When a ranger falls in the forest

The scarcity of Siamese rosewood is driving up prices and giving rise to increasingly organised and dangerous illegal logging gangs like the one that gunned down a young national park officer earlier this month

On the evening of March 14 in the deep forest of Pang Sida National Park, a ranger was shot dead in an encounter with a group transporting illegally logged Siamese rosewood. At the same time in Bangkok 300km away, international conservationists were wrapping up a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which gave greater protection to the tree which is rapidly disappearing from Thai forests.

Thaweesak Chomyong was a 33-year-old former paramilitary border patrol ranger stationed in Kanchanaburi province who returned to his small village in Sa Kaeo province near the park late last year to help care for his ageing parents. He was soon hired as a park ranger on a temporary basis with a salary of 7,500 baht a month. Much of his work consisted of conducting patrols through the rugged terrain of the national park, looking for illegal loggers, encroachers and so on. It's a demanding job, but his military training prepared him for the rigours and he never thought of quitting.

On March 13, Thaweesak and five other rangers, along with two wildlife experts from non-governmental organisations, went into the forest to monitor conservation efforts to protect tigers in the park. Before they left, they were warned by the park chief, Nuwat Leelapata, and other staff that they might encounter illegal loggers along the way as they would be on a route commonly used to smuggle rosewood, known in Thai as phayung, out of the park. The rangers were equipped with HK33 rifles, but had a limited supply of ammunition.

On March 14 at midday the team detected tracks made by two-wheeled contraptions that were probably being used to push heavy loads through the forest. The rangers decided to split into two groups, one to monitor the tigers and the other to follow the tracks. Thaweesak joined the second group.

Led by experienced park ranger Choo Buphangam, the team eventually spotted some men conveying logged rosewood through the forest on the two-wheelers. The poachers spotted the rangers at the same time, and an exchange of gunfire ensued. All of the illegal loggers managed to escape, but Thaweesak lay dying on the ground from a bullet wound to his back. For one night Thaweesak's body was left lying on a piece of rosewood. It was not until the evening of March 15 that the rangers were able to bring his body from the forest and a cremation ceremony was arranged.

ILLEGAL TRADE INTENSIFYIN

REST IN PEACE: Thaweesak’s mother, Dueang, holds his photo during the funeral ceremony at the family home.

GIllegally logged Siamese rosewood is almost never purchased by Thais, but instead is smuggled out of the country. Many Thais regard rosewood as a sacred tree which should only be used to make religious furniture or edifices. In the past, Siamese rosewood grew in many areas of the country, but is now confined to four key forest zones in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries which sometimes border neighbouring countries. It takes at least 100 years for a seedling to grow into an adult tree. The scarcity and difficulties faced in growing the trees have made prices skyrocket, and the gangs are willing to risk getting caught, or to hire people who would be. One two-metre long piece of the rosewood can be sold for 40,000 baht or more.

Illegal logging reportedly intensified in the Northeast a few years ago in line with increased demand from China. Logging of Siamese rosewood is labour intensive because the trees are usually scattered about and not concentrated in groves.

Manopat Huamuangkaew, chief of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, said Thaweesak's death is tragic proof that those involved in illegal logging, especially of rosewood, are becoming more brazen, violent and organised.

''It's not like in the past, when only a few people were involved. These people are well armed and dangerous,'' he said.

The Parks Department has come up with an initial report detailing how logging gangs fell the trees and get them out of the forest and the country. The report says there are four main groups responsible for the illegal logging. The first is made up of Lao and Vietnamese investors who deliver the rosewood to buyers in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The second is led by Thai investors who buy the logged rosewood from villagers in forest areas. The third comprises Cambodians who illegally cross the border into Thai territory to cut down the trees. Park officials say that this group in particular is known to be heavily armed.

Commonly 10 to 20 armed guards provide protection to the loggers. Thai villagers sometimes help them locate the wood.

The last group is made up of people from Laos who operate in a similar manner to the Cambodians but are not as heavily armed.

The report says the wood is smuggled out of the country by at least four different routes (see graphic, Page 3), with the final destination usually southern China. Sometimes the rosewood is taken out of the country via a seaport in eastern Thailand, or it may be smuggled across the Laos or Cambodian border, and then routed through Vietnam. The journey is often overland but the Mekong River also may be used to transport the heavy loads of woods over long distances. The rosewood is usually processed into furniture either in Vietnam or China. Quality rosewood furniture is prized in many places, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

A SHIFT TO THE EAST

Parks Department statistics show that from 2006 to earlier this year, park officials made 2,481 arrests for illegal logging _ 1,493 of those involving rosewood, with 23,283 pieces of rosewood seized. The Parks Department estimates that rosewood now grows in Thailand in an area of only about 360,000 rai. In the far Northeast, park officials have stepped up their suppression efforts by joining forces with military units. Several park officials told Spectrum it's widely suspected that the smugglers now are shifting their operations to forest areas in the eastern part of the country, particularly Thap Lan and Pang Sida national parks. Signs of organised illegal logging have also been found in nearby Khao Yai National Park and other forests which, along with the Thap Lan and Pang Sida parks, form the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a world heritage site.

LEFT BEHIND: Apparently the illegal loggers who felled this Siamese rosewood in Thap Lan park were surprised by patrolling forest rangers.

Taywin Meesap, chief of Thap Lan National Park, said that from a few cases of illegal rosewood logging in the national park in the past, park officials have made almost 100 arrests in the last two years.

''The problem has grown more complicated and serious. It's not just a few people going to the forest and cutting a tree; now there are organised crime gangs with sophisticated tactics,'' said Mr Taywin, echoing Parks Department chief Mr Manopat.

Mr Taywin said that the fact that the trees are larger in the eastern forests is probably one of the main reasons the gangs are moving their operations to Thap Lan and nearby parks.

He said that Parks Department investigations indicate some villagers living near forest boundaries have been playing key roles in the illegal logging activity, and some have become investors. Some villagers group together and form teams to supply logs ordered by investors. In some villages, park officials have learned, as many as 10 teams operate to illegally cut down rosewood trees. Once they are given an order, a team, which may include up to 20 members, goes into the forest to fill it, with some of members acting as lookouts. After the logs are felled some members are assigned to transport the heavy logs through the forest while others act as guards.

Mr Taywin said the trend toward heavily armed gangs is very worrying. Park officials at Thap Lan have seized automatic rifles from gang members. Park officials also say some gang members are given drugs so that they can work around the clock.

Once the trees have been felled the logs are moved to various locations _ from bushes behind villages to nearby reservoirs, and progressively further from the park. One park official admitted that once the wood is out of the park, it is beyond their authority to chase after the loggers and make arrests.

Mr Taywin conceded that illegal logging and the transport of the logs would not occur if the loggers didn't have cooperation from outsiders, possibly including ''officials''.

''The logged wood is illegal, so to get it through, they need to 'clear' the route,'' said Mr Taywin. He said he's even investigated his own staff for possible collusion. The park chief said the investigation hasn't been concluded, but that if any officials were found to be involved they would be punished.

In the meantime, he added, park officials have stepped up patrols and are trying to forge better relations with villagers around the forest. Those providing tips may be rewarded. Local participation and cooperation, Mr Taywin said, is the best way to address the problem.

JOINT EFFORT NEEDED

SURVIVING GIANT: An aged ‘phayung’, or Siamese rosewood stands tall in Pang Sida, for now.

Back at Pang Sida National Park, where ranger Thaweesak was slain, park chief Mr Nuwat agreed that the gangs are getting more organised and deadly. Mr Nuwat was Mr Taywin's assistant at Thap Lan before he was made the park chief at Pang Sida. He said there is not much rosewood at Pang Sida compared with other forests, but the fact that it is close to the Thai-Cambodian border probably encourages illegal logging. He speculated that Cambodians may have been involved in the incident that took Thaweesak's life because empty packages of Cambodian cigarettes were found at the scene.

He added that the gangs at Pang Sida operate in much the same way as they do in other forests _ there is a division of labour between the loggers and the ''protectors''.

Mr Nuwat said that the park covers a very large area and officials do their best to protect it. He pointed out that the responsibility to end illegal logging does not end in the forest, as the logs still have to be moved out of the country, which falls under the purview of other state agencies.

''I want to stress that the illegal logging of rosewood is a serious problem,'' said Mr Nuwat. ''The question is, how can these gangs continue their illegal acts despite the fact that we have been working so hard to suppress them? We do need cooperation from other agencies; this is a challenge for all of us.''

During the Cites meeting, Siamese rosewood was moved to Appendix II, meaning trade is regulated and therefore there should be better monitoring of the logged wood that is smuggled out of the country, as well as the processed wood in other countries.

Mr Nuwat said listing rosewood on the Cites list would help protect the trees but it is necessary to devise appropriate measures to ensure the listing is effective. He suggested moving Siamese rosewood to Appendix I, which would absolutely ban trade in the trees.

Mr Nuwat said that park officials are stepping up their patrols and have joined forces with military units, but to solve the problem over the long term a serious and progressive policy is needed. He said stiffer patrols, which are still limited by inadequate resources, are merely an attempt to solve the problem at the end point, while the origin _ the demand for the wood _ is neglected.

''I haven't seen any master plan to help us solve the problem, and in the meantime the gangs keep advancing in their capabilities.

''Progressive action, and education, are needed. Some villagers told me after being arrested that they didn't see any problem with cutting down the trees and asked, 'Why should we care about them?' I would say we are losing this war.''

DRIVEN BY GREED: From far left: Park officials look over seized rosewood in the Huay Sala Wildlife Sanctuary in Si Sa Ket province; bank notes seized at the scene in the wildlife sanctuary; logged rosewood hidden near a reservoir at Khao Phra Viharn National Park, Surin province. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL PARKS, WILDLIFE, AND PLANT CONSERVATION DEPARTMENT

SOMBRE CHIEFS: Pang Sida National Park Chief Nuwat Leelapata, left, and Thap Lan Chief Taywin Meesap were visibly upset at Thaweesak’s cremation.

IN REMEMBRANCE: Parks department chief Manopat Huamuangkaew is presented with a flag at the cremation.

MOURNERS’ MARCH: Park staff and friends pay their last respects to Thaweesak at his cremation.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang
Position: Reporter