THE TRACES found on the dusty soil of the dry deciduous forest had become sparse and hard to track, while the footprints on a wet salt-lick in the creek were too washed out to easily identify which species were present.
But slowly, 32-year-old forest ranger Jee and his senior rangers managed to decipher the traces and footprints using their knowledge and experience. Their skill has become the art of blending intricate human knowledge with GPS technology, the interplay creating a set of information valuable to protection of the country’s precious forests.
“Some people would say remote sensing or other high technology could one day replace the Smart Patrol work, but in reality, information such as the weak or washed out impressions left by wild animals in the forests cannot easily be detected with a blink of sky-high remote sensing,” said Dr Anak Pattanavibool, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society-Thailand Programme, a co-initiator of the Smart Patrol system. “It needs real people to walk through the real landscapes, observe them through their filters of knowledge and experience, and more critically, to build up the body of knowledge critical to protecting our country’s forests.”
Rangers look for signs of wild animals and record them during the recent Smart Patrol training at Huai Kha Khaeng.
Making a start
The “Smart Patrol” was first introduced to Thailand as a new forest protection system over a decade ago. Through hard work and scientific proofs of success, the system has been internationally accepted as one of the world's most effective forest patrol and protection systems to detect critical poaching activities that remote sensing cannot.
Anak, one of the key pioneers in launching the system, still remembers how it was first hatched. The origin story has a lot to do with the survival of the country’s first natural World Heritage site, the Thung Yai-Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuaries, which form a core of the entire 18,000-square-kilometre western forest complex, the country’s most fertile forest patch.
Seub Nakhasathien, Huai Kha Khaeng’s chief in late 1980s, proposed integrating all of the western forests into one large patch to increase the survival of the species there, before shooting himself on September 1, 1990. His vision and dream has been carried on by successors, including Chatchawan Pitdamkham, who followed Seub, as well as Anak and other junior chiefs.
Chatchawan, as manager of the Western Forest Complex project in the early 2000s, attempted to connect those 17 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. He introduced ecosystem-based management to the areas and initiated “smart patrolling” to protect them using new technology including GPS along with systematic monitoring and reporting.
Forest rangers were then trained before the work was discontinued after the project finished, partly because there was no computer program available to support systematic data collection for further planning and management.
The attempt was renewed again when Chatchawan was back at Huai Kha Khaeng in the mid-2000s. Anak, as Chatchawan’s WEFCOM staff before leaving to direct WCS Thailand, helped the renewed attempt.
He sought help from staff at the Southeast Asia office of CITES MIKE (The Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephant program under the Convention of Internaitonal Trade in Endangered Species, which addresses issues around trade in endangered species).
They allowed him to modify the law enforcement monitoring program and database that they used to track illegal elephant killings (MIKE). With a couple of generations of modifications by Chatchawan’s team and various organisations, the program was later developed into the current flexible SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) forest protection systm, able to monitor various species and threats.
"Smart Patrol", as called by Chatchawan, has become known and further developed among global conservation community as such since. Other related work frames were then shaped up to fit the Thai circumstances, including patrol patterns, resulting in the new forest protection system unique to Thai forests.
Huai Kha Khaeng’s forest rangers were the first to be trained to use new technologies like GPS, along with systematic working procedures, so that they could collect, record and report in detail the critical factors in the forests, including threats to wildlife.
Within a few years from 2005, Huai Kha Khaeng became the Smart Patrol site for training rangers from other nearby protected areas. Its reputation grew steadily, drawing attention from international community, including the Smithsonian Institute and the Global Tiger Initiative, which sent rangers from tiger range countries to recieve the Smart Patrol training.
“At that time, we did not think that the work would expand to what it is now, because the critical challenge of this system was still human,” recalled Anak. “Conservation work needs facts [to help guide management] but in the past officials chose not to speak the truth. The Smart Partrol has just shifted their work principle to transparency and accountability.”
A banteng feeds on grass comfortably at Huai Kha Khaeng's safe ground.
Tigers the flags
Over time, rangers from the entire complex were sent to Huai Kha Khaeng for training, and then dispersed to collect information critical to the future forest management. From 2006 to 2012, rangers from Huai Kha Khaeng alone were forced to patrol in different tracks, increasing the covered areas and distances from around 7,000 kilometres per year to 15,000km.
The result of their years-long systematic patrol is the collection of a body of data that has helped to create a big-picture profile of the western forests, including its internal critical threats.
To boost the system’s effectiveness, Anak borrowed the idea of “landscape species” to guide ecosystem management, identifying key species like tigers as the flags of the operation. In consultation with various conservation organisations, including Seub Nakhasathien foundation and noted conservationists like Dr Amy Vedder (primatologist Dian Fossey’s assistant), Anak improved the Smart Patrol.
He introduced key species like tigers as the goals of the operation, with Khan Nang Ram Wildlife Research Station's monitoring of populations of both tiger and its prey acting as the guideline and assessment.
Through those distance-long patrols, the Smart Patrol demonstrated that the approach could help to suppress critical threats, including poaching in the forests. As patrols intensified, the number of arrests were reduced, along with discoveries of poaching hides and camps.
The monitoring by Khao Nang Ram also showed that the tiger population in Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai had stabilised, and had even increased to over 60 animals, and 100 for the entire WEFCOM.
Tracking since 2011 found the population was spreading to the adjacent Mae Wong and Khlong Lan national parks, pointing to success in providing blanket protections through the Smart Patrol.
The programme has since been expanded to other large forest patches, including the second World Heritage site of Dong Phaya Yen-Khao Yai Forest Complex.
Jee stood up after helping his senior fellows identify the traces and footprints in the dirty soil and the wet salt-lick. Some belonged to mature tigers.
A fourth-year undergraduate student at Kasetsart University’s Forestry Faculty, 22-year-old Jutamad Srikongruk, then joined with her friends to mark the locations with GPS and record them on patrol forms. The Kasetsart programme is the primary source of future park managers throughout the country.
Amid their chats and exchanges during the recent fifth Phayak Prai and Smart Patrol training at Huai Kha Khaeng, Anak expressed hope for the system, including its sustainability.
As a realist, he realises the patrol system will weaken if not adequately sustained. The critical factor remained the quality of personnel, he said.
In recent years, the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP) has adopted the system and its training into its regular work, and plans to have it cover all protected forests under its new smart patrolling reform plan. The faculty where Anak once taught, meanwhile, also aims to teach its students the system. These young people need to be well equipped in this time of rising domestic and cross-border poaching threats and remote-sensing technology.
The forests, he said, need to be walked through, with their rugged terrain recorded and learned along with the details of their elusive wild animals. And that’s something that Smart Patrol can do much better than remote sensing tech.
In 2017, leading conservationists assessed 1, 960 protected areas in 149 countires and published the result in the journal of the US based Society of Conservation Biology. An Assessment of Threats to Terrestrial Protected Areas paper found that unsustainable hunting occurred in 61 per cent of all protected areas. More critically, many of the most serious threats to these areas are "difficult" to monitor with remote sensing from space, it noted.
“Some people may say we can use such technology [as satellites] to help monitor our forests, but that would be speaking without understanding our forests. It is impossible to take care of our forests without hard work and hard walking – and an understanding of our forests that leads to proper protection would never have a chance,” said Anak, now a member of the department’s reform committee. “The challenge is, how we get our people to work hard and walk hard, being tough in this area of work.”