Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Train the Trainers: Thailand Course

As the fate of tigers hangs in the balance, conservationists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and partner organizations in the Global Tiger Initiative have launched a month-long course in Thailand aimed at teaching wildlife officers, field managers, and researchers from tiger-range countries best practices to bolster the animals’ numbers.

The course in Thailand brings together 26 participants from 12 countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Follow along here for updates from SCBI conservationists leading the course in Thailand over the next month.

January 20, 2011

From Jennifer Sevin, SCBI Manager of Capacity Building and Academic Programs

It might be 3:15 a.m. back in the United States, but here at the HKK Wildlife Sanctuary it is a warm afternoon. As the sweat drips down my back and the birds periodically chirp, I sit in the back of the lecture room watching the 25 course participants as they sweat. But they are not sweating because of the heat, they are sweating because today they are engaged in their course practical (exam). The smiles commonly seen on their faces have turned to serious looks as they move through the different exercises. They have been taking part in this activity since early this morning, yet they refuse to take their afternoon break until they finish the last exercise. Dedicated is an understatement! They are committed to learning these tools so they can positively influence tiger conservation. From my perspective, they are all doing quite well and I have no doubt they will each be leaders in Smart Patrolling and MIST in their respective countries.

At the beginning of this course we had participants from 12 countries sitting with their fellow countrymen isolated from each other—before me now is one integrated team working to improve law enforcement monitoring and tiger conservation. The common thread of tiger conservation has brought together people of different cultures, languages, backgrounds, and personalities. They laugh and joke as if they have known each other for a lifetime. It is a great transformation from the first day, and I am privileged to witness it. I have also been fortunate to get to know each of them, and my admiration of each grows daily. They are remarkable people, doing remarkable work.

It is sometimes easy to get stressed out by life’s challenges or feel hopeless about the plight of our natural resources when you see what is happening in the world. Yet, when you are part of these courses, as I have had the wonderful opportunity of being, you cannot help but feel energized and optimistic. Day in and day out, often with minimal financial, technical, or moral support, these participants continue to fight for conservation. And they are winning! With every kilometer they hike, with every community member they engage, with every poacher they stop , tigers benefit and we benefit. We are able to learn more and we protect more because of them. They are those every day unsung heroes that are working towards the greater good, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Last night was a full moon and despite everyone telling us it was not a good time for wildlife watching, Jennifer Buff (SCBI education program manager) and I decided to go for a walk through the woods to an observation tower. It was a short walk, but within a few steps it felt a bit longer. We passed through areas of tall bamboo (with lots of thorns) and there were all kinds of noises (behind, next to, and in front of us). As my heart started to beat a little faster and we shined our flashlights all around, it became apparent it was the bamboo making all kinds of noises. At the same time, different clumps made inconsistent sounds of breathing, talking, singing, and scratching. It was a bit bizarre and I immediately felt as if I had been transplanted into a horror movie. I quickly imagined that a huge tiger was lurking about and it would pounce on us before we even knew it was there. Then I heard a noise to my left that startled me and as I stopped immediately, Jennifer, who had been looking in another direction, walked into me. We not only scared ourselves, but the two sambar deer that made the original noise.

We shortly made it to the observation tower and as we climbed the ladder, some birds made loud calls. After the birds settled back down, you could only hear the strange symphony of the bamboo behind us and the leaves blowing on the trees next to us. In the moonshine you could see the outline of the trees, the waterhole in front of us and the mountains in the distance. It was beautiful. Unfortunately everyone was right and no elephants or other animals appeared on the scene. (Well, they might have appeared, but Jenn and I got cold and left after a short time.) I went to sleep last night listening to animals moving outside my cabin, feeling the cool breeze, and watching the full moon.

I woke up this morning to share a shower with a gigantic spider (we respected each other’s space). On the way to breakfast, I checked a hole in the ground I compulsively check at least twice a day. The hole intrigues me because sometimes it is open with a butterfly lizard calling it home and other times it is filled with dirt with a toad buried in it.

After breakfast, I walked to the training room, which is on the other side of the river from where we sleep. After the morning session, Jenn and I took a walk while the participants started their practical. I introduced her to this cool bug (I do not know what it is called), which makes its own pitfall trap in the dirt and preys on walking insects that fall into the trap. Then I saw the largest gecko I have ever seen peering out of a hole in a tree. Jenn and I watched it for a bit, hoping it would come out a little more so I could take a picture of it. As we continued to comment for the next hour on the various piles of carnivore scat and elephant dung, the multiple butterfly species and the strangler figs engulfing the large trees, we realized not everyone would find wonder in poking through a pile of poop to see the bones, hair, or seeds (it is such as shame really that more people do not appreciate the marvel of these things). On the way back to the lunch area we saw a flock of pileated hornbills. You could hear the wings flapping as their large bodies remarkably made it through the thick trees.

Some of the participants have completed their practical and with a sigh of relief and some laughter, their smiles have returned to their faces. Others have still not left their chairs. They are determined to not give up until they have mastered each step. And it is with this determination and spirit they will not give up on tiger conservation.

Read more updates from Thailand.

Participants will spend time both in the classroom and in the field, learning about tiger biology, law enforcement, illegal trade, and how to work with local communities. Their primary focus, however, will be on learning a state-of-the-art law enforcement monitoring system called MIST (Management Information System).

MIST is a Smart Patrolling tool designed for rangers to use in areas protecting tigers and other endangered species, used effectively by the Wildlife Conservation Society in Africa and Asia. Rangers on patrol will use a hand-held GPS device to record information in the field related to encounters with poachers, snares, and other encroachment into the protected area. They can also collect information about sightings or signs of tigers and other key species of wildlife they encounter in the area. Then they can download their data into one central computer where it is aggregated either on a local or national level.

This big-picture data will give protected-area managers and other stakeholders an unparalleled view of where their resources will be most effective. Graduates of this training have committed to take what they learn back home to train their colleagues working in tiger sanctuaries.

The goal of the Global Tiger Initiative is to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022—the next year of the tiger. Conservationists currently believe there fewer than 3,500 tigers left in the wild, as the result of poaching and habitat loss.