SPECIAL REPORT: A refuge for impounded wildlife
YOUNG TEAMS TEND SMUGGLED ANIMALS, AS THEY AWAIT THE POSSIBILITY OF A RETURN TO THE WILD WHERE THEY TRULY BELONG
THREE-YEAR-OLDS Shizuka and Nobita are no longer frightened and stressed. They no longer tremble and hug one another tightly as they did upon first arriving at the Khao Prathap Chang Wildlife Breeding Centre in Ratchaburi province a few years ago.
Instead, the pair play separately, and even tease their caretaker, Mayuree Satthaphon, by assuming various funny postures. A young forestry official at the centre, Mayuree sees this as a good sign that their mental and physical states are improving.
After spending most of every day taking care of the two baby orangutans for nearly three years now, her first mission seems completed – helping the babies relieve the stress built up as a result of being smuggled on a long-distance journey from Indonesia to Bangkok, where a joint taskforce of undercover police and investigators rescued them at a department store parking lot in the heart of Bangkok.
Mayuree has one remaining challenge – taking care of the two, not as pets, but as wild animals that might still have the chance to return to their original home, a forest somewhere in Indonesia.
“It’s fun, but it’s also a tiring job,” said the 27-year old animal caretaker. “Unlike other wild animals sent here, they are impounded animals. But more than that is the fact that they are still wildlife that should be returned to the forest someday.”
Mayuree has cared for the orange-haired youngsters, along with another pair sent to the centre, since the very first days after their rescue. Despite their growing friendship, she takes care to balance her nurturing actions with various other actions, such as keeping a distance, so as to maintain their wild instincts.
Wildlife trafficking has become complex and sophisticated with the involvement of transnational crime syndicates, and the application of new technologies such as social media. (Read SPECIAL REPORT:Wildlife trafficking: a global scourge)
Thailand has seen continuing trend in wildlife trafficked around or through its territory, with some smuggling intercepted and some wild animals impounded.
But all of it is posing a challenge to the country to invest its resources and manpower to stop the trade, and care for the animals.
As many as 5,750 animals, including 5,000 birds and nearly 400 members of endangered species under the international CITES convention, were impounded since last October, according to the Wildlife Conservation Office of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP).
According the office’s director, Dr. Kanchana Nittaya, Thailand is experiencing an increasing trend of wildlife being trafficked and traded. The increasingly sophisticated criminal organisations are drawing on new technology, such as online platforms and social media, as a new venue to trade wildlife.
The country was slow to recognise wildlife smuggling as a serious crime, allowing it to grow as a major transit point for wildlife trafficking in the region. But along with other member countries of Asean, Thailand has been pushing forward efforts to suppress the activity, which is now addressed as a priority crime in the region under Asean’s framework.
With strengthened collaboration and intelligence, additional suppression efforts and interceptions have been observed in recent years. As a result, wild animals have been increasingly impounded in the country
Kanchana said impounded wild animals are both native and non-native species. They are quarantined for health checks and to ensure they are not carrying diseases. Records are then produced and the animals categorised.
If the confiscated specimen is non-living, such as being an animal’s carcasses, it is destroyed under authorisation. If alive, it is sent to a wildlife-breeding centre, depending on the capacity of the venues.
So far, the office has 25 wildlife breeding centres, including in Khao Prathap Chang, to help take care of the animals.
“Our wildlife breeding centres in the past were principally tasked with wildlife research and breeding. However, as the number of impounded animals increased as a result, they were tasked with helping take care of them while court cases proceeded,” said Kanchana.
Bunpot Maleehuan, the chief at Khao Prathap Chang, said his centre began to receive impounded animals around 10 years ago when the first batches, including orangutans arrived.
Impounded animals continue to arrive at the centre, posing a new challenge for Bunpot’s staff to deal with.
Of around 560 animals, up to 80 per cent are impounded animals, he said. The latest batch was 85 tigers seized from the Tiger Temple, locally known as Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua, in adjacent Kanchanaburi province.
Like other wildlife breeding centres that are additionally tasked with care for impounded animals, Bunpot’s is tasked to ensure welfare of the creatures, as they are still impounded properties related to court cases.
The centre staff must care for these animals until the court cases are over. After that, it depends on the court’s verdict whether the animals are returned to their previous owners or declared public assets.
According to the office’s guidelines, if the “public assets” animals are native, they would have their health treated, be subject to research or breeding, or released to the wild.
Unfortunately in the case of non-native species, if their owners lose their court case and they are seized as public assets, they would remain at the centres, being fed until they died.
In the cases where nobody steps up to claim ownership over them or the police fail to arrest anyone, the animals are fed by the centres for five years before being labelled as public assets for further management, said Bunpot.
According to the office, in some cases origin countries contact the department to ask for return of the impounded animals, which is considered on a case-by-case basis. The office’s director Kanchana said only rarely is such action taken, noting it is not legally binding among countries concerned.
“All this comes back to the demand created by consumers. I try to think positively that people don’t know that they should not ‘consume’ wildlife in any way, including raising them as pets. If we can ensure the public learns more about the issue, it would help relieve a lot of the burden,” said Kanchana.
The department has a future plan to separate the facility to ensure impounded animals get needed care, she added. So far, only one separated facility has been set up, a recent one in Nakhon Nayok province.
Wild animal health
The overall health of the impounded animals is also a major challenge, and the office is paying serious attention to this, says Kanchana.
The health of wild animals has become an emphasis of the department since the emergence of H5N1 in the early 2000s led them to realise the danger of newly emergent diseases. The department has invested in this area for some years now, Kanchana says.
Veterinarians as well as husbandry staff have been recruited over the years, and there are now around 30 veterinarians sent to stations at the wildlife breeding centres and regional protected area offices nationwide.
However, they need even more such staff, said Kanchana.
At Khao Prathap Chang, the task to take care of animal health falls on the shoulder of a young veterinarian, 27-year-old Jidtavilai Katibuncha.
Every time animals arrive at the centre, Jidtavilai leads the small team of animal health staff to inspect their health and check for possible diseases. Then they produce records for them and quarantine them for at least 30 days before moving them to a nursery or rehabilitation sites.
Realising that the impounded animals will carry both mental and physical wounds, Jidtavilai pays specially attention, ensuring husbandry staff and caretakers closely monitor their behaviour changes on a daily basis. They need to detect any irregularities in time and quickly provide care or treatment.
Jidtavilai now has more support at the centre, with an introduction of an annual animal health plan that includes sub-plans for the impounded animals.
For Nobita and Shizuka, meanwhile, it took them at least a year to adjust to the new environment and become more relaxed. That required investment of a lot of energy by these young animal-health staff.
Mayuree, who has been taking care of them since the very first days at the centre, does not expect anything much for the animals, except that one day they can return to the wild.
“They are wildlife that belongs to the forest. I just wish that they can return to the forest one day, although I don’t know when that time will come or if it will come.
“What I try to do is to keep their instincts intact by not staying too close – although we are more and more connected – in the hope that one day they will return to the forest where they belong,” said the young Mayuree.