The legacy of Mr Conservation

BANGKOK – In the centenary year of his birth, Thailand remembers Dr Boonsong Lekagul, the man credited with single-handedly launching Thailand’s conservation movement.

Thailand’s conservationists may argue until they are blue in the face on how best to strike a balance between man and nature. But ask who it was that planted the seeds of conservation here and they will name just one man: the late Dr Boonsong Lekagul.

Now, as conservation groups plan a series of events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, we look back on Dr Boonsong’s life and achievements.
Dubbed Mr Conservation, Dr Boonsong spearheaded a series of wildlife protection and national park laws in the early ’60s when conservation awareness was virtually non-existent, especially given Thailand’s long history of natural abundance.

Thanks to Dr Boonsong, the country’s first and largest national park, Khao Yai, was established in 1962. This has since been followed by many other national parks and wildlife reserves. In another of Dr Boonsong’s early successes, the area around the temple of Wat Phai Lom on the Chao Phya River was declared a bird sanctuary to protect the nesting areas of open-billed storks, thus saving them from extinction.

Dr Boongsong’s activism was underscored by his passion for wildlife research, which led to the discoveries of many new species. Research findings also intensified his concerns about species extinction and the unnatural threats many animals were facing.

Knowing change would come through increased knowledge and public awareness, Dr Boonsong penned many books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles to spread the conservation message. His A Guide to the Birds of Thailand with Philip D. Round and Mammals of Thailand with Jeffrey McNeely have become geographically-specific bibles for nature lovers, not just locally but internationally also.

Despite his busy schedule as a physician and a father of five, Dr Boonsong travelled extensively to inform teachers and students around the country about conservation. As TV and radio became more widespread, he took part in and hosted programmes intended to foster an appreciation of and concern for wildlife and their natural habitats.

His activism did not lapse with age. At 75, Dr Boonsong was an ardent opponent of the Nam Choan Dam, the plans for which were finally scrapped in 1988. It was his last major public campaign. He later became bed-ridden and passed away in February 1992 at the age of 85.

So how did it all begin? How did a physician whose initial interest in nature was as a hunter become Mr Conservation?

“It all began with an eager, youthful big-game hunter yearning for excitement and sport, while filled with a love for the wilderness,” said Dr Boonsong in an acceptance speech when he was awarded the prestigious J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize in 1979.

“I wished to know more about my prey, perhaps only for selfish reasons, to know its habits and ways. Gradually, however, I fell in love with the animals seen through my gunsight, and I slowly realised that, unless permitted the necessities for life, these wonderful creations would perish forever.”
Born on December 15, 1907 in Songkhla to a family of Chinese descent, Dr Boonsong grew up in a village surrounded by untouched forests teeming with wildlife.

“Wild animals were everywhere,” he said in an interview in 1981. “Even when you travelled by river, you had to watch out for elephants, who sometimes overturned boats. The woods were so thick you couldn’t see the sun.”

When Dr Boonsong’s one-time co-author Jeffrey McNeely asked him about his earliest wildlife memory, the anecdote Dr Boonsong replied with, which McNeely retold in the doctor’s funeral book, revealed both his kind heart and the self-effacing sense of humour that helped him sustain his conservation mission.
Dr Boonsong told about living in a small village near the Malay border when he was in the first grade.

“A small bird had fallen from its nest, and I found it as I was eating my lunch. I tried to climb the tree to put it back into its nest, but there was no branches so I had to put my arms around the tree and try to climb it like I would a pole. Unfortunately, I could make it only a few feet up before I would slip back down, leaving the front of my shirt torn and dirty.

“Seeing that I could not return the bird to its nest, I put it in my shirt pocket, planning to make another try after school. But right after class was called to order, the little baby bird started to call for some worms. The teacher, who was rather stern as I remember, looked at me with a frown.

“I immediately stood up, apologised for the disturbance, and took the bird back to where I had found it in the hope that its mother could somehow take it back to its nest.

“When I got home after school, my mother gave me a beating for tearing my shirt.”

During his teens, with support from his brother’s employers, the Worakitbanharn family, Dr Boonsong left his village to study in Bangkok. After graduating from medical school, he set up the country’s first polyclinic staffed by specialist physicians.

It was during this period that Dr Boonsong took to forest exploration and hunting.

Working with his colleagues at the museum of wildlife at his house.

“He told me that before World War Two, he would take several hunting trips a year, hunting big game animals such as gaurs and banteng, shooting only trophy animals and what was needed for the cooking pot,” wrote McNeely.

In those days, Thailand was about 70 per cent forested and the forests were rich with game.

“We could see two or three herds of elephants a day, along with as many as 50 gaurs and banteng and numerous barking deer and sambar,” Dr Boonsong told McNeely. “In the swamps of Khao Sam Roi Yod, garganey, whistling ducks and teals would blacken the sky as they took wing. Thailand was a wildlife paradise in those days.”

That was also the time when big game were considered a threat to human safety. Since wildlife officials were non-existent, “Dr Boonsong was the man the villagers would turn when they were ravaged by a rogue elephant or a man-eating tiger,” wrote McNeely.

The influx of firearms after World War Two changed all that. A new breed of career hunters equipped with powerful weaponry began to decimate animal populations. Even more harmful was the loss of natural habitat caused by the clearing of forests to make room for cash crops, a government policy at the time.

Startled by the massive rate of deforestation and rapidly vanishing wildlife, Dr Boonsong set up the Association for the Conservation of Wildlife in 1951. His environmental protection mission never stopped after that.
A pioneer in conservation, Dr Boonsong had to start everything he did from scratch, wrote veteran conservationist Pisit na Pattalung in the doctor’s funeral book.

“He used his house as a museum and office, digging deep in his pockets to compile books, specimens and knowledge about the wild from both experts and local villagers.”

Believing in the power of the media, and wanting to encourage the generation that would follow him, Dr Boonsong undertook many expeditions to film the natural world.

During the regime of strongman Sarit Thanarat, who believed that Thailand’s forests would never disappear, Dr Boonsong arranged, with help from Sarit’s close friend, Pongsak Suriyothai, to have the military ruler view the destruction of the once majestic Dong Phaya Yen forest by helicopter.

Field Marshal Sarit was stunned. Soon after he issued the country’s first national park laws and applied them to Khao Yai. “This was an important landmark for conservation in Thailand,” wrote Pisit, calling Dr Boonsong Thailand’s “father of conservation”.

His 40 years of service not only left the country with better conservation practices but also also nurtured a spirit of conservation among younger generations.

Today, Dr Boonsong’s thoughts about his lifelong mission still ring true for those who want to follow in his footsteps.

“Our real dilemma in wildlife conservation is to try to reconcile it with economic development,” he once said.

“Conservation is sometimes a life and death issue in Thailand. We cannot be afraid to take some risks.”