“AT THE HEART of the success of wildlife conservation is the forest. With healthy forests and habitats, wild animals can survive. Such a principle is easily comprehensible even by those who do not have much knowledge.”
Phong Leng-ei in his 80s still recalled vividly the principles he adhered to throughout his long profession as a forestry officer. He went on to wildlife protection and preservation in the country before stepping to the career capping post as director-general of the Royal Forestry Department (RFD).
Under his direction, a number of the country’s most wild and pristine forests were declared wildlife sanctuaries (following the long push for a new wildlife protection and preservation act in 1960 by the country’s lead conservationist Dr Boonsong Lekhakul). They included the country’s last remaining lowland forest, Huai Kha Khaeng, where a number of conservationists, including the late Seub Nakhasathien, had dedicated their time – and even their lives – to protect it.
As documented through interviews for the book, “50 Years of Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary: From History to Future” (praised by prominent figures, including Privy Councillor Surayud Chulanont as the best record of the sactuary’s history, which can be traced back to ancient routes used in wars and for trading during the Dvaravati to Ayutthaya periods), these conservationists worked tirelessly from the first day it was proposed as a wildlife sanctuary to ensure that Huai Kha Khaeng would always be well preserved. That would be necessary to sustain the lives of the country’s treasured wildlife, including endangered species of tigers.
Phong recalled well how the idea to declare Huai Kha Khaeng as a wildlife sanctuary was hatched.
“Huai Kha Khaeng was proposed along with other pristine forest areas of Salak Phra, Phu Wua, Khao Soi Dao, and some others, but the wildlife protection and preservation committee just viewed that if they were declared simultaneously, there would not be enough men and budgets to take care of them all. So, they decided to declare only Salak Phra as a pilot wildlife sanctuary,” recalled Phong, who was by then a director of the newly created wildlife protection and preservation bureau tasked to survey forest areas for the declaration.
That was in 1963, one year after forest areas nationwide were surveyed by his bureau for their potential as wildlife sanctuaries.
Exposed to overseas experiences and knowledge while pursuing a sponsored Master’s Degree in national parks and wildlife management at Montana University in the United States, Phong realised how western countries gave importance to conservation work, an idea relatively new to Thailand and not yet much understood.
The RFD at the same time was principally tasked to supervise the state’s logging concessions rather than conservation work.
Phong was then back in 1966 to pursue his original passion, which was pushing for the bureau to list potential wildlife sanctuaries and then have them declared protected.
“Wildlife conservation at that time was relatively new to our country. We hardly had a body of knowledge about it. The public did not have an understanding about it, and we were short of staff. So, it was very difficult and challenging work,” said Phong.
Despite the challenges, Phong managed to declare in practice Huai Kha Khaeng as a wildlife sanctuary in 1970 and sent his subordinate, Udom Thanachayanont, to survey the area and assume the chief post there.
Among the arguments made against the designation was that a great amount of zinc had been discovered there and could not be further explored if the forest was declared as a wildlife sanctuary. As well, said critics, part of the forest was still under a logging concession.
In 1972, Phong sent the second chief, Kittisak Duangrat, to take care of Huai Kha Khaeng. Kittisak then reported a poaching case involving wild buffaloes – considered a rare species in such the lowland forests– where logging under the concession was active in the South.
Phong himself rushed to the place in a bid to capture a herd of wild buffaloes there. It was a film taken by his team that convinced the wildlife protection and preservation committee to endorse Huai Kha Khaeng for designation as a wildlife sanctuary.
Huai Kha Khaeng, with an area of around 1 million rai (160,000 hectares), was declared a wildlife sanctuary in the Royal Gazette on September 4, 1972. That was almost at the same time that development started to engulf the area following opening of forestland to the concessions, and which allowed resettlements and rampant poaching by newcomers.
Photos courtesy of Huai Kha Khaeng Seubsarn FB page.
Kittisak recalled that Huai Kha Khaeng at that time was challenged by development brought by outsiders, including unprecedented encroachment following resettlements of logging concession workers.
The situation became tense to the point where officers were targeted.
“There was a rumour that they would shoot a chief, and we had to travel as a team to get our stuff outside. Some gunshots were heard near my residence, and I had to get myself trained to shoot,” recalled Kittisak.
In 1975, the office at Khao Nang Rum was burned down, resulting in Kittisak being transferred.
It was re-established again at Phong’s will, this time as the country’s first wildlife research station, which would be proved a success in wildlife conservation and management two decades later.
“A wildlife sanctuary should have a wildlife research station established alongside, especially where it has high wildlife preservation potential. That’s a model I always wished to see,” said Phong.
After Kittisak, other chiefs, including Komol Boonchai, took turns caring for Huai Kha Khaeng, which at this time was also engaged in the country’s ideological conflict, having been declared a “red zone” occupied by communist supporters.
“Wild West” or Ban Pa Muang Thuean was what Huai Kha Khaeng was dubbed by the chiefs as they had to confront threats from all sides.
Komol, realising the situation, tried to convince residents near the sanctuary to become supporters. He hired some of them to help patrol the forest, utilising their wildlife tracking skills, which proved of great benefit to the officers’ work.
Komol also managed to claim around 589,000 rai in the south of the sanctuary, which were once logging plots and also some relocated Karen villages.
However, people still flooded to the areas adjacent the sanctuary, dispersing from the South to the East and deep into the Thung Yai Naresuan East, which was also declared a wildlife sanctuary. The growing population posed a threat to the area as well as to adjacent Huai Kha Khaeng.
It was in 1987 that a grand relocation plan of over 6,200 members of Mong hill tribes in Thung Yai East was enforced under the coordination of Thung Yai East chief Sompoch Maneerat.
It took five years for a team of military and forestry officers to accomplish the task.
“The area we managed to reclaim may not be large, but considering that it’s at the heart of the western forest, where ecosystems are interconnected, our accomplishment could not be measured in any monetary terms as it indeed posed invaluable benefits to our natural resources treasure,” said Sompoch, who in 2012 came to take care of Huai Kha Khaeng after other chiefs.
It was around this time that Huai Kha Khaeng and the adjacent area of Thung Yai Naresuan West were under threat posed by the government’s Nam Choan dam construction project.
And it was also at this time that Seub Nakhasathien emerged as a lead figure opposing the project. He would later go on to introduce a paradigm shift in wildlife conservation and management for the area and for the country that would be influential for decades to come.
Seub Thod Jettana (Carrying on the will)
With a strong academic background in conservation from his London University Master’s degree under a British Council’s scholarship, and painful experiences of wildlife relocation when he was a chief of the project at Chiew Lan dam in Surat Thani, Seub did not hesitate to join the opposition against Nam Choan, with his academic knowledge disseminated to the public at every forum he participated in.
Seub had a chance to conduct a ground survey from Thung Yai West to Huai Khae Khaeng, and realised how significant was the interconnectedness of the two forests.
He developed the holistic idea to connect the disparate western forests into one large patch so that they could help sustain the whole ecosystem. It became the basis of his masterpiece paper nominating Thung Yai-Huai Kha Khaeng as a World Heritage site, which was endorsed two years after his death.
In late 1989, Seub took the chief post at Huai Kha Khaeng, when poaching was still rampant both inside and adjacent to the sanctuary, and logging had gone underground after the government changed policy and ended logging concessions nationwide.
On the policy front, Seub did not get the back-up he deserved. As cited by his close friend, Weerawat Theeraprasart, Thun Yai West’s chief at that time, “Those on top of (the wildlife conservation division) were silent when asked about the attempt by a company to return to their logging concessionary plots. Seub asked in the meeting why the division did not issue any letter opposing logging…,” recalled Weerawat.
On the ground, gunshots were heard in the distance and near his compound. As recalled by one of his deputy chiefs, Saksit Simcharoen, later a lead researcher on tigers in the western forests, the situation at that time was “critical”.
“Logging was almost everywhere. Or if the trees were not yet cut down, the forests seemed to have owners claiming rights over them already…
“Whenever gunshots were heard, we would go out and hide somewhere to intercept them at dusk. Sometimes, we had to stay overnight and were back again in the morning with empty hands. They seemed to guess our moves and had fled the scene,” said Saksit.
Sunthorn Chaiwattana, another deputy chief, chimed in, “Our men were outnumbered by wrongdoers. We arrested them almost every day and escorted them to the police.”
During his time of around eight months at the sanctuary, Seub tried to solve the problem by forging understanding and a network with people outside. However, he received little attention from them.
At his residence by a stream, which was usually dark at night as electricity was not available, Seub sat under the dim light of a lamp and formalised his idea of connecting the two forests together as one large patch.
He emphasised their uniqueness as the meeting place of four critical ecological zones of Southeast Asia_Sino-Himalayan, Sundaic, Indo-Burmese, and Indo-Chinese, resulting in the outstanding biodiversity of the region.
As described by the Unesco World Heritage centre, “The property, encompassing 622,200 hectares, is the largest conservation area in mainland Southeast Asia and is one of Thailand’s least accessible and least disturbed forest areas.
“The flora and fauna of the sanctuaries include associations found nowhere else, with many species of exclusively Sino-Himalayan, Sundaic, Indo-Burmese, and Indo-Chinese affinities, intermingling within the property. Many of these are rare, endangered, or endemic.
“The sanctuary’s importance as a conservation area lies in the heterogeneity and integrity of its habitats, the diversity of its flora and fauna, and the complexity of its ecosystem.”
Seub’s masterpiece was submitted to concerned parties in late August 1990.
On August 28, he approached his subordinates’ meeting to plan an arrest of poachers and asked to join them.
“Phi (Brother) Seub said, ‘May I join you today?’, but we were busy with planning the case and did not talk with him much… Maybe, what he did was not anything improvising. I just realised what he thinks at that time,” said Saksit.
In addition of preparing the nomination paper and returning some borrowed items to their owners, Seub also instructed his subordinates to help build a small worship shrine for their fellow rangers who had lost their lives.
And in the middle of the night of August 31 till dawn of September 1, one gunshot was heard from his residence. A farewell note was found nearby.
“Maybe people would think, ‘Why do we have to care?’ as it’s just wild animals killed, but for a person close to the issue, he absolutely did not think it’s just that. He knew that time was running out and it’s up, and he must do something as fast as he could,” said Chatchawan Pitdamkham, who succeeded Seub after his death.
Along with his masterpiece, the Huai Kha Khaeng management plan he had co-drafted with Assoc Professor Utis Kutintara of Kasetsart University’s Forestry Faculty was introduced to Chatchawan by Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, Seub’s close aide, and at the time chief of Khao Nang Rum Wildlife Research Station.
They, along with other of Seub’s successors and followers, have helped carry on his vision and planned action through decades of a paradigm shift in wildlife conservation and management in the country.
That shift has seen patches of western forests connected together under the so-called Western Forest Complex of 17 protected areas and covering 18,000 square kilometres.
Seub’s influence can also be seen in the success of basing conservation work on good research and the use of systematic SMART patrolling to ensure effective protection of the areas.
“I’m certain that we have come a long way now, and Huai Kha Khaeng cannot repeat its success by doing things the same way,” said Sompoch. “It must progress further to reach its optimum,” he concluded, reflecting on years of applying a powerful blend of vision, action and, most importantly, faith to carry Seub’s will forward.
The excerpt from the book, “50 Years of Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary: From History to Future”. In memory of Seub Nakhasathien.