Thailand: Southeast Asia’s Last Hope for Wildlife?

This is the fourth installment of the author's “Indochina in the Anthropocene” series, which narrates the environmental crisis in Southeast Asia. Check out the other stories in this series:

With wildlife populations in Indochina in rapid decline, Thailand is the last great hope for the region’s natural heritage, particularly for large carnivores such as tigers and leopards. In fact, many donor organizations feel that Thailand has already achieved mid-level development status, making it more difficult for conservation groups to secure funding for projects there than it is for endeavors in its less-wealthy neighbors such as Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

Likewise, many noted conservationists have, over the years, chosen to concentrate their efforts in the “new” or “final frontiers” of Myanmar (more recently) and Laos and Cambodia in the 1990s because conservation in Thailand has already been established and its neighbors were wilder and sexier.

How much wisdom was there in this thinking and what was the outcome? The first and only time I ever heard a tiger roar was in eastern Thailand (I don’t want to name the park) in 2013. It was during the rainy season and footprints were everywhere on the trails: tiger, elephant—tiger inside of elephant—bear, dhole, you name it. Pileated gibbons cried out from the hills, flocks hornbills swooshed overhead, and large monitor lizards scurried across the old and overgrown access road. This, I felt, is what a Southeast Asian national park should look and feel like.

Thailand’s Department of National Parks has, with the help of the extraordinary NGO Freeland, fought hard to preserve this ecosystem, and the results have been amazing. It shows that if wildlife is given some respite from poaching, logging, and economic development schemes that it can and will rebound and recover.

Thailand’s Western Forest Complex can boast of even more wildlife. More than a dozen protected areas cobble together in an 18,730 km2 jigsaw puzzle to house the greatest density of tigers in Mainland Southeast Asia. This this region is also home to Malayan tapir, Indochinese leopards (including melanistic black leopards), gaur, herds of elephants, and even a tropical yeti, which goes by the local name of tua yea, which, interestingly, means “the prey” in Thai. And all of this—both the Eastern and Western forest complexes – is within a few hours’ drive of Bangkok. It might seem that the donors and conservationists who opted for Indochina and Myanmar were correct: Thailand has it all under control, and conservation funds are put to use better next door.

Dusky Langur

But is it the truth? Just this month, over 1,500 live animals were found on Facebook to be on sale in Thailand, including the Helmeted Hornbill, which is native to southern Thailand and is listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered. In 2016, 40 frozen, dead tiger cubs were discovered in the infamous Tiger Temple Cave in Kanchanaburi province, a place where tourists used to go to have their photos taken with drugged-up tigers.

In eastern Thailand, where a new population of tigers has been confirmed, thousands of Cambodians illegally cross over the border annually to seek out Siamese rosewood, which sells for astronomical sums in China. These loggers will hunt opportunistically while in Thailand’s eastern forests, and muntjac, gibbons, slow loris, and other wildlife are all on their menu. And if I heard that tiger roaring on the single night that we spent camped in the jungle, wouldn’t the Cambodian loggers during the weeks on end that they spend there notice that love song wafting over the tree crowns in the night?

What about that fabulous Western Forest Complex fairyland? A so-called Myanmar-Thailand highway is slated be bulldozed straight through it, and it is has been thoroughly documented that roads through tropical forests spell big trouble for wildlife. In fact, the Myanmar section of that road is to be built by a Thai tycoon who was arrested in May of this year for killing and eating a rare melanistic black leopard in Thailand’s Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, which is in the core of the Western Forest Complex.

Despite the dire issues described above, the Eastern and Western forest complexes of Thailand are the Kingdom’s best-protected regions. “Protected areas within four hours of Bangkok are in good shape,” a foreign scientist in Cambodia told me. “Beyond that, they’re in the same shape as you’d find here in Cambodia.”

He has a point. In 2014 we teamed up with veteran wildlife photographer L. Bruce Kekule for a six-month survey of Khlong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary (KKWS) in Surat Thani province in Southern Thailand. While clouded leopard, elephant, tapir, mongoose posed for our camera-traps, there were no tigers or Indochinese leopards, the top carnivores. They had been hunted to extinction in the early 1990s, and KKWS is part of a 5,000 km2 forest complex of some of the best habitat on the Thai-Myanmar peninsula.

Further down south on the Andaman Sea, scenic Maya Bay in the Ko Phi Phi archipelago must remain closed due the extensive damage wrought by tourism, and influential Thais continue to push for a Kra Isthmus Canal that would literally cut southern Thailand in half. Helmeted hornbills are in such big trouble—thanks to Chinese demand for their casques—that a special commission has been set up to try to save them. A pregnant elephant was recently found dead, also on the peninsula, cause of death as yet undetermined. Restaurants in Bangkok are selling whale-shark fins in Chinatown, Thap Lan National Park, a stronghold for wildlife, is under threat, and to top it all off, palm oil plantations are making major expansions in the country. Is Thailand really in better shape than its neighbors?

Pansy Butterfly

The Thai government recently laid out an ambitious goal to have the kingdom 40 percent eventually covered in forest. They have fallen short of this goal, but that was perhaps a bit too optimistic for the time being. Forests are not only home to the myriad wildlife that call Thailand home, and not only do they provide fresh air and fresh water, but they are also one of the best buffers against climate change, and this lofty goal needs to be pursued. A hydroelectric dam in Mae Wong National Park—another section of the Western Forest Complex—has been cancelled, thanks largely to camera-trap photographs of tigers.

The Kra Canal is not a done deal, the Myanmar-Thai Highway could yet be scrapped, and environmental consciousness is rising among Thais. Maya Bay is recovering, and the Royal Thai Navy and the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources are cooperating to clean up the seas around Phuket. Furthermore, Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, established with the help of the late environmentalists Seub Nakhasathien and Alan Rabinowitz, remains the most important protected area for tigers and leopards in all of Mainland Southeast Asia; and even if that dreadful road is built, it should skirt this ecological gem.

To top it all off, there are other protected areas in Thailand that are for all practical purposes totally off the tourism and even conservation radars, and yet they harbor globally important populations of wildlife. I know this because the few adventurous souls who have wandered into them and managed to set up a camera or three have come back with biological gold, and I was lucky enough to have a peek.

Tracking cats

In 1923 a European tin prospector named Hans Morgenthaler published a book on his reflections of southern Thailand in the early 20th Century, back when nary a single road connected the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea. Unimaginable today, back then huge crocodiles swarmed in the rivers and sometimes deliberately overturned fishing boats to devour the crew. Elephants halted trains, and tigers struck terror into the hearts of tin miners.

This rhapsodic book is titled Impressions of the Siamese-Malayan Jungle and while gazing at the Tenasserim Mountains that form the Thai-Myanmar peninsula, he gushes: “The peninsula is traversed throughout its length by granite mountain ridges, forming in places the frontier of Burma. One of these chains stretches with its castellated rocks far into the Gulf of Siam. The mountains are uninhabited, and will doubtless remain, for scores of years to come, the haunts of the many wild beasts that fill the forests to-day, practically unmolested and half tame.”

Those mountains that stretch out into the Gulf are Ko Tao, Koh Phangan, and Ko Samui, for the most part tourist traps that have been over-developed and heavily degraded, and that includes the sea around them. And yet those mystic mountains still hold wildlife, as Morganthaler predicted, all the way up to the Western Forest Complex and into fragments beyond; and much more than Laos and Cambodia can claim to hold. Despite all the challenges, Thailand remains the region’s best hope for wildlife. Conservation efforts should focus on Thailand, and donors, scientists, and advocates need to get on board. Fast.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.