As his car approached the Sam Yod checkpoint set up at KM 1 on Sam Yod-Bang Krang-Phanoen Thung road, the most popular tourist route in Kaeng Krachan National Park, park chief Mana Phermpool pulled over to ask his subordinates about the number of visitors on the first day of high season.
On November 1, the day he opened the 36-kilometre road for seasonal visits, Mana was informed that 15 vehicles had entered the compound, with two of them having sought permission to camp at Bang Krang, a popular campsite on KM15.
However, none of them were allowed to travel further uphill to Phanoen Thung mountain in the heart of the park, as the chief had closed it for road improvement between KM15 and KM36 up to the mountain top.
But work has not yet started, as the improvement project for this 21km-long rugged-terrain has faced fierce opposition from conservationists, who believe the project will threaten the park’s biodiversity and ecosystem.
History of the road
Like other roads, Sam Yod-Phanoen Thung has its own history.
As concessionary plots designated during the boom of the logging-concession period no less than 50 years ago, some parts of Kaeng Krachan forest were cleared to make way for log transportation. New log transportation routes were constructed as a result, with some running deep into the heart of the forest.
After the logging-concession period ended, the forest was declared a reserve in 1964 before being designated a national park. With an initial area of around 1.5 million rai (240,000 hectares), Kaeng Krachan National Park was integrated further with nearly 300,000 rai of nearby forest, resulting in it being the country’s largest national park, with a total area around 1.8 million rai.
It is also subject to nomination for World Heritage status, which if granted would make it the country’s third Natural World Heritage site.
Some of the old log transportation routes have been developed into modern roads used by park officials in their patrol missions – as well as for tourism, which has been growing in the park.
The Sam Yod-Bang Krang-Phanoen Thung route is no different. In fact, it’s one of two main routes running through a large patch of the park in a cross-section manner to the heart of it, and is strategic in the park’s mission against encroachers.
In the early years after the park was designated, the 15km gravel-paved route from Sam Yod to Ban Krang was improved with asphalt. The other 3 kilometres were left unrepaired due to limited funds.
The first park chief, Samart Muangmaithong, then came up with the idea to improve the remaining 3km section, and rebuild the section from KM 18 to KM 36 on top of Phanoen Thung mountain.
In the late 1980s, Samart sought funds from the National Social and Economic Development Board and the Tourism Authority of Thailand to improve the remaining section and build the new road section, which would extend and complete the old Sam Yod-Bang Krang route through to Phanoen Thung.
Over the past 30 years, the first 15km road section from Sam Yod to Bang Krang has been periodically maintained and improved, but not the 21km stretch from Bang Krang to Phanoen Thung.
The Bang Krang-Phanoen Thung section has been severely damaged. At least 26 damage points along this 21km section have been reported as a result of rock falls, landslides, sideways erosion and loss of road surface, plus there have been a few accidents in the past few years.
Mana inspects rockfalls and landslides on the route.
The road repair
As Mana took office as the park chief there a few years ago, like other chiefs who oversee national parks, Mana faced a critical challenge of multi-faceted tasks from the park, especially tourism which has been growing in recent years after the promotion of Phanoen Thung as a new attraction for watching the morning mist.
The road section leading to Phanoen Thung has been deteriorated over time and accidents on the route leading to Phanoen Thung caught his attention.
Subordinates said the road was damaged and needed some work before the high season began, Mana sent his men to fix the damaged spots, only to have the truck used in the mission overturn due to the difficulty of the landscape.
For the next year, Mana changed his strategy. He asked some tourism operators to help fix the road before tourists started streaming in, but only a few offered to help.
“It’s not that we did not try. We did, but it didn’t work,” recalled Mana.
In his third year, after having solved other problems in the park including the notable land conflict in Pong Luek-Bang Kloi community, Mana decided to seek a budget from Petchaburi province in consultation with the park’s advisory committee to improve the road section.
He received around Bt110 million from last year’s provincial budget to improve the 21km road section from Bang Krang to Phanoen Thung with concrete, as well as to build visitor facilities at Sam Yod and Bang Krang.
Those facilities are now almost completed, while the road section that was supposed to see work begin this year was suspended as a result of strong opposition over the last few weeks.
“I just hoped that if the road improvement was finished and mitigation and safety measures were introduced, we would then be relieved from the tourism burden and concentrate more on our prime work including the park protection,” explained Mana. “It’s park management that I am supposed to deal with as a chief.”
According to the Tourism Department, visitors to national parks countrywide have risen by 13 per cent over the past five to six years, and now stands at around 18 million as of last year. Kaeng Krachan itself has seen the number of visitors increase to nearly 100,000 and 21,000 vehicles, with the surge building after Phanoen Thung was promoted a few years ago as a new attraction for watching the morning mist.
Kaeng Krachan along with the other three forests in the complex home 91species of mammals and 461 bird species, and more are bound to be discovered, according to UNESCO. Photo courtersy of Kaeng Krachan National Park FB Page.
Road impacts and myths
Shortly after news spread that road improvement was planned for the section from Bang Krang to Phanoen Thung, local conservation groups as well as leading figures including Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, also a vice president of the leading conservation organisation Sueb Nakhasathien Foundation, stepped out to oppose it.
Unlike other major roads and highways that cut the forest into pieces and cause physical impacts, this road-improvement project was planned to cover only a section of the road. That hasn’t stopped heavy arguments, as both sides have put forward their own reasons to justify their stance, fuelling further debates that have so far found no end.
Rungsrit cited other roads cutting through forests. Apart from physically barring the movement of wildlife, fragmenting their habitat is the most common problem resulting from road projects. Also, he said, road accidents and road kill often follow, along with wild animals being forced to change their behaviour.
But what is no less a worry is the increase in human activities owing to ease of access.
This road section, though it does not cut the forest into pieces, it runs to the heart of the forest, Rungsrit said.
Since the project will make access more convenient, human activities – especially tourism – will become more intensive.
He viewed measures proposed by the park as questionable, citing experiences from other parks in which the growth in tourist crowds proved uncontrollable.
Rungsrit cited research into the effects of human disturbance on habitat use and behaviour of the Asiatic leopard (Panthera pardus) in Kaeng Krachan National Park. King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi published the 2007 study conducted by Dusit Ngoprasert, Antony Lynam and George Gale.
Based on six leopards living in the study area, researchers found the leopards changed their behaviour in response to human activities. While they learnt that the road dividing the study area was not a barrier to leopard movement, their movements and activities were affected by human traffic inside the park. The leopards tended to be less active during the day in areas more heavily used by people, compared to areas with less human impact.
The study also showed that leopard habitat use increased with distance from human settlements at the forest edge.
“For me, Kaeng Krachan is incredibly special as it’s the zone where two important ecological zones meet, and as such is rich in biodiversity from these two zones. It’s where we find the highest number of bird species in the country and that’s the reason why we love and are worried about it,” Rungsrit said. “I think maybe the park department needs to be clear about its priority. It’s tasked with protecting biodiversity and the ecosystems, while tourism comes second.”
The park and the department, however, argued that the road-improvement project would not cause the adverse impacts as feared, as it was planned upon the same old road and without further expansion or extension.
Measures proposed to control tourism activities will be implemented strictly, according to the park and the department.
Courtesy of Kaeng Krachan National Park FB Page.
The way out
Petch Manopawitr, who once worked on conservation projects in Kaeng Krachan and is familiar with the area, has studied both sides of the debates.
This road-improvement project would be different from other major roads or highways that cut through forests, and will thus have different impacts, said Petch, who is a former deputy of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) in Southeast Asia.
As the road does not cut the forest into pieces but rather runs to the heart of it, the challenge of this project would be human activities and disturbances that follow and management of these activities, he said.
It is not sufficient to focus on the road-improvement project alone, he said, adding that a larger debate is needed by all parties about the management of the main activities there, which are weakened forest protection along with the increasing tourist traffic.
In Petch’s views, tourism in Kaeng Krachan at present does not much offer visitors chances to appreciate the true value of the Kaeng Krachan forest as supposed to.
Tourism needs to embrace the idea of participation and benefit sharing, as well as fostering learning to ensure long-term sustainability of activities and the place itself. This needs to be re-designed, he said.
If successful, he pointed, it would help lead to proper area management as well as other tasks that the park needs to accomplish.
“I think this is a good chance to bring back the value of the Kaeng Krachan forest to people again,” said Petch.