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Expedition Discovers Tigers on the Thai Myanmar Border

BANGKOK – Efforts to save the tiger, a critically endangered species, moved a step forward this month with a special training workshop in survey and conservation techniques in Thailand.

Seventeen staff of National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries from around the country, and graduate students from Bangkok universities attended the 14 day workshop in Thailand’s largest National Park, Kaeng Krachan.

Organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Outward Bound School and the Royal Forest Department the course taught participants about the ecology and threats facing tigers in their wild habitats and up-to-date methods for censussing and monitoring their populations.  The workshop was supported by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation/Exxon-Mobile ‘Save The Tiger Fund’. 

Tigers are heading towards extinction in many parts of their range due to a combination of habitat loss and destruction, hunting of the animals tigers eat, and poaching to supply the illicit trade in traditional medicines.

‘We urgently need to know where we still have tigers in Thailand’s remnant forests, so that park managers can know where special protection efforts and research are needed’ said Dr Tony Lynam, a WCS ecologist and lead instructor at the workshop.

‘At the present time we have only have a rough estimate of the number of Thailand’s tigers, possibly 150-600.  Beyond that we know little about where and under what conditions these tigers can persist.’

Tigers potentially exist in 15 forest areas across Thailand, but their best populations are likely to be found in rugged mountainous transboundary areas that are difficult for poachers to access.

Kaeng Krachan is one such area, a 2,915 square kilometre expanse of forest lying adjacent to extensive rainforests in Myanmar.  It potentially supports 50 tigers, one of single largest populations in the region.

‘Information from this workshop will be valuable to our efforts to preserve tigers in this park and elsewhere in Thailand, said park superintendent Manote Karnpanakngarn, who sent five of his rangers to the workshop. 

A field survey exercise designed by the workshop participants and led by WCS staff and park rangers sought to enumerate Kaeng Krachan’s tiger population, the first attempt ever to do so.

Tigers probably travel back and forth across the Thai-Myanmar border, making this an important transboundary conservation area.  Four survey teams established 40 infrared-based camera-traps to take photographs of tigers and other large mammals, and conducted track and sign surveys over a 600 square kilometre area in the park’s core zone.

One of the teams conducted their survey by rafting down the mostly uncharted Petchburi River.  ‘Like the first explorers who travelled through here ninety years ago, we discovered tracks of tigers on every river bank’, said Lead Ranger Sutat Saphu.

Tigers have apparently vacated the heavily visited tourist areas near Phanoentung Mountain for safe refuge in this remote valley. The area is mostly uninhabited except for scattered villages of Krang and Karen hilltribespeople.
In addition to tigers, the park is reputed to contain over 100 elephants, wild cattle, and possibly Siamese crocodile, a species that is extinct from most of its former range in Southeast Asia.  The teams will discover what the camera-traps recorded when they return to the area in late February to collect the traps and process films.

The expedition relied heavily on maps and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. ‘Field navigation skills are an integral part of wildlife survey but are rarely taught in forestry school,’ said Colin Wood, a specialist orienteering trainer. Outward Bound School provided special training in navigation to the tiger participants to improve their efficiency in the field.

Ultimately, whether tigers survive in Thailand’s forests will depend on the effectiveness of anti-poaching patrols, campaigns to curb the trade in tigers poached or farmed for traditional medicines, efforts to involve local people in their conservation, as well as our understanding of the status of tigers in their wild habitats.

‘Without a basic knowledge of where tigers live in remaining habitats, we risk wasting resources and valuable time.  We can’t afford either’, said Dr Lynam.  ‘In countries like Thailand, tigers are literally balancing on the brink of extinction.’

The Wildlife Conservation Society, the largest conservation agency in the US, is committed to using scientific knowledge to advance the cause of conservation around the globe.  It maintains conservation training and research programs in Thailand and 52 other countries worldwide.

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