THE CASE OF THE BLACK LEOPARD WILL BE A TEST OF THE WAY WE VALUE OUR NATURAL RESOURCES
HOW MUCH would a black leopard cost if it could be valued and tagged with a price?
For nearly a week, a team at the National Parks Department has been working out the monetary values of the five-year-old black leopard and other animals allegedly killed by the construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta and his party.
It’s a challenging task, as it is the first time that values of wild animals would be scientifically assessed in order to facilitate compensation over the ecological damage caused by killing them.
“We are trying to base our valuation of these animals on available science,” said a senior forest official involved in the process.
As criminal legal proceedings against Premchai are advancing, questions over the ecological damage done by the party have been raised by the prosecutors, prompting concerned officials to team up to work out a value in monetary terms.
On March 26, the department’s chief, Thanya Netithammakul, signed an order to set up an ad-hoc panel to work on the matter.
Led by his deputy, Jongklai Worapongsathorn, the panel pulls together wildlife experts and veterinarians, including well-known tiger researcher Saksit Simcharoen, head of the wildlife conservation bureau, and Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn, chief of the department’s forest crime suppression task force, Phaya Sua.
According to sources, the panel has pooled their knowledge from various sources, including the department’s wildlife breeding stations, in order to figure out the ecological damage and costs in connection to the incident.
As a result, the three main animals – the black leopard, a kalij pheasant, and a wild boar – that were killed at the scene of the alleged crime were chosen as their prime subjects for valuation.
The panel noted that the costs to the environment, which has also possibly been damaged, have not been included in the valuation, as there is not yet sufficient scientific knowledge to help assess them. The panel devised the value based on the cost of breeding and raising these animals at wildlife breeding stations.
It determined from expert advice that a black leopard would live for 18 years at most, or 12 years on average. When a female black leopard reaches an age between 2.5 and 3 years, it can breed, and one female can have up to eight offspring in her lifetime.
To raise one offspring of a black leopard to a similar age as the one shot dead – around 5 years – the stations would have to pay for its food, medicine and extra training so that it could familiarise itself with its natural habitat and survive after being released. However, not all offspring survive. The experts noted that each black leopard raised and released to the wild has only a 20 per cent chance of survival.
As a result, the panel decided to multiply the costs for raising one black leopard by five, jumping from Bt2.55 million to Bt12.75 million.
For a kalij pheasant, the total costs for an animal raised at a wildlife station is Bt12,612. But each kalij pheasant has only a 50 per cent chance to survive in the wild after the release, so the costs were doubled to Bt25,224. And the last animal, a wild boar, was tagged at a price of Bt22,500.
The panel has so far calculated the costs for damage done to the three animal species at around Bt12.798 million.
The same senior forest official said the department has learned the necessity of valuing ecological services following the incident, realising that there are not yet sufficient measurements in place to help it address the values of the ecosystems under its protection – and the costs when they are damaged.
Precedent for similar cases
Buntoon Srethasirote, an environmental economist at the Good Governance for Social Development and the Environment Institute (GSEI), and a member of the Natural Resources and Environmental Reform Committee, has been observing the department’s move, realising that this will be a precedent for similar cases to follow.
Buntoon said evaluation of ecological damage is a body of knowledge that has been developed over some time and put in place in the international community already.
It’s part of “environmental economics”, which has introduced various approaches to ecological valuation, including the “willingness to pay principle” and the “replacement cost principle”, which is being used in the case of the black leopard. In Thailand, however, the knowledge is still mostly at a research stage, and has hardly been applied to real cases.
The Thailand Development Research Institute has assessed the value of Khao Yai National Park, the world heritage site, in order to further calculate how much visitors should pay to enter and enjoy the nature there.
The GSEI, under supervision of its president, Suthawan Sathirathai, conducted research to assess the values of mangroves along with international experts in an attempt to address their values in economic terms via their ecological services, including absorbing carbon. The department itself, also tried to develop a module to assess and calculate the values of forests and the costs in relation to deforestation, once known as the global warming module.
However, it, was strongly criticised by environmental economists and mathematics modellers for its apparently faulty methodologies, which tried to link local temperatures with a macro scale of global warming and climate change. This prompted faulty logic in addressing the true values of the ecosystems and costs of the damage done.
By law, Buntoon pointed out, the idea to claim compensation from those damaging the environment is actually addressed as a “polluter pays” principle in the National Environmental Quality Act BE 2535. However, the law falls short in addressing how to claim compensation – a challenge that the environment reform committee has taken up.
Buntoon said the committee has worked out how to address the issue in its effort to push forward environmental justice reform. The issue would be especially critical when the environmental court is set up and legal proceedings are underway.
Buntoon conceded that, in the beginning, there would be no certain formulas to help address the values of the environment and the ecosystems as they are varied.
The committee has proposed a panel of experts be set up to work out the values case-by-case. Over time, similar cases would hopefully eventually deliver certain approaches to help figure the values and costs of our environment and natural resources, he said.
“There would not be a thing like a module or a formula that could be applied to every case immediately, but we hope that the knowledge in this area would be accumulated over time and provide us certain approaches that can be applied to similar cases,” said Buntoon.
As for the Thung Yai black leopard case, he sees this as an attempt to base the valuation on scientific knowledge available. At least, he said, it closely follows the replacement-cost principle that has been adopted worldwide.
For Petch Manopawitr, a conservationist and a deputy director and Thailand programme coordinator of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Southeast Asia, the problem with conservation work is that it is generally seen as intangible, not being able to be measured or valued.
Often, ecosytems are seen as valueless, as they cannot be valued in monetary terms – and this has become a problem when it comes to development, Petch said.
This issue has become more critical as natural resources and the environment have been degraded or depleted worldwide in recent decades.
IUCN, he said, has been working with its partners in the project, Natural Capital Protocol, to create a framework to help measure and value ecological services derived from natural capital, as well as the impacts of business entities on these resources.
In Thailand, measuring natural capital has been explored in the case of the Mae Wong dam project, under which its ecosystems and ecological services were valued.
Petch saw the case of the black leopard as a challenge for concerned authorities to think harder. They need to be able to explain their logic to the people to gain their acceptance.
“The black leopard case, if successful, would set a precedent for others to follow. It’s not just a criminal offence that people would face when they illegally exploit natural resources and the environment, but they would face a civil case that helps reflect the true ecological loss. This, in turn, will help deter them,” said Petch.
Supaporn Malailoy, an environmental justice advocate at EnLaw, the Environmental Litigation and Advocacy for the Wants, which has lent legal support in environmental cases, including the Klity lead-contamination case, agreed with Petch that environmental problems worldwide have reached a critical point. Natural resources and the environment have been exploited to the point of being irreparable.
To ensure their sustainability and their capacity to sustain other lives, Supaporn saw the need to put in place valuations and measurements on these natural resources, especially via Strategic Environmental Assessments. This would help ensure that the health of the environment would be taken into account in the first place before any development projects proceed.
Citing the long-resolved Klity case, Supaporn said the issue was also about environmental justice.
If the black leopard was killed purely for pleasure, then the wrongdoers should be punished more severely than others, she said.
“It’s critical, how to charge wrongdoers in environmental cases, and this is about environmental justice that needs to be addressed critically,” said Supaporn.