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More worries for the wild

Publication Date : 12-05-2014

 

Unesco's World Heritage Centre alerts Thailand to its concerns over parkland development

 

By day a herd of 20 elephants with their young roams the grasslands around Nong Phak Chi in Khao Yai National Park. By night, deep in the jungle of Sakaew's Ta Phaya National Park, a 10-year-old gaur and her infant scour for food. Hornbills harmonise in the treetops of the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex.

Much of these animals' habitat is safeguarded, to an extent, as Unesco World Heritage sites, and yet development plans - such as the Huay Saton Dam in Ta Phaya - pose a serious threat to their lives.

The Nation spent three days conducting a field survey in the area after Unesco's Paris-based World Heritage Centre advised Thai authorities in writing last month that it would list Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai as being "in danger" unless its concerns could be put to rest.

The centre wants to know whether there will be environmental-impact assessments for a planned extension of Highway 304 and the proposed dam in the west of Ta Phraya. It wants reassurance about the impact that building the Huay Samong Dam might have on critically endangered Siamese crocodiles. It asks what's being done about illegal logging in the park zone.

The Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex covers more than three million rai, straddling Khao Yai, Pang Si Da, Ta Phraya and Tap Lan national parks and the Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary.

The Nation visited Ta Phraya, Tap Lan and Khao Yai to try and determine whether the wildlife will be able to withstand more human encroachment, such as the ongoing construction of the Huay Samong Dam in Prachin Buri. In Ta Phaya we pushed well into the ostensibly protected jungle to survey the proposed site of the Huay Saton Dam, which the Royal Irrigation Department claims would resolve drought and flooding problems hurting hundreds of households around the park.

The dam would cover more than 4,000 rai and hold back a reservoir of 22 million cubic metres of water.

Park official Weerachon Prasertsri says the site is inhabited by several endangered or at-risk animals, such the clouded leopard, banteng and gaur. "Look at this," he told us on the trail. "We found the footprints of at least four gaurs in this area." He pointed out that the vast grasslands - the food bank for the wildlife - would all be underwater if the dam is built.

During a night excursion we did indeed come across a grazing herd of 20 gaurs, and nearby the 10-year-old female gaur and her two-year-old son were spotted just 20 metres from the car.

Khao Yai National Park covers more than 1.3 million rai across four provinces - Nakhon Ratchasima, Saraburi, Prachin Buri and Nakhon Nayok - and is home to an immense diversity of wild animal and plant species.

Its Nong Phak Chi grassland is the food source for several animals at risk. Within an hour of our arrival a herd of 20 adult elephants appeared with their offspring in tow.

In Nong Phak Chi we saw a flock of at least 10 great hornbills perched in a banyan tree behind the Noi Waterfall, right beside the park's main road. "The hornbills' presence here shows that the forest complex is still in good condition," park official Panakorn Kra-Omklang said. And their population has increased in recent years, but forest encroachment and the huge volume of garbage generated by human visitors still threaten the World Heritage site.

In Tab Lan National Park, not far from Khao Yai, the World Heritage Centre has deep concerns about illegal logging of the Siamese rosewood. Several park rangers have been killed trying to arrest loggers. In just the past four months about 500 illegally felled rosewood logs have been seized, each one valued at 1 million baht (US$30,600) or more.

Park chief Tewin Meesap said the criminals hire area residents and bring in people from neighbouring countries to cut down the trees and extract the timber, paying them 20,000 baht to 30,000 baht per mission. Tewin said security measures have been tightened, with checkpoints at all entrances to block the loggers before they can cause any damage.

The same park faces a second challenge in the planned 130-kilometre extension of the Highway 304 link between Prachin Buri's Kabin Buri district and Pakthongchai in Nakhon Ratchasima. It's another project that worries the World Heritage Centre because the road would split in two a protected area stretching from Tab Lan Park to Khao Yai Park.

Highway 304 was constructed before the national parks were together designated a natural-heritage site, but its existence poses a problem for wildlife. Many of the animals are unable or unwilling to cross the road and those that do are often struck by passing vehicles.

So the Paris centre wants the government to establish "natural" corridors linking the halves of the forest for the animals to use. A plan to build corridors at Highway 304 Km 42-57 and Km 26-29 awaits Cabinet approval.

Ongoing construction of the Huay Samong Dam in Prachin Buri's Nadi district concerns Unesco enough that it might remove the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex from its list of heritage sites. The centre cites reports that the dam would severely damage the habitat of the rare Siamese crocodile in nearby Pang Si Da National Park.

However Royal Irrigation Department director general Lertviroj Kowattana, in charge of the dam project, denies that construction or the dam would adversely affect the crocodile - because it no longer lives in the area. The department's own survey found none of the reptiles in the area, he says.

"Being listed as a World Heritage site doesn't mean we can't do anything here," Lertviroj says. "But we must find a balance between the needs for development and conservation."

 

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