When the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) set camera traps in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex in 2011, the results were surprising – and underlined the importance of the sprawling, rugged wilderness on the Thai-Myanmar border.
The cameras revealed a healthy wildlife population, including elephants, tapirs, wild pigs, clouded leopards, wild dogs, gaur and banteng – and tigers. In one instance, a camera trap showed a tigress and cubs eating from a kill.
But now a part of this wilderness, painstakingly and with much expense brought back from a degraded forest to a pristine ecosystem, is under threat from a dam project inside a national park.
Unravelling decades of protection
Thailand’s pledge to double the number of endangered wild tigers in the country’s forests by 2022, rests to a significant degree on protecting the Western Forest Complex – the largest Protected Area system in mainland Southeast Asia, comprising 17 Protected Areas totaling 18,000 sq. km. and overlapping the border with Myanmar.
On paper, Thailand has an impressive conservation record. Around 16 per cent of its land area is protected forests. But in reality many of those areas remain under pressure and like elsewhere in rapidly developing Asia, forest habitat has been broken up and isolated.
In some protected forests, hunting has decimated wildlife and densities remain very low. A shortage of prey means it is difficult for large carnivores like tigers to thrive and multiply.
As the camera trap data showed, the Western Forest Complex is an exception. It is seen as the only habitat in Southeast Asia capable of supporting a large number of tigers on a sustainable basis – if it is adequately protected.
The dam on the Mae Wong river, in the national park of the same name in Nakon Sawan province north west of Bangkok, is part of the government’s flood management plan, devised to prevent a repetition of the 2011 flood disaster that caused billions of dollars of damage and severely dented both Thailand’s exports (a string of industrial parks were inundated) and credibility. The Mae Wong project will reportedly also help to irrigate up to 480 sq. km. of farmland.
But to do that, it will destroy around 1,760 hectares of low lying forest – the best habitat for wildlife including the tiger. And accompanying access roads would open up the forest further to illegal activity.
Proponents of the dam – Thailand’s powerful Royal Irrigation Department – say it will affect only a tiny part of the national park. Nevertheless, it creates a dangerous precedent, environmentalists say.
Thailand was among 12 Asian countries that at a World Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010, committed to doubling the global tiger population of 3,500-odd cats to 7,000 by 2022.
The 900 sq. km. national park has been protected for more than 24 years. “Successive governments have invested more than 300 million baht in total to make the park as secure as it is today,’’ Dr. Anak Pattanavibool, Thailand director of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, wrote in the Bangkok Post.
Thailand’s Cabinet approved the 13 billion baht dam project on April 10, 2012. No environmental impact assessment has been done so far. The project has now become a test of Thailand’s flood management plan, and also the clout of the Department of National Parks which has the authority to turn it down.
Building a dam and reservoir in a national park is illegal in the first place, Dr. Anak said in an interview. “If the dam is constructed, it will destroy everything, including Thailand’s reputation for wildlife preservation.’’
Dam will not help in flood control
Conservationists have an ally in the Stop Global Warming Association (SGWA) – an independent non government organisation headed by lawyer Srisuwan Janya, who shot to fame some two years ago by winning a landmark judgement against polluting industries in Map Ta Phut Industrial Park in Thailand’s Rayong province south east of Bangkok.
Both WCS and the SGWA do not buy the logic that the dam will help in flood control. Other dams have failed at it, they note.
The SGWA has started a campaign against the dam on the grounds of its cost, saying that it had been estimated at only 9.6 billion baht last year. It is trying to gather 13,280 co-complainants to file a legal challenge to the project.
“The approved budget for the construction is too high,’’ Srisuwan Janya maintains. “The budget for the construction will come from massive foreign loans and our offspring will have to repay. They will also suffer the loss of forest land.’’
The area that will be flooded by the reservoir, used to have villages which were relocated in the interest of wildlife conservation. The ecosystem recovered and wildlife including prey species and tigers, returned to the area. The dam was first mooted 20 years ago but the project never gained traction. In 2002, the National Environment Board turned it down.
“The entire Western Forest Complex is Thailand’s very last stronghold for many globally endangered and vulnerable species,’’ Dr. Anak wrote in the Post. “The international community… has hailed the long and firmly held policy of Thailand to protect the Western Forest Complex and its associated natural heritage as an example for others to follow.’’
Thailand’s Royal Irrigation Department is expected to complete a health and environmental impact assessment study for the project in July. Meanwhile though, the Department of National Parks is in the spotlight. And it is scrambling to respond to the Royal Irrigation Department and the Cabinet’s surprise approval.
Local media has reported that the first Pisit Tiyasomboon, director of Mae Wong National Park, heard about the project was when he was contacted by the irrigation department and told his office would be flooded by the reservoir. “I have not seen any document regarding the dam project or where it will be located,’’ he said.
The fact that tiger habitats such as these that have been vetted for their importance and biodiversity are threatened again and again highlights that we can never rest once an area is deemed protected. This is one battle we cannot afford to lose.
by Nirmal Ghosh, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 3, June 2012