Khao Yai National Park
Imagine being given a uniform, a gun and sent into the rainforest to find poachers. You have just finished your military service and have returned to your home area to work as a ranger. Your job is to protect endangered animal and plant species from illegal poaching. But you receive no proper training, need to rely on old equipment and have never confronted a wildlife criminal in your life. With your ranger team you head off into the dense and badly accessible forest for five or six days to look for poachers. You are very scared but also excited, as you don’t know what will happen and who or what you will encounter.
This is how Sayan Raksachart started his career as a park ranger in the Khao Yai National Park, but Im sure many rangers have similar memories. Around 200 rangers work at the Khao Yai park, tending to different duties such as general maintenance, community outreach and of course patrolling the park. Four types of employment exist, ranging from temporary employed (with a monthly wage of approx. 175 $ US) to government official (approx. 350 $ US per month and health and life insurance). They are generally young men from the parks vicinity, many having just finished the obligatory military service.
The job might be perceived as honorable and "cool", but it is also very dangerous. Thailand lost 14 rangers in 2016, through the hands of poachers, in deadly encounters with wildlife and through other fatal accidents. With proper training and better equipment, some of these deaths could be prevented. This is where the organization Freeland comes in. Freeland fights against wildlife and human trafficking in several Asian countries, and has their headquarters situated in Bangkok. For more than a decade they have worked in Khao Yai National park and the other four national parks in the Dank Rak mountain range. Through their efforts a ranger training center was established in the park where more than 3000 rangers have been trained. Furthermore they have supplied ranger teams with equipment while also putting pressure on the DNP (Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation) to do the same. In some cases Freeland was even able to pay small amounts of compensation to widows of fallen rangers.
Sayan survived his ranger days and now builds on his experience to work in community outreach and education with Freeland. He has lived just outside the park all his life and has experienced how the park and its tourist visitors have changed, how poaching has turned from small scale crime by villagers to large scale organized crime and unfortunately has also seen the loss and reduction of species. As a child, he had to form a group with fellow students when going to school in order to frighten away the tigers. But the last time Sayan has seen a tiger was 20 years ago and today the tiger is regionally extinct in the park.
Sayan became a ranger, because his parents were rangers. However, when we asked him if he would want his children to become rangers too, he grinned and politely said no.
When Sera and I went to Khao Yai National Park, we were very lucky to meet Tim Redford from Freeland. He has lived and worked in Thailand for 20 years, speaks fluent Thai, and is an incredibly helpful and positive person. We were able to get very profound insights due to his help and numerous explanations. Thank you!
Being a park ranger in Thailand is a tough and dangerous job. Last year 14 rangers lost their lives in the line of duty, making Thailand one of the countries with the highest number of deaths among park rangers. Nevertheless, there are around 10'000 to 12'000 rangers in Thailand, scattered all over the 127 national parks in the country. Their job is to protect the wildlife and plants in the parks from poachers, but they also have maintenance and community outreach duties. Many have a basic education and learned some combat skills during their military service. Four training centers have been established by the DNP (Department for National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation) in the country, but many rangers receive training from dedicated NGO's, such as Freeland and the WWF. Unfortunately, many people only work as rangers for several years, so experienced and well trained rangers make up only a small percentage. In 2013 the first special response team was created, the King of Tigers and in 2015 the Hasadin unit followed. These teams have undergone specific and rigorous training to crack down on poaching while increasing the security for other rangers.
On our travels we have visited six national parks and tried to communicate with the rangers. However many speak little to no english, so getting their personal stories has been a big challenge. What we do take away from the men, and sometimes women, working on the front line of conservation, is their love of nature and pride in protecting their countries natural heritage. As Kailaksart, a former ranger and now full-time employee of the Khlong Lan National Park put it: “Nature is a gift to us all. Everytime I go into the forest, I feel lucky to be here.”