Encroaching on male territory
Patrolling the forest with a gun was not the job of Weeraya Ochakull’s dreams. But she was offered the opportunity about 18 years ago, and the present chief of Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary (western zone) in Kanchanaburi feels the work has made her a strong person who truly believes in law enforcement.
“I never thought that I would have the chance to take care of this sanctuary. When I visited I immediately fell in love with its natural diversity. I never dreamed of going this far,” said 45-year-old Weeraya.
The western zone of the sanctuary covers 1.3 million rai of forest, and connected to the eastern zone in Tak is 948,438 rai of forest. Along with Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary it is a Unesco World Heritage Site, encompassing about 3.8 million rai of wilderness. The two protected forests form the core of the Western Forest Complex, the largest conservation area in mainland Southeast Asia, made up of 17 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Threatened species are found among the rich diversity of wild animals, such as the Malayan tapir, Fea’s barking deer and clouded leopard. This biodiversity also lures wildlife poachers and illegal loggers. Thungyai also has a problem with local farmers expanding their land.
To protect the forest, rangers need to regularly carry out patrols while the chief is always on duty.
“Chief Weeraya always patrolled with us during the first couple of years after she was appointed,” said a ranger at Thungyai. She has been known for her straightforward approach and problem-solving attitude.
At present, Weeraya oversees about 200 staff, mostly male rangers who scout more than 1,000km a month. Born in Phitsanulok and graduating from the Faculty of Forestry at Kasetsart University, Bangkok, she got her first job at the tourist information centre in Phu Kradueng National Park, Loei. During this time she always followed the park rangers into the forest to collect field data.
She was later assigned to Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park and worked at the headquarters of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation in Bangkok for two years before her life was changed when she moved from a desk job to the forest.
“When I was called back upcountry, I jumped at the opportunity. I never felt like being in the city,” she said. In her late 20s, Weeraya was appointed as one of three chief assistants at Phu Mieng Phu Thong Wildlife Sanctuary in Phitsanulok, and later her boss asked if she wanted to lead the crime suppression unit after the only male chief assistant did not want to take the job. She said, with a determined attitude, that she had no experience of doing such a job but would do her best.
The first big challenge was to be accepted by the experienced male rangers.
The petite, at the time long-haired woman carried her own personal gear, weighing at least 10kg, while patrolling the forest with her crime suppression colleagues. She was physically fit, although a little slower while trekking through the forest than the men. She walked, rested, ate and drank the same way the male rangers did. She also had a camera, notebook and a GPS navigation device. She needed to record everything found in the forest, including animal footprints, and made a mark if the team found a trace of poachers or encroachers.
The team also arrested suspects thought to be breaking the law. Their work went well until one day her team caught four hilltribe people clearing the land for farming. The team of 13 rangers were later surrounded by 200 villagers who demanded the authorities release their people. Hours passed, and the situation became tense.
“My chief ranger asked me if I had a gun or a knife to protect myself in case of being attacked,” she said. “I did not realise that I would ever need a weapon. But without it, I suddenly realised that I was not good enough to be the team leader. I became their burden because I couldn’t take care of myself.”
They finally managed to sneak out. The life and death situation taught her to be tougher and better prepared. Weeraya spent her own money to buy a revolver right after the incident.
“The pistol was not for me to feel safe, but for showing my team that whatever happened, they did not have to worry about me. I could take care of myself,” she said.
During the seven years she worked in the sanctuary at Phitsanulok, her team caught hundreds of people carrying out illegal farming and wildlife poaching. She lost count of the number of court cases she initiated. In return, rangers faced countless attacks. The worst situation was when a ranger was shot dead by a wildlife poacher while running after him and in another incident one of her team was badly wounded in an armed ambush.
“I knew I was hated by those villagers who broke the law. Some people called me crazy and did not know how to be flexible. I did not mind. I made sure they knew that if they did something illegal in protected land, they must be caught and there was no negotiation,” she said.
“Local villagers already received about 10,000 rai of land for farming from the 3rd Army, but they kept expanding their farms to the protected forest area until they had 50,000 rai of land,” she said.
“Sometimes they used old people to clean up the forest area. When we caught them, we were blamed for being heartless and persecuting the poor people. But if I had given a favour to someone, it would have been too difficult for me and my team to work and enforce the law so I always treated everyone equally and enforced the rules.”
As a result of her team’s efforts, the Phu Miang Phu Thong Wildlife Sanctuary reclaimed protected land and limited farmland to areas that were already allocated as such.
Her experiences in Phitsanulok shaped her. When she was promoted to chief of Lam Pao Wildlife Conservation Development and Promotion Station in Kalasin, she also strictly enforced the law. Her team caught illegal loggers, wildlife poachers and demolished illegal developments. Within one year, she had filed a dozen legal cases, the first time in the sanctuary’s history that it had enforced legal action against offenders.
Since being assigned to Thungyai seven years ago, she has never let her guard down. Her 17 ranger teams patrol the forest day and night. Weeraya has submitted more than 10 cases to the courts.
“Fortunately, locals around Thungyai haven’t yet intensively expanded their farms,” she said. “They only rotate to particular areas where they have dug up soil for farming for a century, and even before those areas were announced as part of the wildlife sanctuary. So we have worked with local village chiefs and related parties to try and find a solution where the villagers can live happily together with us.”
Thungyai also has its own issues, such as being understaffed and having a small budget for purchasing equipment and maintaining vehicles. The annual budget, excluding staff salaries, is a little over 1 million baht. The financial support is small when considering the park’s high status and global recognition as a world heritage site.
Sometimes visitors came in with their 4x4 off-road trucks and treated the park as their adventure route. The vehicles’ large wheels destroyed the dirt road while the loud engines disturbed the wildlife.
“When a ranger was unconscious with malaria, we couldn’t take him out from the station by our pickup truck because the road was destroyed. We had to carry him on a motorcycle and tie him to the rider. I felt very sad,” she said.
“We sometimes encounter minority rebel groups along the [Myanmar] border, but we don’t have adequate weapons to protect the lives of our rangers.”
Their responsibilities are bigger than the support they receive from the Royal Forest Department and policymakers. They feel they are forgotten. But their jobs have to be done, even with limited resources. Many people appreciate Weeraya’s toughness. But Weeraya, a humble soul, considers herself lucky.
“No one taught me basic self-defence, how to charge suspects or fire guns. I am only lucky that I have survived so far,” she said.
Her experiences have taught her always to exercise caution. Every day, she wears a large belt with a gun on her left side while on her right side, there is a folded knife, torch and baton. Her hair is now short and she always wears a camouflaged uniform and military boots.
“I have never given in nor given up,” she said. “I will keep protecting our forest. It is the job that I love and I think I am good at. I will do it as long as I’ll be able to.”