Saturday, January 05, 2008

Vigilant guardian of our forest heritage


Vigilant guardian of our forest heritage


An acute shortage of staff and widespread corruption are two of the biggest problems facing those tasked with protecting the country's wildlife, according to Kittapas Khuntathongsakuldi, chief of Wiang Lo Wildlife Sanctuary in Chun district, Phayao.

"Instead of having six sub-stations to protect our sanctuary we have just two because of lack of personnel," lamented the 40-something official. "I'm very fortunate to have 30 part-time staffers, but since they don't get the opportunity to become full-time employees we can't undertake long-term projects. Once they find a better-paying job they move on, so we're restricted in many ways. Moreover corruption at all levels only adds fuel to the fire."

Nevertheless the soft-spoken Kittapas is adamant that he's going to make a difference. Opting to look on the bright side, he has already applied for a budget for the construction of six guest cabins to add to the existing two. And if he's able to get additional funds, he'd also like to build a proper information centre to better cater to the needs of visitors.

How did the sanctuary come into existence?

In 1994, people living in the environs campaigned hard to establish an awareness programme to protect the last forest area in their locality. Community leaders worked closely with forestry officials to gather data needed to set up a wildlife sanctuary. Since the very beginning their participation has played a pivotal role in helping us manage this sprawling wildlife refuge. With their cooperation we've managed to improve the forest ecosystem and this has benefited not just the wildlife but also the flora. The environment here was a shambles when we first surveyed it 13 years ago. A proper ecosystem has been put in place and the biodiversity of the forest has also recovered. But a concentrated effort has to be made by all concerned parties to address problems which might impede progress.

What makes Wiang Lo worth a visit?

We have many educational and leisure activities that make this place a delight for both young and old. For young people who are curious and eager to learn, it opens a plethora of opportunities to experience nature in its purest form. Our carefully designed nature trails are popular with all ages. The sanctuary is like a school classroom where every encounter can be educational. Nature trails are a wonderful way to experience the ecosystem and guests often find that being close to nature is a great method to unwind from the pressures of city life. Viewing wildlife at a safe distance can be exciting; sometimes you can get a real adrenaline rush! Older folks also get a better understanding of how to live with nature plus ways and means to preserve it for the generations to come.

What is needed to make Wiang Lo more popular with locals?

First, we should carry out a survey to identify their needs and life styles - valuable data for further research - and ways to improve their understanding of how to preserve the forest and the wildlife. Having a better awareness programme in place would automatically attract the right type of visitor. In terms of facilities, we require a proper visitors' centre in a multiple-use building which should be equipped with facilities to give a crash course on the dos and don'ts of preserving our natural resources. Building bungalows and toilets along the more popular trails would offer an extra element of comfort that'd draw people to the sanctuary. Last but least is offering visitors a professional service. I hope one day that Wiang Lo will have all the facilities I've just mentioned.

Your favourite places in the sanctuary?

One of my favourites is the Mae Chun forest. It's nice place to chill and gaze out at the Chun reservoir which supplies good-quality water for agriculture in the district. A wildlife-rehabilitation programme was launched there in 1997, contributing to a marked increase in the population of local species of mammal like Cervus eldi [brow-antlered deer] , Axis porcinus [hog deer] and Hylobates lar [white-handed gibbon]. This area also has large numbers of green peafowl that can be spotted regularly.

Another favourite spot of mine is Pha Dhevada in Dok Kham Tai district which, at about 1,100m tall, is the highest cliff in the vicinity. It has a small but beautiful waterfall called Huay Chompoo which starts from where we begin our nature trail. On this route you can also find caves, both large and small. It's an eminently suitable place for hiking and camping. The most popular activities there at the moment are canoeing and cliff climbing.

Where would you recommend that people visit in Phayao?

Phayao is a province which travellers often pass through on their way to other destinations in the North. But it is actually an excellent place to visit in its own right. One spot worth a trip is Phusang Waterfall, which is located within a national park of the same name. The water flows down a limestone cliff to a clear pond, a unique feature of which is that the temperature remains at a constant 35C all year round; it feels like you're standing under a large, natural warm shower.

Also not to be missed is Kwan Phayao, the largest freshwater-fish habitat in the upper North which provides a livelihood for many of the locals. The scenery, particularly at dusk, is stunning.

What makes Wiang Lo special to you?

This sanctuary is very special to me because we've all worked hard to protect the area for a long time. This wildlife shelter is a haven for natural resources: There's so much fresh water, clean air and biodiversity here that needs to be preserved.

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