Phu Khiao-Thung Ka Mang wildlife sanctuary. (Photo by Apinya Wipatayotin)

The golden-tinged sunlight was dimming. A group of 50 hog deer sauntered around a wide field, pausing to eat shoots of grass. Forest officials had recently burned the field, making way for new grass which will provide a source of food for the population of over 200 hog deer living in Phu Khiao-Thung Ka Mang Wildlife Sanctuary in Chaiyaphum province.

Phu Khiao-Thung Ka Mang and another eight wildlife sanctuaries covering more than 3 million rai are known as one of the most fertile forest complexes in the Northeast, which is the habitat of a variety of wildlife, including tigers, elephants and guars as well as fertile plant species.

Many new species of plant and wildlife have been discovered here, such as Rhacophorus reinwardtii or black-webbed tree frog and Khorat slender skink.

Decades before, Phu Khiao-Thung Ka Mang had faced encroachment by locals who practised illegal logging and poaching. The nadir was between 1967 and 1970, when three Sumatran rhinos, a species on the verge of extinction, were killed by villagers at Thung Ka Mang.

The Royal Forest Department registered 975,000 rai as a wildlife sanctuary in 1972.

King Bhumibol saw the forest while taking a helicopter ride in 1982 and realised its potential as the perfect place for a wildlife home. Related agencies together with the military cooperated to protect and preserve the wildlife habitat following the late king’s recommendations.

The following year, Queen Sirikit paid a visit to the sanctuary and released wildlife into the forest, including four hog deer. King Bhumibol also discharged more six hog deer in 1987.

“Our initial aim was to increase a population of those species close to extinction, and we have met with considerable success. Effective forest site management, fertile land and a ban on hunting are the keys to boosting the population of wildlife in the reserve,” said Kanjana Nitaya, director of the Wildlife Conservation Office.

She explained that Thung Ka Mang was the first place to release hog deer into the wild. She said that it took a certain period of time to ascertain whether they could be able to adjust living in the wildlife sanctuary, adding that Thung Ka Mang was a former habitat for the hog deer.

But as a result of heavy forest encroachment and hunting, the hog deer population plummeted to its lowest level, with only a few left at the time.

Due to its risk of extinction, it was added to the list of wildlife in need of preservation. The great success of returning the hog deer to nature and the impressive increase in the size of its population in the wild led to the species being shifted to the wildlife protection list in 1992.

Ms Kanjana said that the department’s top priority is to increase the wildlife population, with all 24 wildlife breeding centres working hard to ensure that not only are the numbers increased but also to maintain the genetic variety in order to prevent the deleterious effects of inbreeding.

Wildlife conservationists and academics have raised concerns about the risk of inbreeding among endangered species that has led to a reduced gene pool and weakened their ability to survive in the forest.

A major problem stemmed from the fact that the forest had been divided into separate zones due to increasing human activity, impeding the ability of wild animals to move and mate with other members of their species beyond their group. Mating was restricted within limited groups, causing a decrease in genetic variation.

Sompong Boonsanong, chief of Phu Khiao Wildlife breeding centre, said the station has continued breeding the hog deer by borrowing some of the swine from other wildlife breeding centres in a bid to strengthen their genes, adding that the station has released new deer to widen the gene pool in the sanctuary.

He said that previously the station had many donated hog deer from the beginning of its wildlife breeding programme with around 10 hog deer born per year.

The majority of them are returned to the wildlife sanctuary while others are sent to wildlife sanctuaries in the North and the West.

“The station also has an outstanding record in breeding fowls, with over a thousand discharged into the forest, including peacocks, Siamese fireback and bar-tailed pheasants and white-winged ducks,” said Mr Sompong.

He added that wildlife officials have discussed the possibility of releasing tigers into the sanctuary, as there are traces of wild tigers in the forest, but the decision must await further study.

According to the department, it has discharged 24,208 animals into the forest since 2011. Wild fowl and birds account for 90%.

Deer, foxes, turtles and guar make up the remainder.

Ms Kanjana said the Wildlife Conservation Office has focused on the number of wild animals discharged into the forest as the key indicator of its success, but she conceded that such a measure is not always the right approach.

She said her agency is adjusting its strategy by focusing on animals that need to see an increase in population size in a natural setting.

“From now on we will not put so much emphasis on numbers released into the wild. We will focus more on maintaining population levels in the sanctuary,” she said.

She added that the office is considering bringing back griffon to Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, a Unesco world heritage site in Uthai Thani province.

The last group died from poisoning many years ago.

She said the office is now working on ways to return the species back to its old habitat.

Multicoloured squirrels are the next species slated for the breeding programme.

Ms Kanjana said aggressive hunting had reduced the number of the animal that usually lives in the northern and western forest complexes.

High demand in the market is another factor leading to their drop in numbers in the wild.

all creatures great and small: A wildlife breeding centre close to Phu Khiao Wildlife Sanctuary, where many hog deer and wild birds and fowls are bred before being released into the forest.

munch away: A group of hog deer enjoy eating young grass at Phu Khiao-Thung Ka Mang Wildlife Sanctuary in Chaiyaphum in the late afternoon. PHOTOS: supplied


News Reporter

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