In the early hours of September 1st, 1990, Thai conservationist and Superintendent of the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, 40-year-old Seub Nakhasathien, shot himself in his house inside the sanctuary.
With two of his fellow rangers shot dead by poachers just a few weeks prior, Seub’s suicide is thought to have been brought on by despair over the seemingly futile fight to protect the park from environmental destruction and the corruption that facilitated it, as well as to draw attention to the sanctuary and its struggles.
The one hope Seub had of guaranteeing the protection of this sanctuary was by raising global attention to the park and bringing in much-needed funding through UNESCO listing as a World Heritage Site. This was something he and fellow conservationist, Belinda Stewart-Cox, had been working on prior to his death. In December 1991, just over one year on from his death, Huai Kha Khaeng, together with the neighbouring Thung Yai Wildlife Sanctuary, was officially inscribed as a Natural World Heritage Site – the first of its kind in Thailand.
Seub believed in protecting Huai Kha Khaeng and the important store of biodiversity inside, with him and his fellow park rangers regularly putting their lives on the line to do so.
“Wildlife sanctuaries like these are vital to enable protection of all their variety of animals and other creatures… the endangered species they hold must be safeguarded from hunting, deforestation, or ecologically harmful development”
The park rangers at Huai Kha Khaeng take the burden of protection left to them by Seub seriously. The site is home to a large number of important and endangered species such as the Asian Elephant, leopards, and the only herd of wild water buffalo in Thailand. One of the most important species inside the park, however, is the Indochinese tiger. The Huai Kha Khaeng – Thung Yai World Heritage Site is the most important conservation area for this species of tiger in South East Asia, holding an estimated 84-121 Indochinese tigers.
Staff at the park have been conducting research on tiger biology for the past 20 years, using radio collars to track their movement and habitat use, and have also undertaken population monitoring via camera traps, with roughly 500 cameras placed around the park and moved every 30 days. From January – April 2017, 100 days of camera trap monitoring in 220 different locations inside the sanctuary documented 50 tigers, a drastic increase from the 26 photographed in 2007, and up even from the 40 found just the year prior. The ~4,000km2 of wildlife sanctuary is patrolled by 500 rangers with a maximum daily coverage range of 7km2. These rangers have been working to improve the quality of their patrols, using GPS to track the area covered, and to document important locations of animal activity within the park. Already, the Breeding Centre inside the sanctuary, originally intended to breed herbivores like deer for release back into the sanctuary, has had its focus redirected towards tiger rescue. It is now home to 14 tigers in total, 12 of which were confiscated from poachers and traffickers, victims of the illegal wildlife trade. To support the patrols, the park has also implemented CCTV monitoring in the buffer zone (a 5km-wide boundary surrounding the sanctuary, separating the protected area of the park from the unprotected public land just outside), managing to catch 5 incidences of poaching, 9 poachers, and confiscating 7 guns within 5 months.
Dr. Saksit Simcharoen, a leading tiger researcher at the park, commented: “There’s no such thing as not being able to do our job. We must overcome any obstacle we are faced with”; such is the passion of the people working to conserve this important species in Thailand.
“Huai Kha Khaeng should not be closed off to all people”
Seub wanted people to experience the forest in order to realise its value and therefore work to protect it. This is one of the main problems raised by Mr. Chatawan Pisdamkham, a co-worker of Seub’s and former Superintendent of the wildlife sanctuary. He remarked the surrounding communities “don’t feel a sense of belonging in the park”, they are distanced from it and its management.
One of the ways in which they aim to mitigate this issue is through a greater involvement of local communities in the sanctuary with the development of ecotourism in the area. The UNDP Thailand has been working on strengthening the capacity and incentives for wildlife conservation in the area and has partnered with the UN’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) to explore the topic of developing wildlife tourism in and around the buffer zone. Villagers will be educated on the park and its importance and biodiversity in order to pass the message along to visitors, acting as park guides. A particular hope is to engage local youth in being advocates for the sanctuary.
“I am here to speak on behalf of the animals, who cannot speak for themselves”
Seub believed that community outreach, particularly programmes aimed at children, would be effective in combatting illegal poaching and deforestation – these were the words he would open with. Rangers at the nearby Sai Bor Waterfall have continued to work on education outreach – hosting youth conservation camps to teach school children from the Uthai Thani Province about wildlife, plants, and the forest, already having reached 100 of the 300 schools in the area.
“I think that if forests are to survive, it’s essential that local people be able to sustain themselves”
One of the biggest problems in the buffer zone surrounding the World Heritage Site is human-wildlife conflict. Farmers in the area grow monocrops like corn and cassava with unregulated use of chemicals and pesticides. Animals from the forest also encroach onto the farms, drawn by crops like pineapples, corn, and sugarcane. “Pineapples to elephants are like candy to children”, observed Pisdamkham.
In order to maintain Seub’s desire for people in the buffer zone to be able to sustain themselves, the sanctuary has been working with farmers to encourage them to grow crops that the animals will find less desirable – such as herbs or root vegetables that are less likely to sustain damage – as well as by working to ensure that there are adequate food resources within the sanctuary itself. Organic farming techniques are also being promoted, with the hope being that should ecotourism take off in the area, the local communities would derive further economic benefit through the selling of organic, wildlife-friendly products to visitors.
Sometimes, however, it is not possible for certain activities to continue sustainably within the buffer zone and more drastic measures need to be taken to balance the protection of biodiversity with community livelihoods. For example, a larger problem is being faced with the roughly ~2,000-strong population of livestock being raised by local communities in the buffer zone. These animals pose a risk of transmitting diseases such as Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease to the wild animals. The sanctuary alongside the local government have been working with these communities to provide an area for them to relocate to.
Although, almost three decades on, many Thai people today might not know Seub’s name, his legacy is still felt throughout the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. It is within the boundary of this sanctuary – the last stronghold of the Indochinese tiger in the region – that the park rangers work tirelessly to achieve his vision for conservation in Thailand and to pass on his care for biodiversity to future generations. In Seub’s own words, “[i]f we don’t do so, we will soon be facing the extinction of rare and vulnerable wildlife species…” and that is something Thailand, let alone the world, cannot afford.
About the Author
Alisa Santikarn, 23, is a Wildlife Conservation Coordination Intern with the UNDP Thailand. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Human, Social, and Political Sciences, and a Master of Philosophy in Cultural Heritage and Museums from the University of Cambridge and will be returning to there to commence a PhD looking at the relationship between cultural heritage and elephant welfare in Thailand in September.