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.
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.
Follow along here for updates from SCBI conservationists leading the course in Thailand over the next month.
From Weiyao Kong, a research assistant from the Jilin Provincial Academy of Forestry Sciences Wildlife Institute in China:
|The Banteng Group|
It was a cozy day for field work: the weather was good, schedule was good, picnic was good, especially the wildlife. The only thing that was not cozy was the bamboo with too many thorns—it scraped my trousers, leaving a long tear. And it left a longer tear on my other trousers the day before yesterday. My pants were too damaged to fix; I miss them very much.
I was so excited when we encountered elephants. There were six of them, less than 100 meters away, making very loud noises. I can clearly remember the whole process and that image will be burnished in my mind for a hundred years. We found fresh dung at 14:18 and then, just two minutes later, we heard branches breaking. The captain stopped to search, and soon pointed at the waving leaves about 60 meters away. After a minute of exploring, more leaves began to move, and then it sounded like the whole forest was disturbed. I felt a little bit nervous; the elephants were so close, and I wondered what would happen if they got angry. But to tell you the truth, our guide is really a tough guy—he was even brave enough to count the number of elephants. Then he said: “You must run as fast as possible! BOLT! Hopefully faster than an elephant!” After a loud elephant moo, the forest slowly resumed its silence. We looked at one another after that and the eyes’ expression are hard to describe.
Just hundreds meters away, we saw a juvenile banteng [a species of wild cattle]. It was drinking at a small salt lick. Perhaps there were too many people in our team because the banteng just stood there for a while, then ran away and quickly disappeared into the jungle. Now I understand why the patrol team keeps one person going ahead of the group. I only saw the banteng’s bottom. It’s a beautiful one.
Another exciting thing we found was a new tiger footprint. Our guide said it was probably a male; the pad’s width (8 cm) indicates whether it is a male and female. I think tigers here are slimmer than the tigers in my country (China). In my country, that’s too small for an adult, even a female one. The females here are also slimmer than those in my country, too.
On our way back, we saw the chaotic scene the elephants left behind. The bamboo was smashed down and stomped into pieces; the ground was also trampled disastrously. Elephants might not have a good temper so I’d better keep distance from those dangerous guys, I thought.
What strikes me is the abundance of animals. During my first field investigation, someone asked the guide what we should do if we encounter a bear. The guide told him that only happens in dreams. Today my dream has come true. I think I should do my best to realize this dream again in my country.
There are a few things I would like to address: The wounded tiger we saw at the zoo and the patroller problems in Thailand (and in Asia in general). The wound on the tiger’s tail was upsetting. I hope the zoo veterinarian found a way to cure him. During a lecture on smart patrolling by Dr. Anak Pattanavibool from WCS, I learned that patrollers in Thailand have, in the past, caused more problems (some rangers have switched sides and become poachers). Maybe that’s a popular phenomenon in all Asian countries. We try to find many ways to solve problems, but sometimes the situation becomes worse. Maybe that’s why Seub Nakasatean (the former Superintendent of HKK who dedicated his life to saving Thailand’s wildlife) chose to end his life. (He committed suicide in his house in the park and it is speculated that he did it because he felt he had lost the battle trying to save HKK and its wildlife.) I will never commit suicide. Of course we can’t persuade all people to become protectors, but I can see more and more people joining us. I love Homo sapiens.
From Ugyen Tenzin, a forestry officer from the Forest Protection and Surveillance Section of the Department of Forests and Park Services in Bhutan.
This thing called the GPS—I have always been fascinated by it. Even though as foresters we are supposed to be working with it all the time and therefore be “used to it,” I had never really been acquainted with the magical instrument. My job never really required me to do so. I tried learning from the Internet a couple of times but never really fully succeeded, though I could get as far as simply having a fair understanding of what waypoints and tracks meant. But I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one with a limited knowledge of the GPS at the smart patrolling training course. So the session on the basic use of GPS by Ms. Mayuree from WCS on January 9 was an absolute treat. And the practical exercise that followed made it even better.
We were divided into five groups with each group given the task of getting to a few ”destinations” (waypoints), navigating using the GPS. My group comprised of an enthusiastic Mr. Naser from Bangladesh, who had dashed around with his GPS from the get-go. And seconding him in speed was Mr. Wan from Indonesia. The rest, Mr. Kong from China, Mr. Naing from Myanmar and myself, took our own time. However, after crossing the first waypoint, we gave in to their persistent calls to hurry. “We should be the first to finish this task,” Mr. Naser would keep encouraging us as he ran around. Just in case the instructors would feel that we had cheated (since we would be the ones to finish our task super fast), Mr. Wan proposed a brilliant idea – to take photographs of the group at all the waypoints. Unfortunately, he also had to be the one to take the photographs. And the uneven ground wasn’t helping much as he went about the tedious job of adjusting his camera for the self-timed shots.
We did make it first. And thanks to Mr. Naser’s “demand” for a “first prize,” we got a box of chocolate sticks at dinner. The sad thing, though, was that the fact that we had won wasn’t officially announced. But all said and done, I was grateful for the whole experience. It was fun. And the GPS instrument – it fascinates me even more!!
From Quanhui (Evan) Sun, tiger program managerof the Wildlife Conservation Society's China Program
|Quanhui (Evan) Sun's group|
It’s interesting that nobody would care about a pile of animal feces in a street, but here, in the forest of Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (HKK), participants of the GTI Smart Patrolling Training of Trainers course are trying hard to find them. Actually, we also search for other signs left by wild animals and human invaders. Following the rangers of HKK, we are participating in an anti-poaching patrol to practice skills we have learned in the last several days.
The ground was covered with fallen leaves, which looks like the scene I often see in North China during this season. But in the monsoon forest, even the leaves shed off in the dry season, most trees remain green. Most of the time we just quietly moved in the forest, but occasionally we stopped to record patrol forms when some animal signs were identified on the route. We only saw real animals on two occasions: two bantengs and one golden jackal near a river. We finished the patrol at two in the afternoon. Besides animal tracks and feces, we also found some evidence of illegal human activities: two abandoned camps left by locals. In the core area of the sanctuary, rangers need to be vigilant about any human activities.
HKK is one of the few tiger habitats in the world that still holds a large tiger population. This sanctuary is also home to leopards, elephants, and several species of deer. As an effective tool for law enforcement, the MIST smart patrolling system has been implemented in this sanctuary for four years and resulted in a number of achievements. This is what I am learning and want to bring to my country, China.
Twenty feet into the woods, we come across our first carnivore scat. The group eagerly huddles around the specimen to begin identifying different features of the scat to determine which animal it belongs to. It only takes a few minutes for the group to confirm that the scat belongs to a tiger and that it is pretty ”fresh.” They also determine that the tiger had a wild boar for its most recent meal by analyzing the remains in the scat. This type of excitement has already been common in the first week of the Training of Trainers: Smart Patrolling course, making it a unique experience.
The week began with a welcome ceremony that included several motivating talks by the course partners. Each of the speakers highlighted the significance of the partnerships that have been strengthened through the development of this course. Dr. Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, represented the Smithsonian in welcoming the course participants. He emphasized the importance of collaboration among government agencies, NGOs, and academic institutions to strengthen tiger conservation efforts across the region.
We continued the opening festivities at Kasetsart University, where we were given a VIP tour through the Forest Department’s wildlife museum led by the forestry dean, Dr. Wanchai Arunpraparat and Dr. Naris, head of the Department of Forestry Biology. We were very lucky to have them lead us through the museum, as they both are very knowledgeable about the animals and habitats featured there. They also told us interesting stories about the museum. One of the stories included how a deer trophy mount was stolen from inside one of the exhibits. Dr. Naris speculated that the mount was most probably stolen because that specific deer is extinct in the wild and its antlers are worth quite a bit of money. There is still a space in the exhibit where you can see the outline of where those antlers used to hang.
As part of a team-building activity, we were invited to plant two trees in honor of the course in the gardens of KU’s forestry complex. The participants were so excited to plant the trees that they did so quickly, making it difficult for us to get photos! A plaque was set up in front of the trees commemorating the event. The day was brought to a close with dinner at Bangkok’s tallest building, the Baiyoke Tower. We were able to gaze over the sparkling lights of downtown Bangkok while getting to know each other.
We spent the next two days in Bangkok orienting the participants to the objectives of the course and providing them with a broad introduction to key topics in tiger conservation. We had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Pete Cutter of WWF and Mr. Sulma Warne of TRAFFIC to the course for a few sessions. Dr. Cutter conducted an engaging and interactive session on landscape ecology for tiger conservation and Mr. Warne discussed wildlife trafficking issues and showed some shocking photographs of confiscated wildlife.
On Saturday, January 8, we packed up our gear and headed northwest from Bangkok to Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (HKK) in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex. The Western Forest Complex is one of the largest continuous tiger landscapes in Southeast Asia. The five-hour journey gave us an opportunity to see some of Thailand’s beautiful landscapes.
It was obvious the group felt back in their element the minute we arrived at HKK. Several participants grabbed their cameras and binoculars and headed out to explore the sanctuary before settling in their rooms. On the first night, we were able to see several pairs of eyes in the trees and heard interesting animal calls in the distance, including elephant and sambar calls.
We were honored to have an introduction to the park by HKK’s Superintendent Mr. Soontorn Chaiwattana. Superintendent Chaiwattana discussed the park’s monitoring system and demonstrated the success they have had implementing the MIST Smart Patrolling system. This presentation really set the stage for our training—HKK is one of the leading protected areas successfully implementing MIST in Southeast Asia.
On our first day in the field, we immediately jumped into the intensive MIST Smart Patrolling training with an introduction to the patrolling system by Dr. Emma Stokes and Dr. Anak Pattanavibool from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). We are very fortunate to have Dr. Stokes and Dr. Pattanavibool with us as they both have extensive experience training people to implement MIST in Southeast Asia. We also were able to observe the HKK Patrol Team’s monthly reporting and planning meeting. The rangers reported their activities from the last month by presenting data on maps of the area they patrol. This was fascinating for us as they described incidents of tracking and catching poachers and the process they used to arrest or fine the poachers.
We also traveled to Khao Nang Rum Wildlife Research Station within HKK, where Somphot Duangchantrasiri, a former SI-World Bank ToT participant, heads the Tiger Monitoring Project. We separated into groups and went on a two-hour trek to identify tiger and tiger prey signs. Each of the groups was led by an HKK field expert. During the two-hour walk, my group was able to identify tiger scat, several tiger pug marks (paw prints), several tiger scent markings (on trees), elephant footprints, and guar and bantang footprints (guar and bantang are like giant cattle that are significant tiger prey). The walk took us through several types of habitats, from dense jungle to open spaces with large teak trees to trickling creeks with big boulders and to salt licks where animals often congregate to get essential minerals.
As we got ready for dinner last night, you could sense the excitement in the group; tomorrow we are joining the HKK patrol team on their field patrol. We will be on foot in the forest all day walking the patrol routes. We will all get the opportunity to look for signs of poaching camps and, of course, increase our chances of seeing a tiger in the wild. More importantly, we will have a truly "hands on" smart patrolling experience collecting data for the HKK MIST database.
Stay tuned! You will be hearing directly from many of the twenty-five ToT participants in the coming weeks.
Program Specialist, Global Tiger Initiative
Center for Conservation, Education and Sustainability
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute