Thap Lan: Thailand’s unsung forest gem under threat, but still abrim with life


Demelza Stokes, Mongabay

Date Published

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On the trail of a conservation group conducting a wildlife monitoring survey, we stop the 4×4 on the road and walk along the red earth to check on camera traps. Wildlife rangers from Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and international conservationists are working deep in Thap Lan National Park, where the air smells of forest matter and minerals.

Oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) streak overhead in darts of black and white from tree to tree. Their fruit-eating, high-flying lifestyles make light work of the seed-dispersal necessary for a healthy forest ecosystem. Beside the road, a greater racket-tailed drongo (Dicurus paradiseus) displays inky blue-black plumage and beautiful elongated outer tail feathers that trail hypnotically around after the bird as it flies.

The conservationists’ expensive motion-sensor cameras are given various layers of defense — silica gel is put inside the camera casing (rainy season), chalk is applied to the outer edges (ants), the camera is put back in its specially-made metal box (elephants) and fixed to the tree with a lock and strong cables (thieves). Back in the 4×4 and off to the next camera, we pass a cliff face at the side of the dirt road where a small hammer and sickle has been etched into the rock — most likely a remnant of Communist guerillas, who were known to use Thap Lan’s remote forests as a hideout during the 1970s. Next stop is the start of a trail close to a particular, memorable, tree. Wildlife ranger Tirawat Gotsamrong aka “Gai” (which means “Chicken”) leads the way into the dense bamboo forest.

Ask Gai, or any of the other wildlife rangers working with the DNP, what they fear most in Thap Lan’s deep forest, and it isn’t the possibility of encountering armed illegal Siamese rosewood loggers or the deadly king cobra (Ophiophagus Hannah), the longest venomous snake in the world: it’s Thap Lan’s biggest resident, the Asian elephant (Elephas Maximas). The forest elephants have seen their territory massively decreased over the last few decades. Encroachment and forest conversion to agriculture and cattle grazing has led to elevated levels of human-elephant conflict around the park, with elephants frequently wandering into the villages and cropland surrounding the area. Last year, both wildlife rangers and farmers died in encounters with elephants outside of Thailand’s protected areas. Thankfully, the abundance of bamboo and thick forest in Thap Lan makes it easy to hear elephants as they move through the trees and reduces the chance of encounters.

Asian elephants have declined by fifty percent over the last three generations and are listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. Conserving Thap Lan and its forest habitat is crucial for the long-term survival of part of Thailand’s estimated population of 2500-3200 wild elephants.  “We’ll try to avoid them, try to walk around them. They’re most dangerous when they have their young,” says Paiyoon “Joe” Donsanoy, a 30-year-old ranger wearing a hand-me-down uniform so faded it’s almost white. Wildlife rangers with the DNP need to buy their own uniforms. For Joe, as for many, the job is a modus vivendi and a labor of love.

Thap Lan and three other national parks, Khao Yai, Pang Sida and Ta Phraya, and the Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary meld together to form a forested belt 230 kilometers (143 miles) wide, laid down two hours’ drive northeast of the heaving metropolis of Bangkok. The almost entirely contiguous forest tract is known as the Dong Phayayen – Khao Yai Forest Complex (DPKY-FC) and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.

One of the last substantial areas of tropical forest ecosystems in mainland Southeast Asia, the DPKY-FC lies at the fringe of two of the WWF’s global ecoregions: the “Cardamom Mountains Moist Forests” and the “Indochina Dry Forests” both tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf habitats that support extraordinary biodiversity. Over 800 faunal species can be found in the DPKY-FC, including 112 species of mammals, 392 species of birds, and 200 species of reptiles and amphibians. Critically, it provides viable habitat with the potential to support the long-term survival of some of Earth’s most illustrious endangered species, such as the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), Asian elephants, the pileated gibbon (Hylobates pileatus), the banteng (Bos javanicus — a rare type of wild cow), the Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica).

Thap Lan (2236 sq km/863 sq miles), established in 1981, is the biggest protected area in the DPKY-FC, and Thailand’s second largest national park, but attracts relatively few visitors. “We need tourism. Thap Lan has very little tourism if you compare it with Khao Yai,” said Prawatsart Jantorntep, the park’s director. And he’s right. Khao Yai National Park receives over a million visitors every year — it has the waterfalls, trails, and activities necessary for attracting and accommodating tourists, and is closer to Bangkok. Thap Lan, on the other hand, isn’t really geared up for many visitors.  Around twenty thousand visit in a typical year. Prawatsart told Mongabay he plans to build a campground in the Wang Nam Khiao district to the west of Thap Lan this year, in hopes of bringing more interest and revenue to the park.

Threats to the park

Unfortunately, Thap Lan’s modest place in the shadow of its famous neighbor, Khao Yai, does not mean the park has escaped the legion of problems bombarding all of Southeast Asia’s protected areas. Illegal Siamese rosewood logging, poaching of endangered species such as Pileated gibbons, vast encroachment, dams, and widening roads are all slowly eroding the overall ecological integrity of the park. Ranger Salak Chairacha has been working at Thap Lan for nine years and has seen the impacts of illegal loggers and villagers going into the forest to poach. “In the temporary camps we have found skins and carcasses, wild pigs, muntjac deer, squirrels, wild chicken, (they shoot) whatever they see in the forest,” he told Mongabay. “The poachers, they go out at night. They use a torch, look for eyes in the dark. If they see it, they shoot it.”

Poaching is just one threat to conservation that, if not sufficiently subdued, could see the DPKY-FC’s Heritage status downgraded to inscription on the “List of World Heritage in Danger” this year. Thailand is due to submit its updated report on the “state of conservation” of the Complex by Feb. 1. At its 41st session in July, the World Heritage Committee is expected decide whether the current scenario warrants a move to the Danger List. Thailand’s World Heritage Office in Bangkok declined to give comment at this time.

Leaving Thap Lan with the conservationists on one evening, another of the key threats to the park becomes starkly obvious. Cascades of glowing embers are sprouting from fifteen meters up in the air, as laborers for construction giant Italian-Thai weld metal atop a giant, Y-shaped, concrete structure that will support the expansion of Highway 304. Work is underway on a project to expand the road, one of the main arteries connecting Bangkok to the country’s entire northeast via the forest complex. It runs through Thap Lan and Khao Yai, severing the latter from the rest of the protected areas. Already a two-lane highway when the UNESCO World Heritage site was declared, Highway 304 is currently being widened to four-lanes, increasing deforestation within the complex and driving a massive wedge between Khao Yai and Thap Lan.

Prawatsart sees the road expansion as a necessary evil. “Highway 304 is a problem, but we need it for the development of our country. It is a major route to Isaan (Thailand’s northeastern region),” he said. “We have to explain to the World Heritage Committee that it is necessary to have some things. I think if we can’t have them, then we don’t have to be a World Heritage site. We need these things for our country. We need to compromise.”  Prawatsart’s view is not mirrored by some conservationists, who see the expansion of Highway 304 as yet another assault on one of the last remaining significant tracts of lowland forests in Southeast Asia.

To mitigate the effects of the road, wildlife corridors — including both a viaduct and overpasses over Highway 304 — are planned to be completed by 2018. If the wildlife corridors work, they will keep Thap Lan connected with Khao Yai, and help keep the entire forest area connected and suitable for large mammals who require large areas of forest habitat. The need for safe corridors for animals was made all too real by the news of a male tiger found injured near a road in Thailand’s northern Lampang province this January, some 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the Huay Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, the nearest viable habitat and Thailand’s last stronghold supporting a breeding population of Indochinese tigers.

“This is a first of a kind project in Thailand and we’ll have a lot more work to oversee its effectiveness,” said Win Trivitayanurak, an environment specialist at the Thai government’s Department of Highways, who works to ensure the provisions in the project’s EIA are met. Win was positive about efforts to ensure the wildlife corridors’ implementation. “I think the construction company are trying to get it on track,” he told Mongabay. “Of course all the mitigation measures must be complied with because we rigorously monitor that.” Win also noted that the wildlife tunnels designed to run under Highway 304 have been devised to give enough clearance for elephants, even though none appeared during ecological surveys. “This project will be a good collaboration with the DNP and there will be a lot more projects like this I’m sure,” said Win.

Tim Redford, project coordinator at Freeland Foundation, an NGO that has been working in Thap Lan for over 8 years, echoed those sentiments. Effective construction of wildlife corridors over Highway 304 sets an important precedent for the future of wildlife connectivity in Thailand, he said. “It’s very important as it’s a testing site for these methods in Thailand. They have never been tried here before.”

Road-building is the spearhead of Asia’s infrastructure development boom, an industrial explosion that could lead to the creation of 11,000 new kilometers (6835 miles) of roads and railways across the continent, according to a report released by WWF last year. The unmitigated fragmentation and destruction of habitats suitable for large mammals (and a host of other species) is pushing many to the brink of extinction in the wild, and is what Elizabeth Kolbert (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History) has termed a “defining feature” of the Anthropocene.

Thap Lan, the largest park in the DPKY-FC, represents a stronghold for many significant species. Protecting it is crucial for their viability far into the future, as Southeast Asia’s development accelerates and the region’s population continues to grow and expand its impact on wildlife and wild places. If its forests are preserved, Thap Lan is large enough that it could potentially support the reintroduction or repopulation of globally important species.

Conservationists are still mapping what lives here and gathering data on wildlife populations, the scientific groundwork necessary to build a profile of the area and to secure species-specific funding. Conducting the survey deep in the forest is hot, tiring, work. After thrashing through kilometers of thick bamboo, breaking cover is a relief. Back on the road, we stop the 4×4 at the last camera trap on the trail.  The memory-card from the camera reveals buried treasure — Asian golden cat (Catopuma temminckii), clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), more elephants, large Indian civet (Viverra zibetha) and lots of Eurasian wild pigs (Sus scrofa) — not a bad roll-call for one of the most biodiverse corners of Asia.