TO KILL AN INDOCHINESE LEOP­ARD

DIS­CUSSING WHAT’S POP­U­LARLY KNOWN AS THE BLACK PAN­THER CASE WITH A LEAD­ING CON­SER­VA­TION SCI­EN­TIST

Bangkok Post - - LIFE - STORY: ARI­ANE KUPFERMAN-SUTTHAVONG

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.

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