Every year, young rangers and young forestry students get trainings on SMART PATROL system to learn how to protect the country's forests systematically. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Smart Systems and Determination to Safeguard Valued Biodiversity in Post-2020

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, scientists and ecologists agree that stopping losses and degradation of species-rich ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as restoring them, could help secure human well-being in the future. Protecting and expanding protected areas have become primary goals of the global community, as proposed in the new draft Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework; “At least 30 per cent of land and sea areas globally, especially those of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes”. Thailand’s SMART PATROL system at the country’s natural World Heritage sites has shown the way, even as many challenges lie ahead, writes Dr. Anak Pattanavibool

When the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) inscribed Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex as a natural World Heritage Site on July 26, 2021, many people who had worked and fought hard to support the inscription process against the objections of some human rights groups celebrated with joy. Many Thais who care deeply about saving forests and wildlife felt grateful for the good news. Many tourism operators see it as a major opportunity to use the World Heritage status to promote and attract more tourists from abroad, of course after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. However, it takes a lot more than gratitude, pride and tourism revenue to preserve the World Heritage status. 

Our first two natural World Heritage sites_Huai Kha Khaeng-Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuaries, and the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex_are examples of neglect and indifference. These World Heritage sites have been exposed to serious threats from large development projects and exploitation by greedy people.

If they have survived large-scale development projects, especially dams and roads, it is due mainly to the strong determination of conservation-minded citizens in Thai society, who stood up against the reckless development plans. These sites have been saved from everyday local poaching and encroachments by dedicated park rangers. In the absolute sense, park rangers are officials from the Director-General of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation down to field staff. 

I, as a member of the advisory team for Thailand’s Natural World Heritage sub-Committee, would like to share aspects of the fight to save these natural World Heritage sites to remind people that it is not all roses to save our protected areas, especially those that are honoured with World Heritage status.

Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad
Banteng graze safely in HKK. They are a globally endangered species remaining only in a very few protected areas in Thailand.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan World Heritage Site (Year of inscription: 1991)

  • The determination of society

The strong will of the people stopped the Nam Jone hydropower dam project

Nam Jone was an ambitious hydropower dam project approved by the government in the mid-1980s. If built, it would have destroyed 600,000 rai (96,000 hectares) of pristine forest in the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary.

Many people in society at that time had learned about the catastrophic impact on wildlife and forest of another large dam, named Cheow Lan or Ratchaprapa Dam, which had opened in the late 1980s in Surat Thani province. 

The wildlife rescue work of the late Seub Nakhasathien, then a wildlife scientist at the Royal Forest Department, was televised all over the country. His work showed that the majority of animals had experienced painful deaths during and after the rescue. Seub himself honestly accepted that his wildlife rescue work was a failure. 

Mobilized by Seub and his friends, who rallied society to stop the Nam Jone Dam Project, people from all walks of life in Thai society rose in protest. The chorus of resistance became so loud that the government of the day decided to scrap the project. 

The determination of those heroic fighters, together with the Outstanding Universal Values (OUV) of the site, paved the way for HKK-TY to be nominated and inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1991. It is now home to one of the world’s best homes for tigers.

The society’s fight to save the buffer zone of HKK-TY from the Mae Wong Dam project

At heritage sites around the world, any development projects happening in the site’s perimeter are considered a threat that should be avoided. A site can be downgraded by the WHC to “World Heritage in Danger” if any development in the World Heritage buffer zone impacts the property. 

In early 2010, the government approved a budget to build the Mae Wong dam inside Mae Wong National Park without waiting for the finalization of the environmental and health impact assessment (EHIA). 

Had it been built, the Mae Wong dam would have destroyed more than 13,000 rai (2,080 hectares) of the best wildlife habitat in Mae Wong National Park. It would have disrupted the movements and recovery of tigers and other endangered wildlife to and from HKK-TY, which is located less than 10 kilometres south of the dam site.

Approval by the government for the project led to an outcry from people in various sections of society, prompting rallies that eventually pressured the government to cancel the plan. At the peak of the rallies in 2013, thousands of people joined Sasin Chalermlarp, the current chairperson of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation, when he marched from the dam site to Bangkok.

The bold march was followed by more rallies and negotiations led by the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation. In 2017, following the government’s vision to save dwindling forests and wildlife, the Royal Irrigation Department decided to withdraw the EHIA, effectively forcing the cancellation of the project.

Clockwise: A patrol unit in HKK contains 5-6 park rangers; A patrol team collects data onsite under the SMART patrol system in HKK; A park ranger seriously wounded by a poacher’s shotgun in HKK was airlifted to a hospital in 2015. Credit: WCS Thailand

  • Bold park rangers

SMART rangers & SMART patrols in HKK-TY

HKK is the original place where the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) reformed patrol work under the SMART patrol system. SMART stands for “Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool”.

The system was first developed to fight elephant- and rhino-poachers in Africa. The DNP, in close collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), has adopted the system since 2005. Working SMART means equipping a protected area with an accountability system to measure park rangers’ performance, level and distribution of threats, and distribution of key wildlife.

Park rangers in HKK-TY have to work very hard under the SMART patrol system. For example;

-The current total foot patrol distance per year for 50 patrol teams in HKK-TY is about 50,000 km (4,000 km a month).

-They have to cover more than 70% of the HKK-TY area (more than 600,000 ha) annually.

-They have to frequently check high-risk areas with 10-20 visits per year.

Clockwise: A tiger in HKK was captured just last year feeding on a banteng calf; Banteng is recovering very well in HKK due mainly to good protection under the SMART patrol system; A gaur herd grazes in grassland in Thung Yai East, where the area was once heavily disturbed by past human settlements; Elephants roam safely in grassland in Thung Yai East, where they were hunted out by poachers around 30 years ago. Credit: WCS Thailand

These efforts have efficiently kept poaching at bay with the encounter rate of poacher camps at about less than two camps per 1,000 km patrol distance per year. The intensive patrols also meant increasing the chances of poachers getting arrested and reducing the chances for them to poach and set up snares.

The effort has resulted in a gradual increase in key species like tigers, bantengs, elephants, and other threatened wildlife in HKK-TY. It has been proved that rewilding is possible in a place severely abused by mining, poaching, and land encroachments half a century ago.

A memorial was established in Thung Yai East for two park rangers who were killed by poachers in 2013. Credit: WCS Thailand

The Braveheart

A park ranger in Thailand is widely respected in society. Since the inscription in 1991 of HKK-TY as a World Heritage Site, dozens of rangers have been killed and wounded in action while performing anti-poaching duties. Visitors can see memorials of the fallen heroes at the headquarters of the HKK-TY.

A memorial in Thung Yai East Wildlife Sanctuary was set up to commemorate incidents during the early 2010s when aggressive tiger- and elephant-poaching gangs, who earlier had killed more than 10 tigers and some elephants, were arrested after gun fights. Two park rangers were killed in the operation and two others severely injured.

Park rangers in HKK-TY today leave no easy openings for poachers to hunt and trap wildlife as in the past. This is the way it should be at well-managed World Heritage sites.

An iconic salt lick and view at Nong Phak Chi wildlife spotting station in Khao Yai National Park. File photo: BKK Tribune
A big herd of wild elephants shows up in a vast grassland near the road.
Photo courtesy of Khao Yai National Park/ Suparat Duangmala

Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex (Year of inscription: 2005)

Before DP-KY was inscribed as a World Heritage Site, some conservation experts had voiced concerns about poaching and encroachment problems due to poor management of the area.  However, the optimists won the debate with the promise that Thailand would improve the management quality once the area received the status. Unfortunately, the reality set in not long after the inscription.

The area was hit hard by the influx of Siam rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) poachers. It was one of the most serious threats park rangers had encountered. Poachers started penetrating and cutting rosewood in the protected areas along the border between Thailand and Cambodia in early 2010. It was like a war zone during the period and the DNP had to combine many law enforcement units to fight the gangs.

It was an overwhelming task and poachers severely depleted rosewood in the border forests. In 2013, only seven years after the inscription, poachers were creeping deeper to cut rosewood in the Thap Lan National Park and its vicinity. Without a strong enforcement system and equipment, it looked like a lost cause.

The WHC then convened in Phnom Penh in 2013 and sent a formal warning that if Thailand did not improve the protection and management system of the DP-KY, they would downgrade it to “World Heritage in Danger”, raising the possibility of revoking the World Heritage status altogether.

Although some people do not care about the World Heritage status, there are park rangers who really care.

Park rangers save the day with new protection technologies and tools

The DP-KY has adopted a systematic patrol system under SMART patrol with significant support from the WCS and other conservation partners. They have also introduced anti-poaching cellular camera traps locally known as “Network Centric Anti-Poaching System (NCAPS)” to intercept poachers coming into and out of the park on the trails that poachers use.

These two techniques alone have increased the enforcement effectiveness manifold. Many poachers have been arrested and their illegal equipment seized before and after they have cut rosewood. Some middlemen in towns were also tracked down and arrested using enforcement technologies, such as GPS trackers.

The DNP has invested a significant extra budget to support rangers’ welfare and equipment. The intensive patrols and good equipment have broken the poachers’ chain of support and drastically reduced poaching. With such improvements in law enforcement efforts, the WHC meeting in 2017, in Poland, lifted the sword hanging over the DP-KY on its World Heritage status by citing Thailand’s intention to enhance security based on SMART and NCAPS.

Future dam projects that society needs to keep an eye on

The proposals by the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) to build seven dams inside and next to the DP-KY site will be a big challenge for Thai society in the near future and could decide whether Thailand can keep the World Heritage status for their precious protected areas.

The WHC has requested Thailand to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) at the river basin level, including DP-KY, regarding the impacts of the proposed dams and also requested Thailand to halt the construction until the SEA is completed.

The SEA is a systematic process to evaluate the environmental implications of the proposed policy and plan and provides means for looking at cumulative effects and appropriately addressing them at the earliest stage of decision making. To put it simply, the SEA will answer key questions, such as whether the basin, including DP-KY and beyond, would need more reservoirs and what would be the cumulative impacts of those reservoirs, if built, on the overall environment and ecosystem.

Thailand’s World Heritage Committee chaired by Deputy PM General Prawit Wongsuwan met on August 19, 2021 and appointed different government agencies to take part in the preparation of the SEA. If done properly, it will be the first SEA in Thailand for resource managers to learn about future water management by taking a holistic approach.

The SEA process under the combined agencies is expected to be much better than one agency, especially the RID, to push for individual dams using a consultant firm hired by the RID to prepare an EIA that always ended up supporting dam construction over other alternatives.

The mountainous view overlooked from Phanoen Thung, the iconic peak in KKFC. File photo: BKK Tribune

Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (Year of inscription: 2021)

There are challenges ahead for the Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex (KKFC) to retain its World Heritage status. There are many settlements and households nestled inside and right at the borders of the property. Poaching and encroachments, no matter what scale, have been and will be the main threats to the integrity of the KKFC.

Maintaining Outstanding Universal Value in the KKFC is the responsibility of Thai society to save its World Heritage status and this valuable protected area. Hopefully the young generation has strong determination to fight for forests and wildlife in the KKFC, like how earlier generations did for Huai Kha Khaeng-Thung Yai Naresuan.

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation now has a lot of experience in saving natural World Heritage sites. Hopefully, the current and future managers won’t forget their mission by focusing on promoting tourism and increasing revenue. Hopefully, they can keep training and producing braveheart park rangers to save other lives for long into the future.

The Thai translation is available at ระบบ “สมาร์ท” และความมุ่งมั่นในการปกป้องความหลากหลายทางชีวภาพอันล้ำค่าในยุคหลังปี 2563

Park rangers patrol in the rugged and terrain landscape of KKFC bordering Myanmar. Credit: DNP