PANGSIDA NATIONAL PARK, THAILAND —
Thailand is stepping up efforts to combat poaching and smuggling protected animals and plants. At the Pangsida National Park, a new team of specially trained rangers embarked on its first field operation.
A suspected timber poacher is nabbed inside a national park in Thailand, but six accomplices manage to vanish back into the tropical forest. Apprehending this one Cambodian hardly impacts the critical loss of Thailand’s flora and fauna from poachers.
It is a historic success for “Operation Bloodwood,” though, a first of its kind mission in steep bamboo-thickened terrain by a team called “King of Tigers.”
Intense mission prep
Elite rangers in this new “special response” unit of Thailand’s national parks department,underwent a grueling six-week training course before their first mission.
Armed with HK-33 assault rifles and satellite communications equipment, they face poachers touting AK-47’s who have killed about 50 Thai park rangers in the past four years.
Unit leader Inprasert “Noom” Thawatchai said the King of Tigers’ orders are to capture, not kill, to get intelligence about the illegal networks. "The smugglers from Cambodia have superior weapons to ours. So we have to be cautious and try to arrest them without armed clashes. We absolutely do not intend to hurt or kill anyone. But if we have no other choice we will use our weapons to save our lives and to better serve our country.”
There is a surging demand, especially in China, for the dwindling supplies of this species of reddish-brown timber.
Officials say one cubic meter of Siamese Rosewood is sold to furniture makers for up to $90,000.
Top dollar for precious commodity
The new team’s training was conducted by Freeland, a 13-year-old international organization trying to halt human and wildlife trafficking. It is funded by the U.S. government and others.
Freeland’s Mark Bowman said the formation of the King of Tigers heralds a comprehensive strategy intended to be replicated throughout Southeast Asia and in Africa.
“We’ve found that if we concentrate our efforts on one unit, train them up to be at a high level to be able to do operations on both land and sea, also train them how to instruct in this team, they then can go around the country to hot spots, train up local rangers and also assist them in operations,.” said Bowman.
But the biggest initial hurdle to overcome in Thailand’s parks is adequate funding.
“A lot of the staff members here, their salary is very low so there’s not a lot of incentive. Morale breaks down. So a lot more funding is required,” said Bowman.
A task force will target, for four months, the rosewood poachers in this protected natural habitat. The specially-trained rangers of the King of Tigers will be an integral part of that operation.