Feature Story

Cooperation for coexistence in Thailand

January 6, 2020

Eastern sarus crane
From 2011 until present, up to 119 cranes have been released to the wetland areas of Huay Chorakae Mak and Sanam Bin reservoirs in Buriram Province. The release of the eastern sarus crane back into the wild is a landmark success of wildlife conservation. Photo: UNDP Thailand

Yielding success for three endangered species in Thailand, conserving productive habitats, and finding solutions that are mutually beneficial for people & planet

Thailand has undergone rapid development over the last three decades, lifting many of its people from poverty. This has involved rapid industrialization, urbanization, and intensification of agricultural production and fishing.

This growth has been possible due to Thailand’s extensive supply of natural resources, but has resulted in land degradation, loss of natural habitats, and increased water and air pollution, along with their attendant human health impacts.

For Thailand’s rich biodiversity and the survival of endangered species (575 globally threatened species on IUCN Red List and 1,058 nationally threatened species on Thailand’s Country Red List) the developments of the past 30 years pose two particular threats: 1) habitat loss and degradation, and 2) over-exploitation of natural resources.

Not on our watch

In response, the project, Conserving Habitats for Globally Important Flora and Fauna in Production Landscapes, has been working with a dual purpose: to strengthen policy and institutional responses for endangered species conservation (making laws and policies stronger and more effective, improving coordination and monitoring of critical habitats for endangered species); and to conserve the habitats of three endangered species in three areas.

This pilot project further endeavours to provide clear examples of endangered species conservation in the context of the national-level framework. 

These three species are the eastern sarus crane Antigone antigone sharpii, the spoon-billed sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus [SBS], and the water onion Crinum thaianum – colloquially referred to as "water lily."

Common ground

Since 2016, the project has been working to improve conservation via cooperation between the Office of National Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Zoological Park Organization (ZPO), and the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with funding through the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

To halt extinction, cooperation is imperative.

This project from its foundation is based on collaboration between various community-based organizations and local food producers, all working with the same vision: to save endangered species while maintaining the productivity and sustainability of production landscapes.

Specifically, the project has worked to promote harmony and symbiosis for eastern sarus cranes and local rice farmers, SBS and sea salt harvesters, water onions and local communities.

These collaborations are vital in ensuring the survival of these species. Local food producers - rice farmers, fruit and rubber orchard owners, and sea salt harvesters all play an important role in this process.

The comeback crane

At present, success stories for endangered species are too rare globally.

For over 40 years, the eastern sarus crane, which is assessed as vulnerable to extinction on the IUCN Red List, was thought to be extinct in Thailand due to habitat loss and damage to its natural habitat. The bird is noteworthy due its "vulnerable" conservation status and revenance in Thailand, but is also literally prominent insofar as it is the tallest flying bird, standing up to 1.8m in height. The birds preferentially nest on wetlands, but will nest in rice paddies if wetlands aren’t available.

With project support, the Korat Zoo and the Zoological Park Organization (ZPO), in collaboration with the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation, developed a successful breeding and reintroduction programme. To date, they have successfully reintroduced the species into their natural environment at three wetland complexes in Buriram province.

Despite a successful reintroduction with multiple years of breeding - leading to 12 fledged juveniles now having been released to the wild to date – the crane’s habitat areas are not currently listed as conservation zones, which can give rise to overlapping of animal habitats with agricultural production areas. The cranes will remain critically endangered without good cooperation from locals, coupled with legal protection for habitats and integration into planning and sector practices. 

That’s why the project has been supporting local communities to develop organic farming processes that reduce threats to cranes around the wetland areas of Huay Chorakae Mak Reservoir, Huay Talad Reservoir, and Sanam Bin Reservoir in Buriram province. These wetlands are targeted areas of the project and vital habitats for the eastern sarus crane. 

"The crucial task is to ensure how humans and the eastern sarus crane can co-exist. What we need to do is to include the crane into sustainable livelihood development," said Nuchjaree Purchkoon, ZPO researcher and c-oordinator of the Conserving Habitats for Globally Important Flora and Fauna in Production Landscapes Project.

Promoting coexistence

Rice paddies that are impacted by bird nesting and feeding will receive reimbursement from the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand and ZPO. As a result, the ecosystem has revived, helped along by chemical-free rice farming. The organic hom mali rice is also branded "sarus rice," showcasing a story of conservation and harnessing sustainability as a value proposition. Although production capacity is still limited depending on weather conditions and water, villagers can sell the rice at better prices, due to higher demand for safe, organic rice.

Farmers who find an eastern sarus crane nest notify the village headman and receive compensation for protecting the nest. Such activities have had a direct positive impact on the crane’s survival and breeding success. Through the project, ZPO is working more closely with the Buriram community and adopting a result-based planning and management approach, resulting in more effective protection for the eastern sarus crane.

The status of the eastern sarus crane on Thailand’s Red List has changed from "extinct in the wild" to "critically endangered," thanks in large part to the successful reintroduction program at Buriram.

Shorebirds and salt farming

The critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper (SBS) is a small migratory wader that breeds in north-eastern Russia and winters in South Asia and Southeast Asia; small numbers are recorded every year in the inner Gulf of Thailand.

It is estimated that there are only less than 400 spoon-billed sandpipers worldwide.

The main factors driving the species’ decline are habitat loss in its breeding, passage, and wintering grounds, compounded by hunting, and the effects of climate change. Fledging success and juvenile recruitment are also very low, leading to fears that the population is ageing rapidly.

In Thailand, the lack of conservation-focused management of mud flat areas is the single gravest threat to the SBS. These threats take the form of ongoing conversions of traditional salt pans to deeper sided aquaculture ponds, changes in the management regimes of salt pans, and complete conversion of land use due to industrialization and urbanization.

The Khok Kham seashore community is a major habitat for SBS and many other migratory shorebirds. 

This part of the project has enhanced management of the spoon-billed sandpiper conservation zone, and established the Khok Kham Bird Conservation and Learning Center in Samutsongkram Province.

Mutually beneficial

"Traditional salt farming is disappearing from Thailand fast. We need to seek methods to sustainable salt farming since everyone still needs salt... If salt farming is gone from Khok Kham Community, so will the spoon-billed sandpiper." – Duangjan Kladkleep, salt farmer and leader of Khok Kham Community female group.

The good news is mudflats in Khok Kham salt-farming community are rich in food resources for SBS and over 50 other species of shorebirds. Salt farming methods and processes have created ecosystems particularly well-suited for feeding and sheltering migratory shorebirds. The bad news is there are just 28 salt farmers left in the Khok Kham community. If salt farming disappears, it will render the return of SBS unlikely. The recognition of symbiosis between bird and farmer is key to preserving biodiversity via sustainable development.

As part of promoting this mutually beneficial coexistence, the project promoted marketing of the salt products through e-commerce training to the salt famers and coordinating events to highlight their salt products. Now the Khok Kham female group can earn income from selling various salt products including the flagship salt flower, which is the salt that forms as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates.

The return of the River Queen

The Thai water onion is a rare, endangered endemic plant that can only be found in running streams in Ranong and Phang Nga provinces. Dubbed "Queen of the River," the flower blossoms between October and December. It is an important species in its aquatic environs, providing habitat and food for many species of marine fauna. The water onion is threatened by water dredging, unsustainable collection from the wild, and changes to river flows and soil erosion. 

"We cannot talk about conservation without addressing livelihoods and community development. We can effectively conserve the water onion together with income generation for the community through agrotourism."– Amarin Prasompol, local resident of Ban Rai Nai, Tambon Nakha, Suk Samran District, Ranong. 

To ensure the return of the River Queen, the project supported stakeholders to revive water onion growth in natural habitats by preserving canals and promoting organic agriculture to ensure that the area’s natural habitats are suitable for sustainable growth. Raising awareness of the importance of the water onion among the locals helped reduce threats and damage to the plants’ natural habitat.

In Ranong, Water Onion Day is held every year with cross-sectoral cooperation to raise awareness, beginning in 2015 as part of the natural habitat conservation process. 

As part of the public participatory conservation process, a Water Onion Learning and Conservation Center was set up. Ecotourism areas were also identified, to preserve the water onion along with the community’s full complement of flora including mangosteen, longkong, and coffee. A nature study route along Khlong Rua canal, where water onion plants are regrown, has also been agreed upon by the community residents and is in the process of being officially announced.

Coordination and cooperation

Thanks to strong c-operation between agencies and stakeholders at all levels, the project has shown that managing critical habitat for three endangered species can achieve results for wider ecosystems without impinging on productive landscapes and farmer livelihoods.

Building on this work, the Office of National Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning in Thailand is proposing to list new migratory bird flyway sites under the East Asian–Australasian Flyway, in Buriram and Khok Kham.

This story was originally published on Exposure by UNDP Ecosystems & Biodiversity. Photos: UNDP Thailand and UNSplash.