Teri visited Thailand in November 2023 and March 2024 to work on the tiger conservation project with Karen communities living inside the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary.

Meeting the youth groups

In November, Teri, our director, and Dr. Dave Smith traveled to two villages with our partner, Rabbit in the Moon. They are a new partner and we wanted to meet some of the village youth clubs they were working with as part of their One Community project. The youth clubs seemed like another possible avenue to talk about tigers and wildlife with communities. In addition to Teri, Dave, and the Rabbit in the Moon founder, Mr Charnchai Bindusen (Uncle Oi), and his staff, the team included Dr. Saksit Simcharoen, who has worked on tiger conservation since the 1990s and is the retired Director of the Department of National Parks Wildlife Research Division. Later, after returning to Bangkok, we also met with our other partner, the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation.

Dr. Dave Smith, University of Minnesota; Dr. Saksit Simcharoen, retired from Department of National Parks; and Mr. Charnchai Bindusen, founder of Rabbit in the Moon (l-r)

Camera trap training

In March, Teri traveled back to the western side of the sanctuary to continue to work with the six Karen communities there. During this trip, they conducted a camera trap training with the youth clubs and met with the larger community. Teri gave presentations about community conservation projects around the world, including examples of camera trapping and wildlife monitoring by communities, including a video about our project with Baka communities in Cameroon. Dave and Saksit talked about tiger and wildlife conservation in Thailand.

We brought 25 cameras with us for a hands-on training for the youth club members and Rabbit in the Moon staff. We put out some cameras fairly close to the villages to show them how to use cameras. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any photos of wildlife. It was the dry season and there weren’t many signs of wildlife, like footprints. Also, it seems there might not be much wildlife close to the villages due to human disturbance and the fact that there is such good forest not far away. Over the next few months, with the basic skills for camera trapping, the clubs will begin to explore and try things in their own way over the next few months.

On Saturday evening, Uncle Oi invited everyone in the village where we held the training to come learn about what we were doing. We had about twenty people, including the village leader, women, and even children. Teri shared a video of the Baka people from our Cameroon site as well as videos from our camera trapping with 28 community forests in Nepal. Saksit showed video of tiger radio collaring and explained about camera trapping. The village leader and others expressed their appreciation of activities that support the younger people in the community to learn about the environment and biodiversity.

Partners and their approaches

Both the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation and Rabbit in the Moon have worked with the communities in the sanctuaries for years but they have very different approaches.
The Seub Nakhasathien Foundation has been working in the two sanctuaries and other protected areas in the Western Forest Complex since 1990. The Seub Foundation works primarily focuses on building trust and a common understanding between the communities and the Department of National Parks in the form of written agreements describing what the communities can and cannot do in terms of livelihood activities and natural resource use.

Rabbit in the Moon started working with youth clubs in the western part of the sanctuary almost a decade ago. They focus on building the knowledge and capacity of individuals in youth groups, people aged 18-35, to study and research biodiversity around their communities as well as share what they’ve learned with their communities. They have some members who focus on fish and aquatic biodiversity, some who are interested in hornbills, and now, with our camera trapping project, we hope some will become wildlife experts.

A key aspect we hope to strengthen in both organizations is translating their work with communities into conservation by communities. One challenge we face in this project is that it is not clear what conservation activities communities can implement. The government ideally would have liked to remove these communities from inside the sanctuary, but resettlement is politically untenable, so the communities are in a difficult situation. Like many communities, they are trying to maintain their traditions and simultaneously modernize, all while existing inside a protected area with circumscribed options for growth and development.

Why no tiger?

One challenge in this project is that we do not know why there are so few tiger around the villages. It’s also possible that the situation has changed since the last study of tiger and their prey was conducted in 2010-12. We are now working on analyzing data from 2020 to see if the lack of prey is still the limiting factor for the tiger. Anecdotally, the communities, park staff, tiger researchers, NGOs, and even a missionary working in the area, tell us that illegal hunting has decreased over the past decade. Some people say the Karen people have traditionally not hunted large prey like sambar and gaur anyway. They believe tiger poaching by outsiders is the main cause of the lack of the tiger.

The communities themselves report seeing tiger and having tiger kill their livestock, but without actual data on the number and location of kills, it is difficult to know the trend. Are tiger increasing in the area or just sometimes straying into village areas as they disperse looking for territory they can potentially settle in and breed?

Each trip we learn a little more about the issue of hunting. During this trip, some of the club members said that it is primarily the Karen from Myanmar who have married into the villages who hunt. They hunted when they lived in Myanmar and don’t understand the sanctuary laws. One person mentioned that when they try to explain to the newcomers that they shouldn’t hunt, the newcomers tell them to mind their own business, that if the village leader isn’t telling them to stop, why should they stop? Apparently, it is a difficult and sensitive conservation even within members of the villages. It’s not just an issue that is difficult for them to talk about with us.

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