TO KILL AN INDOCHINESE LEOPARD
DISCUSSING WHAT’S POPULARLY KNOWN AS THE BLACK PANTHER CASE WITH A LEADING CONSERVATION SCIENTIST
In the past two months, there has hardly been a week during which the phrase sua dam wasn’t mentioned in the news. The slaughter of an Indochinese leopard — though it’s often referred to, incorrectly, as a black panther — has sparked a wave of outrage, news coverage, moral indignation and street art paintings.
Amid the furore, and as the case has dragged on, the i mportant question remains: why is the killing of one tiger so vital to environmental protection efforts in the country?
On Feb 4, rangers at Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary apprehended 63-yearold Premchai Karnasuta, president of the construction company Italian-Thai Development, along with his party. They were carrying several carcases, including that of a rare black leopard.
There are around 200 Indochinese leopards in Thailand, according to experts. If one of them is killed, this means the total population is reduced by 0.5%.
The weeks that followed saw the activities of environmentalists converge with those of a wider part of the country’s civil society, as Premchai was released on bail and five of the eleven counts he was charged with were dropped before a trial even began.
Protests and actions carried out by artists and activists — many of them donning the Black Panther masks from the Marvel movie — encompassed the two issues of wildlife conservation and the fight against injustice, as if those two could not be dissociated. But what is the situation for wild tigers in Thailand today, and what consequences does poaching have on the country’s wildlife? We talk to Petch Manopawitr, deputy of Southeast Asia Group, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Why was the killing of the so-called black panther — the Indochinese leopard — so significant? Is the case only relevant to the public because of the suspect’s prominence?
There are many reasons the killing of a black panther back in February has mobilised public opinion so strongly and why the momentum has been sustained. Of course, the identity of the poacher is a key element. His wealth and his celebrity have left people wondering whether he will escape justice.
But the location in which Premchai Karnasuta and his party were allegedly found hunting isn’t trivial either. The Thung Yai Naresuan wildlife sanctuary in Kanchanaburi province is a protected area and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Their acts have therefore garnered the attention of conservationists both at home and abroad. Finally, this latest case of wildlife poaching has also been a wake-up call for a large part of society that has come to realise that the practice has not ended yet. The threat against endangered species is still real.
What is the current situation for leopards in Thailand? What are the repercussions of poaching?
In Thailand, estimations about the number of Indochinese leopards vary, but overall there are around 200 leopard of the species today. It’s not a lot. If one of them is killed, this means the total population of Indochinese tigers is reduced by 0.5% each time. That’s quite dramatic.
We don’t have such accurate statistics for Indochinese leopards but we know for a fact that they are practically extinct. The Indochinese tigers and leopards are both on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Nonetheless, the situation in Thailand has drastically improved in the last 20-30 years, since the death of conservationist and environmental activist Seub Nakhasathien and the creation of the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation.
[Note: Seub committed suicide in the Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in 1990 due to mounting pressure from all sides as he worked as the head of the sanctuary trying to protect endangered species. His vision and plans of turning the sanctuaries into Unesco World Heritage Sites were only approved after his death.]
New technologies such as Smart Patrol software were introduced and allowed for better tracking and monitoring of forest areas, protected sites and sanctuaries.
Overall, we are in a better place today than we were before. This is proven by the fact that Indochinese leopards were found breeding again in Thailand last year.
That cubs could be photographed by the Department of National Parks is excellent news. It means that the forest is in a good state and that the fauna is protected. Because, in order to conserve leopards, we must also ensure that they have enough preys to feed on — including buffaloes, cows, deers and monkeys. In order to further assist the breeding of tigers, authorities have to provide large forest areas to young leopards, to let them expand their territory.
What then are the remaining challenges?
Worldwide, the main threat that endangered species still face is deforestation. But in Thailand, this problem is partially addressed through the preservation of forest areas and wildlife sanctuaries, such as the Huai Kha Kaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan sanctuaries.
Although more can be done on that count, the primary problem in Thailand is still poaching. While it is illegal, it has remained popular over the years. People are insufficiently aware that the trade of wildlife and rare animal parts is ongoing. It even happens online and through social media.
Forest and park rangers also face difficulties in their work on a daily basis. Many think that this is due to a lack of funding, but that’s not always the case. Even with technology, the areas they must patrol and monitor are large and hard to access. Rangers risk their lives to go into the forest and apprehend wrongdoers. In some cases, such as the black panther case, the poachers are influential persons or benefit from connections to people in power. That can create a lot of pressure on rangers and forest authorities, and obstructs their work.
If leopards do disappear, what consequences will there be?
Leopards are top predators and therefore regulate the ecosystem and create a sustainable balance. If there are no more predators hunting prey, such as cows, deers and other plant-eating species, the vegetation in the forest will change as well. If there is an overpopulation of certain herbivore species, certain types of plants will become endangered too. This has been observed in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States, for instance.
The disappearance of specific plants will, in turn, affect the ecosystem.
What can we do?
We must continue to raise awareness like we have in the past two months. The issue of conservation has reached through to the urban middle class in Bangkok, whose involvement and attention to the story has encouraged rangers to pursue their work. Rangers often lead a solitary life and gain little recognition. The support after the arrest of Premchai has been heartwarming for them.
Aside from sustaining the momentum, we must also build the right values and attitudes in regards to poaching and the trade of wildlife and animal parts. Everyone can pay attention and remain alert while surfing online, as well as report wrongdoing to authorities through hotlines — 1362 — or other channels.
At a larger level, authorities can assist the breeding of leopards and overall improve conditions for wildlife in Thailand by creating passages that link forest territories together. The creation of ‘wildlife corridors’ such as the one linking two forest parcels in Khao Yai that were cut by a road must be encouraged, as they allow for species to move from one location to another without risks.
THESE ANIMALS REGULATE THE ECOSYSTEM AND CREATE A SUSTAINABLE BALANCE
Activists and conservationists have organised events or painted graffiti to call for animal rights.