Outnumbered rangers giving their lives to protect forests
Vastly outnumbered by poachers, Thailand’s forest rangers have been risking their lives to protect and defend the nation’s forests, with seven losing their lives last year at the hands of well-armed and violent illegal loggers, according to Freeland Foundation, which helps train rangers.
Nonetheless, Thailand’s rangers remain committed to saving the Kingdom’s natural resources despite the dangers they face. “The poachers don’t care if we’re rangers. If they meet us and they have weapons in their hands, they shoot immediately without warning,” Piroon Pilaphop, leader of the Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary ranger team, told The Guardian newspaper.
Thailand’s forests and wildlife reserves contain a bounty of natural treasures, both in the form of wildlife, plants and timber. Tigers, bears, orchids and other fauna and flora are highly prized by poachers. Tiger and bear parts are used in traditional medicines and consumed as delicacies in places such as China and Korea, and can bring high prices to those who can supply them.
But in recent years, Siamese Rosewood, a hardwood tree found mainly in Thailand has increasingly become the target of illegal loggers, often from neighboring Cambodia. Most of the ranger casualties have occurred with clashes with Cambodian poachers in Thailand’s eastern forests near the border between the two countries.
Coveted for its rich red color, Siamese Rosewood is sometimes referred to as “blood wood,” both for its hue and for the price paid in lives for obtaining it. Siamese Rosewood is an endangered species illegally felled in Thailand and smuggled to luxury “hongmu” furniture markets in China.
Environmentalists have been sounding alarm bells that the increasingly scarce Siamese Rosewood could become extinct within a decade, with forestry officials claiming that illegal logging rates for the hardwood have skyrocketed by 850 percent in recent years. It is a protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Freeland Foundation, an anti-human and wildlife trafficking civil society groups that helps train rangers in coordination with the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Wildlife Enforcement Network, which also receives funding and support from the United States, said the poachers vastly outnumber the rangers.
Increasingly, poaching syndicates are bringing in illegal loggers from Cambodian provinces bordering Viet Nam, because Cambodians living near the border with Thailand are now aware that the Thai rangers are willing to defend the Kingdom’s forests with their lives and so are unwilling to risk logging inside Thailand.
Freeland representatives said the loggers are actually victims of human trafficking, as they are being tricked into poaching against their wills when they were told they would be doing legal logging or construction work.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a civil society group, trade in Siamese Rosewood imported to China was worth $1.2 billion between 2000 and 2014.
“Without the demand, there wouldn’t be the tsunami of cash entering these countries, which then exacerbates corruption, undermines the rule of law, and provides incentives for loggers to risk their lives,” says Jago Wadley, senior forest campaigner at EIA.