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Can 2,000 Wild Tigers Find Sanctuary in Thailand Forest?

Thailand’s Western Forest Complex (WEFCOM) is a large protected landscape along the Thailand-Myanmar border of the Tenasserim Range that covers more than 18,000 square kilometers (7,000 square miles), and is one of the largest protected area systems in Southeast Asia. Most WEFCOM habitat has the potential to hold approximately 10 tigers per 100 square kilometers (40...

Thailand’s Western Forest Complex (WEFCOM) is a large protected landscape along the Thailand-Myanmar border of the Tenasserim Range that covers more than 18,000 square kilometers (7,000 square miles), and is one of the largest protected area systems in Southeast Asia.

Most WEFCOM habitat has the potential to hold approximately 10 tigers per 100 square kilometers (40 square miles), according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). While it is known that tigers persist throughout most of WEFCOM, robust tiger population estimates are only available for the 2,700-square-kilometer (1,000-square-mile) core area of WEFCOM named Huai Kha Kaeng (HKK) Wildlife Sanctuary.

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Surveys have determined that there are currently about two tigers per 100 square kilometres or 60 tigers in HKK. WEFCOM suffers mainly from poaching, and currently has a tiger population that is likely in the low hundreds with room to grow. This site has the potential to hold nearly 2,000 tigers, which would make it the largest wild tiger population in the world, WCS-Thailand experts estimate.

Anak Pattanavibool, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Thailand Program, has been leading the tiger conservation project in the Western Forest Complex. A biologist who studied in three countries, and author of a number of papers and books, he has worked for five years with a Thai government team and WCS tiger scientists to strengthen the protection system in the Western Forest Complex and establish a long-term monitoring system for tiger and prey populations.

His work is funded in part by the National Geographic Society’s Conservation Trust.

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NGS stock photo of tiger by Michael Nichols

From Anak Pattanavibool in Huai Kha Khaeng

Greetings from the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the forested mountains of western Thailand. This wildlife sanctuary lies in the heart of Thailand’s Western Forest Complex, one of the largest and most intact remaining wild forests in southeast Asia. This wildlife sanctuary is also home to one of the few major wild tiger populations left in Asia whose long-term prospects are at least positive and hopeful.

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The reasons for such cautious optimism lie in the strong protection given to these wonderful animals, the prey they need to consume to survive and the habitat that these tigers live in and depend upon. The strong protection of Huai Kha Khaeng is the result of a long-running collaboration between strong and conservation minded members of the Government of Thailand and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

I have been working for the conservation of Thailand’s wildlife since the late 1980s, when I was serving within the Government of Thailand as a superintendent of two protected areas in southern and northern Thailand. The work was tough–long and grueling patrols in the field to confront people undertaking all manner of illegal activities, from minor offenses like collecting bamboo shoots or mushrooms, to more serious offenses such as selectively logging precious wood, to the outright poaching of high value wildlife species.

During my years in the service I often felt that I was not getting the most out of the patrol staff and that conservation of the protected area were suffering as a consequence. I sensed that a lack of pride and ownership by patrol staff over their work was a major reason for this less than stellar situation. At the time I had some suspicions about possible ways to improve morale, but did not have the chance to fully implement them.


Monthly patrol staff meeting in Huai Kha Khaeng.

Photo courtesy of WCS-Thailand

In 2004 I had the opportunity to become the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society-Thailand Program. Even back then the dire situation for tigers in the wild across Asia was well-known, and hence we made a priority for the Wildlife Conservation Society to do what it could to conserve the tigers of the Western Forest Complex in general and of Huai Kha Khaeng in particular.

As before, the importance of improving patrol staff morale was clear and we were fortunate to have a strong superintendent in place in the Wildlife Sanctuary. We worked together to improve the ranger patrol system in the sanctuary.

To improve pride we raised the funds together to give the ranger patrol staff the highest quality uniforms, field supplies, and high quality equipment like GPS units and compasses.

We also trained them in many field skills and we made sure to provide ranger patrol staff with food rations, as opposed to having the rangers pay for their meals themselves.


Government of Thailand staff, fully equipped and on patrol in Huai Kha Khaeng.

Photo courtesy of WCS-Thailand

All these efforts [were] clearly necessary and helped in improving patrol staff have pride in their work. However, we have found that this was still not sufficient. In addition we have found that in order to encourage a true sense of stewardship over the efforts to conserve wild tigers and other wildlife it is important to give rangers a voice in the running of the park.

We now have monthly meetings where patrol staff are all encouraged to provide inputs into the upcoming month’s planned activities. We have found these meetings to be a key way for rangers to see that they truly have a say and a stake in the running of the sanctuary.

For sure, this approach to running a protected area requires a park superintendent with both confidence and an open mind. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of such superintendents in the Western Forest Complex, including in Huai Kha Khaeng.

We are hopeful that this collaboration in the Western Forest Complex between WCS, protected area superintendents and, most importantly, the patrol staff will continue and help create a truly magical place where tigers, elephants and a host of other endangered animals can thrive.

Anak Pattanavibool has received two grants from the National Geographic Society’s Conservation Trust, in support of his tiger conservation work in Thailand. Read more about the Conservation Trust.

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Read more about the plight of tigers and other big cats and what concerned people across the world are doing to help them on the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative website.   

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn