While tigers remain an endangered species on a global level, the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in the western mountains of central Thailand holds the largest population of protected tigers in Thailand – and it’s even increasing. Here’s how tiger studies work, and why they are so important.
“Save the tiger, save the earth, for it is the only one we have.”
This is an unknown quote which neatly summarizes the essence of International Tiger Day, also known as World Tiger Day, taking place on the 29th of July every year.
A day which was implemented to spread awareness about the declining number of tigers, as the striped cats are heavily affected by poaching, as well as destruction of forests.
According to India Times, the objectives of Tiger Day are raising awareness, promoting conservation efforts, ending illegal wildlife trade and supporting global tiger initiatives.
In that spirit, we went to visit one of Thailand’s biggest wildlife protection sites – The Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary.
Remarkable about the sanctuary is, that whilst the population of tigers around the world is going down, it is increasing inside Huai Kha Khaeng. But how is that possible?
The answer is simple – it’s all due to good research.
This is how HKK protects the endangered cats, and the ecosystem too.
The functions of Huai Kha Khaeng
The sanctuary was established in 1972 under the Wildlife Conservation Act. Back then the aim was to save Thailand’s last wild buffalo herd, which lived on the banks of the Huai Kha Khaeng River and were threatened with extinction.
But today it covers an area of 2,780 square kilometers to the west in the Uthai Thani province, and is home to way more species – including the largest population of tigers in Thailand.
Besides housing bantengs, butterflies, eagles, tigers and elephants – the sanctuary is also home to both a Breeding Station as well as a Research Station.
Rescued animals come to The Breeding Station to prepare themselves for returning to wildlife. Sometimes, when being rescued, the animals are found separated from their relatives, meaning they might have either forgotten – or never had the opportunity – to know how to instinctively behave in the wild, as they naturally would’ve learnt by their biological caretakers.
However, some animals never make it outside The Breeding Station. Some animals were rescued at such a young age, that they even lack the potential to learn what they are ought to know instictively. In those cases, they are kept at the station, being fully supported by well-educated human caretakers and surrounded by rich forestry, matching their natural habitat.
Those who do re-learn the codes of the jungle are being released into the protected wildlife area inside the Huai Kha Khaeng.
An area which hasn’t always been so protected.
Research combats poaching
Around the turn of the millennium, research became the obvious baseline for combating poaching.
With camera traps around the site, photos could identify the individual tigers based on their skin pattern – and that data became useful.
It all started when a poacher’s lost cell phone was found, containing a picture of a slain tiger and the poacher himself. Proof of the poaching job itself, plus the evidence that the tiger came from HKK, helped officials arrest the perpetrator just a few days later.
“Because of our own research and photos, we could identify the animals and claim they were the ones we had rescued. This meant more fair cases in court, and better protection merits,” Kriskorn Wongkornwuthi, Founder of BioSpearhead, a learning group for young people focusing on biodiversity explains.
The smart system…
Since then, HKK started investing lots of their budget on developing their own internal patrol system – the SMART system (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool).
Patrollers got trained to use new technologies such as GPS and systematic working procedures, so they could collect, record and report critical information in the forests, including threats to wildlife.
This combination of law enforcement and data management meant they could track the routes of poachers, and thereby monitor the hunting investigations of the international poaching network.
Maintain mankind at all kind
Besides, having men physically around the site allows the patrollers to be close to the ground, giving them better chances at recording data, as opposed to potential sensing technologies.
And it all seemed to work.
In fact, HKK became a hotspot for training other patrols around the nation, as their method was announced to be one of the world’s most effective.
But only because researchers kept studying the wildlife at the same time, Wongkornwuthi stresses:
“The patrol team and researchers do their duties and if the jobs work we find that the number of wildlife is increasing and the poaching cases should be fewer. But when measuring success, both sides must be considered jointly. It’s useless if you arrest a lot of poaching cases but do not know how much wildlife there is,” he elaborates.
Scientific value over spiritual value
The founder emphasizes that poaching today is also not what people might think it is.
“Poaching today is a well-organized international crime. It’s a misconception if someone believes that poachers are simply daring people from regular villages, looking for food for their homes,” Wongkornwuthi adds.
Although illegal, poachers might believe that tiger bones or likewise are of high medical or spiritual value. What would you tell these people?
“We only see it from a scientific viewpoint. We acknowledge tigers’ value in nature – but not in spiritual nor in other terms,” volunteer Sebastian Tayut Fahey.
Why tigers are important
Many people perceive tigers as nothing but a dangerous animal, but they play a very important role in the ecosystem – and they’re not dangerous at all.
Dr. Achara Simcharoen, chief of The Thailand Tiger Project and leading tiger researcher for the Western Forest Tiger Ecology Study project, explains how tigers balance out the food web.
First of all, tigers only hunt when hungry – and they stop when they are full, leaving leftovers for several other animals to benefit from, and maintains a natural balance within the quantity of prey. An important job, for an imbalance could create an unfortunate loop.
If there are too many prey, that could lead to overconsumption of vegetation, which then affects habitats, which then affects the rest of the wildlife.
“So by conserving the big cat, it will be easier to detect what it takes to protect them – so they can keep contributing to a healthy ecosystem,” the tiger researcher emphasizes.
Huai Kha Khaeng have done research on tigers since 2004, and in just two decades they have experienced remarkable progress. They started out with 46 discovered tigers in 2007, but due to developing equipment and knowledge, today they are able to track and study more than 100 tigers.
Naturally, simply discovering more tigers within the sanctuary, plus rescuing tigers from the outside adds to the number. But keeping them protected and being able to breed new families plays an important role too.
Behind the scenes of a tiger study
In order to receive data about the wild tigers, one must actually leave them alone as much as possible.
“We have a collar system, where we track the tigers whilst maintaining our distance from them. In order to get the collar on, we do need to trap them once, but based on their gender and weight we give them the right amount of sedative, so we can keep the procedure as stress-free for the tiger as possible,” Simcharoen explains.
Tigers are not supposed to be around humans – and they also do not want to. They have much greater senses than humans, and can detect us from afar, making it easy for them to avoid us.
That’s why tigers are not perceived as dangerous at all – which is otherwise a common assumption.
“Tigers know their natural prey well. They only hunt animals with four legs, and wouldn’t naturally attack humans, as they can hear that we only walk on two legs,” volunteer Fayhey adds.
So to keep them wild, researchers don’t actually spend time with the tigers besides when collaring them.
Instead, there are many other ways to collect data about the wild cats.
Footprints, tiger spray and carcass search
Simcharoen looks at an app on her phone. The app lets her know that a tiger recently spent three hours at the same spot, close to the Breeding Station.
“Let’s go,” the female tiger researcher states, giving her assistant the coordinates to the spot as she prepares to go in the truck.
“We want to know why it was at that spot for so long.”
Stepping out of the car when the bumpy road doesn’t let her go any further, time is spent looking around the area before going directly to the coordinates.
All eyes are on the ground, as the researchers start speaking quieter whilst pointing towards the ground.
The sand around the prints is a different color than the print itself, meaning the tigers paws were moist, but more importantly – that the footprint is fresh.
A measure band is taken out of a pocket, and stretched out closely above the print. The size of the paw will determine its gender.
Other members of the team sniff through their nostrils. They look around for semi-wet trees, searching for what they call “tiger spray,’ which is when a tiger sprays a urinal liquid on trees in order to claim territory. The smell is significant enough to be smelled with just the human nose.
The team continues through the forest, using big knives to cut through leaves and branches on their way to the coordinates. But then they stop.
A big silver tool is taken out of a bag and folded out. It’s a radio signal that tells us how close we are to a tiger. The higher the frequency and faster the beep – the closer we are to one. Which is not the point.
“800 meters,” is being announced.
Quietly, with a focused expression on their faces, the team goes on. As they reach the coordinates, binoculars are rapidly being swung up before their faces. There are some nodding, some moans of comprehension.
Bantengs. And many of them. No wonder a tiger was here for so long, probably examining a potential prey.
But a carcass was nowhere to be found. It would have otherwise been the absolute ideal, being a data hotspot. Knowing a lot about a prey will tell a lot about the habits of the tiger – and that is what we want.
However, Simcharoen is not disappointed about the trip, despite not finding a dead prey:
“The coordinates were close to a village, and I am never disappointed to go out and symbolically represent ourselves to the outside areas, to remind them that we are here, and that the area is meant to be protected.”
The future of humans and tigers coexisting
As the team talk about the future and the obstacles they face, it is pretty clear. They simply wish for more awareness. More education. More people with a passion for wildlife, who can join the team and help maintain the protected areas – and keep the research going.
This is also why the organization BioSpearhead cooperates with the Breeding Station within HKK.
Here they have the opportunity to take in young scholars and students to show them what protected wildlife really looks like, and how their research works. In other words; the scholars are given a chance to develop compassion for wildlife.