Sunday, 4 May 2008

Crackdown on traffickers strains Thailand's wildlife centres

Crackdown on traffickers strains Thailand's wildlife centres
May 4, 2008

RATCHABURI, Thailand (AFP) — Staff at one of Thailand's 23 state wildlife rescue centres are getting good at scrimping by.

The tigers are eating cheap chicken rather than expensive beef, and keepers only let the big cats mate one day a year to limit the number of new mouths to feed.

If the situation gets too dire, the centre's director Pornchai Patumrattanathan says, they will feed their captive wild boars to the tigers.

"We can stop other plans, but we cannot stop animals from eating," Pornchai said, wandering between the rusting cages at the conservation and breeding centre in Thailand's western Ratchaburi province.

Thailand, with its highly developed infrastructure and location, is a transportation centre for the thriving illicit animal trade in Southeast Asia.

As Thai police crackdown on the illegal trafficking of animals, the captured creatures are putting a strain on the country's wildlife centres.

The number of animals being confiscated -- mostly endangered birds -- has more than doubled to 8,300 in 2007 from 4,000 in 2005, according to Thailand's Wildlife Conservation Office.

Thai law requires confiscated animals to be held until a court closes the trafficking case, which Pornchai says can take anywhere between nine months and five years.

Even if an illegal trader evades arrest, the state keeps the animal for five years while investigating, he said.

All this costs money, and the office's budget for 2008 is eight million baht (253,000 dollars). But it needs 17 million baht to deal with the flood of animals, according to office director Samart Sumanochitraporn.

"For the past few years, the budget hasn't been enough," Samart said. "These animals are expensive."

The Thai government has instead asked the conservation centres to cut their budgets by 20 percent this year, Samart said.

Pornchai says he cannot lop off a fifth of his 1.3-million-baht budget for the animals' food and medicine. He has already spent it all in the first five months of the fiscal year, forcing the centre to buy food and supplies on credit.

The centre tries to lower costs by growing its own fruit and collecting leaves and grass twice a day, but that is hardly enough to provide for the 523 animals in the 22-year-old Ratchaburi centre.

The crowded sanctuary is home to a menagerie that runs from sun bears to an angonoka, or ploughshare, tortoise, one of the most endangered animals with only an estimated 400 remaining in the world.

Pangolins, trafficked into China as a lucky snack, had to be set free because centres have not been able to keep them alive in captivity.

Snakes also go free because they are too abundant -- police can net as many as 300 pythons in a single bust.

Eighty percent of the animals at Pornchai's centre were confiscated and the rest were born there, donated or captured.

The centre specialises in breeding big cats but has had to limit the tigers' mating because of tight funds.

"If we breed too many, it will be too much for the budget because they eat too much," he said. "But this is a breeding centre, so what about our job?"

William Schaedla, director of conservation organisation WWF in Thailand, acknowledges the system is not perfect, but says it beats the alternatives. He says some countries in Asia kill or sell confiscated animals.

"You have dozens of animals and you don't know where they came from. Do you do the decent thing and put them in a holding facility while you try to sort things out, or do you do the easy thing and get rid of them?" Schaedla said.

"The Thais are trying very hard to look after them."
The inflow of animals also has the centre's keepers dealing with creatures they have never worked with before.

Last year they had to rearrange cages to house 53 orangutans trafficked out of Indonesia.

And despite no experience with elephants, the centre became home to a baby elephant nine months ago and now it is advising a centre in southern Thailand how to care for a new calf.
The majority of the animals confiscated from traffickers will never return to the wild, Pornchai says. After so long in captivity, it could be dangerous to release them.

"I wish my job didn't exist because if people didn't traffic animals they wouldn't need to bring them to me," Pornchai said.
"These animals are not happy to stay in the cages