The small event at Huai Kha Khaeng. Credit: Ratiya Chantian/ Seub foundation

Remembering Seub Nakhasathien in his 30th year of death

The 30th anniversary of his death still sees his will passed on in Thai society with the legacy following his death 30 years ago, the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, repositioning itself to keep up with the increasing threats to the environment

Candles were lit around the statue of Seub Nakhasathien as dusk had fallen yesterday, but this year saw only a small group of his close friends and followers perform the candle-lighting ritual at Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, the workplace of his final year. (The rest? They went online to join the ritual following COVID-19 restrictions imposed.)

This year is special. It’s special because it’s the 30th anniversary of the death of Seub; the late chief of Huai Kha Khaeng, a noted wildlife expert, and a great conservationist who is always remembered by Thais for his dedicated conservation work with an iconic scene of wildlife rescue at Cheow Lan dam in Surat Thani province in the South many years ago.

Born in a bureaucrat family in Prachin Buri province, Seub was a determined kid who did it well with his goals. Seub passed an exam and got a seat at Kasetsart University’s Forestry Faculty although he wished to pursue his study in architecture. He managed to graduate from the faculty, and started his first career at the National Housing Authority of Thailand.

As a young forestry graduate, Seub then left it and applied for a post at the Royal Forestry Department, where he asked for an assignment to work at Khao Khiew-Khao Chomphu in Chonburi province. There, he started to develop his strong academic background with some studies on wild birds and their breeding behaviors at Bang Phra resevior nearby.

Seub once said during an interview; “I am more interested in doing an academic paper rather than doing a suppression work. We can hardly arrest big guys, but small people. As I have a duty to protect the forest, I prefer to do research on wildlife.”

In his whole life, Seub had produced a number of academic papers concerning wildlife conservation. He conducted the studies on a number of wild animals including rare gorals. His work was published extensively in the department’s journals, conservation seminar papers, as well as a number of famed magazines.

Seub intricately detailed his wild animals, from their biology to statuses, just to tell readers that “They are in a critical state.”

Most of strong evidence and background of his was a result of his direct experiences when he was in charge of the wildlife rescue mission at Chiew Lan, and of the wildlife survey in Thung Yai Naresuan to back up his opposition against a planned dam project in the forest patch, and when he was a chief at Huai Kha Khaeng.

Delving intensely into his work, Seub communicated with people while being on stage; “I would like to speak on behalf of wildlife, because they cannot speak for themselves.”

The event organised in the city.
Credit: Seub foundation

Seub pretty much honored facts and research findings, and he could hardly stand fact distortion. He gave much importance to public awareness raising, and often ventured out to educate people with his lectures, self-made posters, photographs and exhibitions. 

 In his final period of time, eight months being in charge at Huai Kha Khaeng, Seub learned one hard fact that deforestation and poaching in the sanctuary were far more complex than thought. Despite a number of arrests, hardly anything changed for the better. The illegal acts still continued, and often he found state officials or influential figures involved.

Seub tried to ask for support from other government agencies outside the sanctuary to help him suppress deforestation and poaching. He approached some Phu Yai, or tried to talk with everyone he thought they could help, but they did not pay heed to his pleas, even the department he worked for.

Once, Seub brought the issue to a minister, but the response he received was a bitter remark; “You must work harder”

In desperation, Seub tried to raise fund to support his subordinates, borrowing some from his family to support them and their work in a hope that this could help boost their plunging morale.

At this point, he came to realize the only way to protect this patch of the forest was to push it for nomination and listing as the Natural World Heritage site.

Seub worked extensively on paperwork, preparing a report to propose the site for the nomination. It just arrived a bit late.

Seub had no chance to see for himself his legacy as he was gone.

In the early hours of September 1, 1990, Sueb finished his life by shooting himself in his residence in the sanctuary. In a suicide note, he wrote; “I committed a suicide, without anyone involved.”

His suicide hit people’s hearts. It sent a ripple out of the deep forest to the city. The news about Seub’s death was in almost every newspaper and TV, and that was the time when the society started to pay attention to what he long asked for. A number of forums were organized, and a number of ideas shared in a bid to help save Huai Kha Khaeng. Seub was just not there to see these.

18 days later, the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation was set up to carry on his unfinished conservation work. It was dubbed as the new era of the country’s conservation work, with Seub’s work and legacy he left behind being as a guidance.

During those 30 years, the foundation has been carrying on a torch passed on by Seub, pursuing his will to protect the country’s forests. It has fought against projects that pose threats to the forests such as the Mae Wong dam project, the VIP residence construction plan in the sanctuary, water diversion through the western forests, road building through Thung Yai Naresuan, among others.

Years passed, but his will has still been pursued by the young generations, and conservationists these days are hardly left fighting alone. Seub’s campaigners were not left to walk alone in a fight against the Mae Wong dam project, nor were they abandoned when campaigning against the recent brutal killing of a black leopard in Thung Yai, the sanctuary’s adjacent patch of the same World Heritage.

People are ready to stand up and fight against development projects deemed to cause harm to the environment and this cannot be denied that it’s an inspiration passed on by Seub.

Despite the increased public awareness in conservation, environmental problems are growing over time as well as threats. They have posed a challenge to conservation work. For instance, over exploitation and disturbance can deplete natural resources and cause abrupt changes to the environment, prompting the ecosystems to lose their balance and create a circumstance for newly emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19. 

To say the least, environmental problems are brought closer to us. So are conservation efforts.

Reaching its 30th anniversary too, the foundation has reviewed its position and vision and sets to be an organization in the next era as “a non-profit organization to push forward critical forest and wildlife conservation work with academic knowledge and databases to accompany decision making and public policy making. This will be supported by strong networking and public awareness raising through modern modes of communication, especially on issues concerning the great extinction and climate change. 

In other word, the foundation’s work would be more connected to global circumstances, trying to prevent losses of habitats and biodiversity through its work on the ground.”

 For instance, it has initiated recovery plans for some endangered species and worked with state agencies as well as private firms to boost their population and return them to the wild.

It’s the way to restore a balance we have once lost and maintain it, following the will of Seub, who once said;  “There is something that I always say, keeping the forest intact already benefits us. We don’t need to cut down the trees, but take the oxygen they produce, and the water they help store. Are these not the benefits and the way we utilize resources? We can utilize resources without depleting them.