These cameras could catch face detection so culprits are rounded up and put away. I have caught poachers in several protected areas and they usually just walk past the video camera. A special team would monitor and keep the traps going 24-7. These men would come from elite special forces training. Funding and personnel would have to be made available so they could do their work without impunity.
It is absolutely known that once an area has zero poaching or close to zero, the animals can propagate and numbers will come back as in the case of Kui Buri National Park in Prachuap Khirikan province in the Southwest.
At the end of the day, the laws and regulations concerning these rangers must change for the better to insure that Thailand’s wildlife will survive into the future. Without well taken care of and dedicated people to look after the forests with integrity and pride, how can the biospheres that took millions of years to evolve continue to exist?
It is hoped by many in wildlife conservation that those in power will open their eyes and do something about improving the lives and conditions of the patrol ranger. As it stands, these men and women continue to face hardship deprived of basic human rights like no pay for months on end.
It will be a rough road to extinction for many species and ecosystems, and there is no turning back from this as in the demise of the Gurney’s Pitta in Southern Thailand. These striking birds, a flagship species, are now pretty much gone from the Kingdom forever, a sad fact indeed. Everyone involved needs to take heed and work together to save and protect wildlife, if not for yourselves, then for your children and future generations!