Kaeng Krachan’s main pri­or­ity: tourism or wildlife pro­tec­tion?


AS HIS CAR ap­proached the Sam Yod check­point set up at KM 1 on Sam YodBang Krang-Pha­noen Thung road, the most pop­u­lar tourist route in Kaeng Krachan Na­tional Park, park chief Mana Phermpool pulled over to ask about the num­ber of vis­i­tors on the first day of high sea­son.

On Novem­ber 1, the day he opened the 36-kilo­me­tre road for sea­sonal vis­its, Mana was in­formed that 15 ve­hi­cles had en­tered the com­pound, with two of them hav­ing sought per­mis­sion to camp at Bang Krang, a pop­u­lar camp­site on KM15.

How­ever, none of them were al­lowed to travel fur­ther up­hill to Pha­noen Thung moun­tain in the heart of the park, as the chief had closed it for road improve­ment be­tween KM15 and KM36 up to the moun­tain top.

But work has not yet started, as the improve­ment project for this 21km­long rugged-ter­rain has faced fierce op­po­si­tion from con­ser­va­tion­ists, who be­lieve the project will threaten the park’s bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tem.

His­tory of the road

Like other roads, Sam YodPha­noen Thung has its own his­tory.

As con­ces­sion­ary plots des­ig­nated dur­ing the boom of the log­ging-con­ces­sion pe­riod no less than 50 years ago, some parts of Kaeng Krachan for­est were cleared to make way for log trans­porta­tion.

New log trans­porta­tion routes were con­structed as a re­sult, with some run­ning deep into the heart of the for­est.

Af­ter the log­ging-con­ces­sion pe­riod ended, the for­est was de­clared a re­serve in 1964 be­fore be­ing des­ig­nated a na­tional park.

With an ini­tial area of around 1.5 mil­lion rai (240,000 hectares), Kaeng Krachan Na­tional Park was in­te­grated fur­ther with nearly 300,000 rai of nearby for­est, re­sult­ing in it be­ing the coun­try’s largest na­tional park, with a to­tal area around 1.8 mil­lion rai.

It is also sub­ject to nom­i­na­tion for World Her­itage sta­tus, which if granted would make it the coun­try’s third Nat­u­ral World Her­itage site.

Some of the old log trans­porta­tion routes have been de­vel­oped into mod­ern roads used by park of­fi­cials in their pa­trol mis­sions – as well as for tourism, which has been grow­ing in the park.

The Sam Yod-Bang KrangPha­noen Thung route is no dif­fer­ent. In fact, it’s one of two main routes run­ning through a large patch of the park in a cross-sec­tion man­ner to the heart of it, and is strate­gic in the park’s mis­sion against en­croach­ers.

In the early years af­ter the park was des­ig­nated, the 15km gravel-paved route from Sam Yod to Ban Krang was im­proved with as­phalt. The other 3 kilo­me­tres were left un­re­paired due to lim­ited funds.

The first park chief, Sa­mart Muang­maithong, then came up with the idea to im­prove the re­main­ing 3km sec­tion, and re­build the sec­tion from KM 18 to KM 36 on top of Pha­noen Thung moun­tain.

In the late 1980s, Sa­mart sought funds from the Na­tional So­cial and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Board and the Tourism Au­thor­ity of Thai­land to im­prove the re­main­ing sec­tion and build the new road sec­tion, which would ex­tend and com­plete the old Sam Yod-Bang Krang route through to Pha­noen Thung.

Over the past 30 years, the first 15km road sec­tion from Sam Yod to Bang Krang has been pe­ri­od­i­cally main­tained and im­proved, but not the 21km stretch from Bang Krang to Pha­noen Thung.

The Bang Krang-Pha­noen Thung sec­tion has been severely dam­aged.

At least 26 dam­age points along this 21km sec­tion have been re­ported as a re­sult of rock falls, land­slides, side­ways ero­sion and loss of road sur­face, plus there have been a few ac­ci­dents in the past few years.

At around the time that Mana took of­fice as park chief a few years ago, an ac­ci­dent on the route lead­ing to Pha­noen Thung caught his at­ten­tion.

Sub­or­di­nates said the road was dam­aged and needed some work be­fore the high sea­son be­gan, Mana sent his men to fix the dam­aged spots, only to have the truck used in the mis­sion over­turn due to the dif­fi­culty of the land­scape.

For the next year, Mana changed his strat­egy. He asked some tourism op­er­a­tors to help fix the road be­fore tourists started stream­ing in, but only a few of­fered to help.

“It’s not that we did not try. We did, but it didn’t work,” re­called Mana.

In his third year, af­ter hav­ing solved other prob­lems in the park in­clud­ing the no­table land con­flict in Pong LuekBang Kloi com­mu­nity, Mana de­cided to seek a bud­get from Petch­aburi prov­ince to im­prove the road sec­tion.

He re­ceived around Bt110 mil­lion from last year’s pro­vin­cial bud­get to im­prove the 21km road sec­tion from Bang Krang to Pha­noen Thung with con­crete, as well as to build vis­i­tor fa­cil­i­ties at Sam Yod and Bang Krang.

Those fa­cil­i­ties are now al­most com­pleted, while the road sec­tion that was sup­posed to see work be­gin this year was sus­pended as a re­sult of strong op­po­si­tion over the last few weeks.

“I just hoped that if the road improve­ment was fin­ished and mit­i­ga­tion and safety mea­sures were in­tro­duced, we would then be re­lieved from the tourism bur­den and con­cen­trate more on our prime work in­clud­ing the park pro­tec­tion,” ex­plained Mana.

Ac­cord­ing to the Tourism De­part­ment, vis­i­tors to na­tional parks coun­try­wide have risen by 13 per cent over the past five to six years, and now stands at around 18 mil­lion as of last year.

Road im­pacts and myths

Shortly af­ter news spread that road improve­ment was planned for the sec­tion from Bang Krang to Pha­noen Thung, lo­cal con­ser­va­tion groups as well as lead­ing fig­ures in­clud­ing Rungsrit Kan­jana­vanit, also a vice pres­i­dent of the lead­ing con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion Sueb Nakhasathien Foun­da­tion, stepped out to op­pose it.

Un­like other ma­jor roads and high­ways that cut the for­est into pieces and cause phys­i­cal im­pacts, this road­im­prove­ment project was planned to cover only a sec­tion of the road. That hasn’t stopped heavy ar­gu­ments, as both sides have put for­ward their own rea­sons to jus­tify their stance, fu­elling fur­ther de­bates that have so far found no end.

Rungsrit cited other roads cut­ting through forests. Apart from phys­i­cally bar­ring the move­ment of wildlife, frag­ment­ing their habi­tat is the most com­mon prob­lem re­sult­ing from road projects. Also, he said, road ac­ci­dents and road kill of­ten fol­low, along with wild an­i­mals be­ing forced to change their be­hav­iour.

But what is no less a worry is the in­crease in hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties ow­ing to ease of ac­cess.

This road sec­tion, though it does not cut the for­est into pieces, it runs to the heart of the for­est, Rungsrit said.

Since the project will make ac­cess more con­ve­nient, hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties – es­pe­cially tourism – will be­come more in­ten­sive.

He viewed mea­sures pro­posed by the park as ques­tion­able, cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ences from other parks in which the growth in tourist crowds proved un­con­trol­lable.

Rungsrit cited re­search into the ef­fects of hu­man dis­tur­bance on habi­tat use and be­hav­iour of the Asi­atic leop­ard (Pan­thera par­dus) in Kaeng Krachan Na­tional Park. King Mongkut’s Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Thon­buri pub­lished the 2007 study con­ducted by Dusit Ngo­prasert, Antony Ly­nam and Ge­orge Gale.

Based on six leop­ards liv­ing in the study area, re­searchers found the leop­ards changed their be­hav­iour in re­sponse to hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties. While they learnt that the road di­vid­ing the study area was not a bar­rier to leop­ard move­ment, their move­ments and ac­tiv­i­ties were af­fected by hu­man traf­fic in­side the park. The leop­ards tended to be less ac­tive dur­ing the day in ar­eas more heav­ily used by peo­ple, com­pared to ar­eas with less hu­man im­pact.

The study also showed that leop­ard habi­tat use in­creased with dis­tance from hu­man set­tle­ments at the for­est edge.

“For me, Kaeng Krachan is in­cred­i­bly spe­cial as it’s the zone where two im­por­tant eco­log­i­cal zones meet, and as such is rich in bio­di­ver­sity from th­ese two zones. It’s where we find the high­est num­ber of bird species in the coun­try and that’s the rea­son why we love and are wor­ried about it,” Rungsrit said.

The park and the de­part­ment, how­ever, ar­gued that the road­im­prove­ment project would not cause the ad­verse im­pacts as feared, as it was planned upon the same old road and with­out fur­ther ex­pan­sion or ex­ten­sion.

Mea­sures pro­posed to con­trol tourism ac­tiv­i­ties will be im­ple­mented strictly, ac­cord­ing to the park and the de­part­ment.

The way out

Petch Manopaw­itr, who once worked on con­ser­va­tion projects in Kaeng Krachan and is fa­mil­iar with the area, has stud­ied both sides of the de­bates.

This road-improve­ment project would be dif­fer­ent from other ma­jor roads or high­ways that cut through forests, and will thus have dif­fer­ent im­pacts, said Petch, who is a for­mer deputy of IUCN (In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture) in South­east Asia.

As the road does not cut the for­est into pieces but rather runs to the heart of it, the chal­lenge of this project would be hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties and dis­tur­bances that fol­low and man­age­ment of th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties, he said.

It is not suf­fi­cient to fo­cus on the road-improve­ment project alone, he said, adding that a larger de­bate is needed by all par­ties about the man­age­ment of the main ac­tiv­i­ties there, which are weak­ened for­est pro­tec­tion along with the in­creas­ing tourist traf­fic.

The need to fund pa­trols and other man­age­ment mea­sures needs to be dis­cussed.

Tourism needs to em­brace the idea of par­tic­i­pa­tion and ben­e­fit shar­ing, as well as fos­ter­ing learn­ing to en­sure long-term sus­tain­abil­ity of ac­tiv­i­ties and the place it­self.

This calls for a re­design of the man­age­ment ap­proach, he said.

The Bangkran-Pha­noen Thung route is lim­ited to pick-up and SUV trucks due to its rugged ter­rain and dam­aged sur­face.

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