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Thailand’s largest wetland and non-hunting area

Agriculture, villages, housing estates and roads have completely encircled the lake imploding inwards. This pressure is growing as the population increases, with many taking all they can from the lake without thought for the long-term survival of the wild occupants. Approximately 30,000 people live around the margins of the lake. The principal activities in surrounding areas are rice cultivation (one crop of wet-season rice per year), cattle grazing and pig farming. Small areas of corn, beans, cotton and groundnuts are grown in the upland areas around the basin.

Asian golden weaver making a nest

Poaching and encroachment has always been a problem that actually is on the rise. The most dreadful practice of fishing with electricity has been going on for sometime now. About 40 boats from three to four villagers ply to the center of the lake everyday and go about their illegal business right under the noses of those responsible for protection of the lake. It is reported these people are paying protection money for the right to fish in this way. Illegal trap lines and gill nets are also used. These fishing practices should be stopped as soon as possible if there is going to be any future for Beung Boraphet.

Early morning at the non-hunting Area

Over-visitation is another problem when the lake begins to fill during the rainy season. The lake is an important tourist attraction and many people visit it, either to stay at the NHA headquarters or to take boat rides on the lake. A proportion of these visitors hire local boatmen. The main problem is litter thrown in the lake by these people. Education is the best way to cope with this serious predicament.

Cotton pygmy goose – two males and a female

For quite sometime now, local government officials have been in the planning stages of building a hotel and resort golf course on the western shore of the lake. Some earth moving has taken place and this is very detrimental to the already fragile ecosystem plus the demand for water would increase. As it stands, there is very little water in the lake during this serious drought affecting the country at the moment. The levels have reached an all-time low and have created serious problems for the birds in the breeding area. There are only about 20 nesting pheasant-tailed jacana in the non-hunting area that is way down from a decade ago.

Pheasant-tailed jacana and reflection

The FD is responsible for the lake and allows fishing that is abused by some people. The lake is also littered with thousands of discarded nets, trap-lines and bamboo fish-traps strewn all over the place. New ones are continually added on a daily basis with old ones discarded in place.

Fisherman and boat hauling new fish traps

This should be a top priority for both the FD and DNP, plus the local people and government municipality should work together in a massive cleanup. It can only benefit the long-term survival of this unique ecosystem. However, pollution and insecticide runoff from all the farms surrounding the lake has probably already damaged the water quality.

Grey heron – winter visitor

It will be a tough battle but it is hoped that steps will be implemented by those responsible. Time and money can go a long way into helping the future of this place. The lives of so many birds and other creatures are at stake as modernization wrecks havoc on the Kingdom’s natural heritage. Swift and determined action is the only alternative.

Water lillies at the breeding area

The future of dams in Thailand

As we progress into the 21st Century, it has become apparent the construction of large-scale dams is back on the drawing boards. The Kingdom’s natural heritage evolved over millions of years into some amazing forests and watersheds. These ecosystems give life to the nation for without water, life cannot be sustained.

Greater adjutant in Beung Boraphet

Thailand does not need anymore large-scale dams under the ‘Thai Kem Kang’ banner that will destroy natural forests, especially the Kaeng Sua Ten dam projected to inundate 20,000 rai of the last great teak forest in Mae Yom National Park in the north. In October last year, the government announced the construction of Huai Samong dam (now under reconsideration) that will flood thousands of rai between Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks, both World Heritage Sites putting their status in jeopardy. Other projects on the table are a dam in Mae Wong National Park, Kampangphet province and another in Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary, Chaiyaphum province. None of these projects can be justified if they destroy forests.

Purple swamphen in Beung Boraphet

To get a better prospective of the serious situation facing the country, drive around and look at the dried-up reservoirs, and then ask yourself, do we need another dam? The main problem is the lack of rain (global warming and forest destruction). Most hydro-dams and reservoirs are in serious trouble if rain does not come soon. The solution; money to be used on construction of these dams should go to rain-making programs under His Majesty the King’s initiative plus reforestation projects, small check-dams that do not destroy large swaths of forest, and alternate green power sources like solar and wind.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand what is going down between politicians and the proponents of dam projects. It is truly disheartening how these influential people carry on with absolutely no respect for Thailand’s wild heritage.

And worst of all, corruption cannot be broken or even dented when these mega-schemes come into play. The immediate prospect is bleak as politicians attempt to wreck havoc on the nation’s natural resources. When will it ever stop? We need to preserve and protect the last remaining forests for the future, or the consequences could be dire.

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Thailand’s largest wetland and non-hunting area

It is 3am at home in Bangkok and the alarm is ringing off the hook so to speak. I drag myself out of bed, wash-up a bit and get a quick cup of coffee for the road ahead. All my equipment was pre-loaded the night before in my Ford 4X4 pickup, and departure is an hour later. It usually takes about three hours drive time to Bueng Boraphet Non-hunting Area (NHA) in the Central Plains.

Pheasant-tailed jacana in Bueng Boraphet

One day old pheasant-tailed jacana

As Thailand’s largest freshwater lake, it is one of the best sites for conservation of water and migratory birds in the Kingdom. It is also a great place for wildlife photography and bird watching. However, the tide of humanity is strangling Bueng Boraphet (bueng in Thai means swamp, and Boraphet named after one of the streams). Extreme steps need to be taken quickly to protect this amazing wetland from further human destruction.

Glossy ibis foraging for food among the water lillies

Arriving shortly after 7am, a motorized boat piloted by my good old-time friend Phanom Klowjunterc is readied for a trip onto the lake. A steel flat-bottomed vessel is perfect for a long 600mm lens and tripod assembly to catch the early morning action as birds lift off from the water’s surface. During the dry season when the water level is low, he uses a fiberglass craft with a long-tailed motor for power. Many species of birds include the pheasant-tailed jacana, Bueng Boraphet’s flagship species is living and breeding in the lake among the water lilies and lotus flowers. It is a very tranquil place first thing in the morning.

Cotton pigmy goose lifting off

Phanom has been around Bueng Boraphet for more than three decades and I have known him for 15 of those years. He is a ranger at the protected area and knows just about everything there is to know about the lake and its inhabitants. He is especially vigilant during the breeding season, and then again in the migratory period that begins in October when large flocks of birds arrive to stay or carry on to other destinations. In March to May, some bird species stop off at the lake on their way back home. I actually began my career as a wildlife photographer here, and Phanom has always been extremely helpful in finding birds for me to photograph.

Purple heron in flight

The lake covers an area of about 100 square kilometers, and is 18 kilometers long by 6 kilometers wide (132,765 rai) situated on the east bank of the Nan River, close to its confluence with the Ping River. More than a century ago, it was a natural wetland with many wild creatures living in the interior including rhino, wild water buffalo, fresh water Siamese crocodile, Schomburgk’s and hog deer, tiger and leopard, plus elephants and other remarkable creatures living in absolute harmony. Storks and pelicans, and other large water birds survived in great numbers. Marsh creatures slipped and slithered through the thick vegetation of the swamp. It was natural evolution at its very best.

Spot-billed pelican landing

However, in the 1930s’ the Fisheries Department (FD) under the Agricultural Ministry constructed a dam and embankments in some areas around the north and west margins of the proposed lake, together with spillways and lock gates to regulate water levels. The western shore is fringed by a railway line and lies close to the town of Nakhon Sawan. The freshwater swamp was turned into a man-made lake in order to develop a lacustrine fishery, and it was drained for one month in 1959 and then again in 1972, each time being allowed to refill. The lake is fed by overspill from the Nan River and several streams including Klong Tatako and the Boraphet stream that ramify throughout the basin. Runoff from the lake runs into the Chao Phraya River.

Openbill stork in flight

When the migratory season is in full swing, migrants and visitors arrive at the wetland to enjoy the safety provided by the NHA managed by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP). Beung Boraphet is the most important known site for wintering ducks in Thailand, with a yearly maximum of at least 16,000 lesser whistling duck and 30,000 garganey. A total of twelve species of duck have been recorded here. Other birds such as spot-billed pelican, oriental darter, purple heron, little egret, intermediate egret, great egret, cattle egret, glossy and black-headed ibis, purple swamphen and kingfisher among many others live here.

Black-necked grebe migrant visitor

On the positive side of things, some species of large waterbird populations have increased and are breeding here. About 10 years ago, several glossy and black-headed ibis showed up at the site and now there are 300 and 70-80 respectively. There are some 30,000 Asian openbill storks together with 300 painted storks by the lake. One or two very rare milky storks mix with the painted storks.Some 80-100 spot-billed pelicans, 120 purple heron, and 30 Oriental darter have been recorded. There are four species of egret breeding on two islands, ‘Kho wat’ and ‘Kho samit’ with more than a thousand little commorant and hundreds of black-crowned night-heron.

Lesser whistling ducks

Research has been carried out by the staff of the Beung Boraphet Wildlife Resaerch Station located at the NHA for many years now.  Biodiversity on birds, flyway banding and migratory bird-count headed by Krairat Eiamampai, chief of the station working under Kalyanee Boonkird, Director of Wildlife Research at DNP in Bangkok. Their work is on going and is essential for the long-term ecology of the bird populations and the aquatic ecosystem. Also, the Nakhon Sawan Bird Club make regular visits to the lake and carry out small-scale banding of passerine birds in lakeshore vegetation

Siberian Rubythroat – winter visitor

One of the saddest things about this place is the saga of a passerine bird that is now probably extinct. In 1968, the White-eyed River Martin Pseudochelidon sirintarae was discovered by the late Thai ornithologist Kitti Thonglongya, who obtained nine specimens netted by professional bird-hunters as part of a migratory bird survey at a nighttime roost. This large swallow, whose scientific name commemorates Princess Sirindhorn Thepratanasuda, was found wintering at the lake, but its breeding grounds are unknown. The bird was again seen in 1972, 1977 and 1980, and one unconfirmed sighting in 1986. It is classified as critically endangered, which is the highest risk category assigned by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) for wild species. It is most likely now extinct, as this unique avian fauna has not been seen since the last sightings.

Beung Boraphet breeding area

There has been a drastic decline in the Beung Boraphet swallow population from the hundreds of thousands reported around 1970 to maximum counts of 8,000 made in the winter of 1980-1981, although it is not certain if this represents a real decline or a shift in response to persecution. Other potential causes for the species’ decline include the disturbance of riverine sand bars, the construction of dams that flood the area upstream and alter the downstream hydrology, deforestation, and increasing conversion of its habitat to agriculture. Very few swallows now roost in the Beung Boraphet reedbeds, preferring sugarcane plantations away from the lake.

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