The raid last week on the Kanchanaburi “tiger temple” is a firm step in the right direction in protecting wild animals. There is no known proof that the monks at Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua were directly involved in wildlife trafficking. But virtually every activity of the temple was a wink, a nod or outright acts of endangering the animals. In addition to around 100 live tigers, raiding officers of the Ratchaburi province division of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment found 38 hornbills and other protected birds.
It’s a dangerous world these days, but big animals are more at danger than most. In addition to tigers, elephants are constantly harassed, hunted, hit and cruelly mistreated. The rhino has disappeared from Thailand thanks to merciless hunting. Animal poaching and wildlife smuggling is a hugely profitable cross-border business. Governments, including the current and recent governments of Thailand, often seem at a loss on what to do.
Last week, while officials were closing down the tiger temple, a conference in Nepal put forth some ideas. Delegates from Thailand, a dozen other countries and several wildlife-protection groups heard an astounding fact. Nepal, home to poachers who constantly pursue tigers, elephants and rhinos have recently gone two full years in which not one big animal was poached from the wild.
That is good news for sure. Nepal achieved this landmark accomplishment through a fairly simple policy. The government declared zero tolerance for poaching. It gave forest rangers better arms and equipment, recruited villagers near wildlife areas to help. Police and the courts joined a widespread public movement to prevent poaching. If an endangered animal was harmed, authorities worked diligently to track down the poacher. Justice was delivered through the courts — both legal and public opinion.
The sad truth is that in today’s atmosphere, the Nepal solution can work, and no other policy is likely to save the big cats and elephants of Thailand. The shameful and unchecked demand from China for tiger parts and ivory is at the root of poaching and wildlife trafficking. A growing number of Chinese hold superstitious beliefs about the supernatural powers of tiger bones, skins and meat. Both the Beijing and local governments have made it clear they will not combat the demand. China even has legalised tiger farms, where the animals are raised to feed the rising demand. Ivory is smuggled into China by the tonne, but the market is never satiated.
Poaching is often — some say usually — an organised effort. It is also often wrapped in corruption. There is apparently little that goes on inside and near national parks, for example, that does not involve park employees and officials. Beat this corruption, then, and the effort to wipe out poaching will take a giant step forward. No one should underestimate the difficulty of such a radical anti-poaching step.
The government should consider the Nepal-style policy of protecting wild animals by hunting poachers. A campaign begun from the top by the military government can easily enlist villagers and park employees who know that corrupt officials will face martial law punishment. Once in place, with public support, an anti-poaching campaign has a good chance of catching on.
The alternative is for Thailand to continue as both a supplier and transit nation for wildlife traffickers. Selfish, superstitious people will pay big money for Thai tigers and ivory. It should be easy for the government to choose between wildlife salvation or destruction.