Take Hugh Paxtons Blog’s word for it – Thailand’s tropical forests are beautiful. Dawn brings the liquid whoop of gibbons in the forest canopy hundreds of feet above the mist that pools around the gnarled dipterocarp roots– if a tall, cool glass of water could sing it would sound like a gibbon –, the heavy whoosh, whoosh of a giant hornbill’s wings, the startled cough of barking deer smelling dhole hunting dogs, the distant grumble of elephants, tens of thousands of bats leaving crag caves at twilight, after the first rains tens of millions of fireflies drifting and blinking through the velvet dark like tiny constellations…yes, beautiful.
But they can be hard work; a lot of steep, slippery muddy, slopes, snagging vines, streams to forge, leeches galore (and I do mean galore, and those suckers have no respect for leech proof socks), wild boar ticks, sudden torrential downpours, and ridge after ridge of limestone karst formations that stick out above the forest giant canopy like the back plates of long dead stegosaurs.
There are trails made by man or animals (forest pig, elephant, gaur, the giant Asian bison etc,) and I never leave them, unless I have a guide, for the simple reason that I’d get lost and would never be seen again. Despite deforestation and human incursion and population growth Thailand’s forests are still vast. The western forest complex, comprising 17 protected areas including Huai Kha Khaeng, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for example, covers 18,727 sq kms.
Beautiful, yes, tough going, yes…and currently a war zone.
On one side are the poachers drawn by rosewood (highly valued outside Thailand – but not in country where it is considered a sacred tree), tigers, elephants, bushmeat, animals valued in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or the international exotic pet trade , but most of all money.
Some poachers are simply poor, or greedy, opportunistic locals who use the forests for a free meal. But others are mixed up with a slew of illegal activities – drug manufacture and smuggling (particularly methamphetamines or heroin), people trafficking, and of course the killing or trapping of wild animals and birds, the rarer the better. Their backers and customers are powerful criminal syndicates operating out of Lao, Cambodia but principally Vietnam (an increasingly significant final destination for wildlife products due to a burgeoning, not to mention ostentatious, ignorant and affluent, nouveau riche class), and our old voraciously amoral friend, China.
On the other side are the staff and rangers of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP).
When it comes to weapons the good guys are woefully outgunned. Most of them are equipped with either shotguns or Heckler and Koch firearms that are over 30 years old. The poachers have AK-47 assault rifles and automatic carbines. State of the art stuff ideally suited to jungle warfare.
What puzzles me is their willingness to use these weapons so freely.
One of the principle problems facing effective wildlife crime enforcement is the judicial system. Wildlife offences are still perceived by the law as a “victim-less crime” and sentences are lenient, going on ludicrously non-deterrent .
If successfully prosecuted at all, the criminals can confidently expect to be back in their hunting grounds mere weeks or, at most, a couple of years later. And if you have the backing of a multi-million dollar crime syndicate on your side, a $US500 fine is risible.
But shoot they do. Hence the DNP’s declaration of war.
Since 2009, 47 forest rangers have been killed on duty and 48 others injured.
On Sept 12th came the final straw. Hmong hilltribe tiger hunters, part of a well known gang operating in the Huai Kha Khaeng World Heritage Site , shot and killed two rangers and wounded two more. One hilltribesman was killed in the firefight, two were captured, and two fled. They are believed to be hiding in the Bangkok area. If they have been injured, and I hope they were, it will make apprehending them easier – even in Bangkok, bullet trauma raises eyebrows in medical facilities.
But two more deaths, two more injuries – the DNP decided enough was enough. Negotiations were begun with the army to buy or borrow state of the art weaponry for rangers. All protected area managers were ordered to assemble every scrap of information they had on poaching gangs, proven, suspected, rumoured, anecdotal. This exercise to be conducted in close co-operation with local police. All weapons were ordered to be checked for readiness and/or obsolescence.
And this morning, pre-dawn, over 1,000 armed forest rangers deployed throughout the western forest complex on the largest patrol/man hunt ever conducted by the DNP. They are out there as I write.
Time for the poaching gangs and syndicates to reap the whirlwind.
In Part One of this Two Part Post I described meeting Thai park rangers and observing their anti-poaching training. Things have escalated.
It started with a contact between