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Gibbon pretenders

May 10, 2009

In quick succession we’ve had Coronation Day (much excitement, bands, parades and sanuk – my favourite Thai word, meaning FUN!), Buddha’s birthday (candle-lit processions, beautiful robes, more sanuk), and also national tree day. Admittedly, this wasn’t an event on the same scale and splendour as the other two, but it was worth noting if only because the government pledged to double the country’s forestry cover within eight years.

That’s an impressive undertaking for any nation, but in Southeast Asia it’ll be nothing short of miraculous. Thailand was 70% forest as recently as the 1960s, but ruthless logging saw this fall to 20% by 2000. Disappearance of the woods went hand-in-hand with the extinction in the country of several species, including the Javan rhino.

Logging was banned in 1989, after a disaster in which hundreds of cut timber washed down deforested slopes burying villages and killing more than 100 people.

But illegal logging is rife, especially in the north of the country where poorly paid forestry officials, often earning less than 100B per day (£2) are expected to take on armed poachers and illicit timber and wildlife trade run by Chinese mafia. Unsurprisingly, forestry officials were sacked only this week for killing and smoking (for preservation – not to get high) langur monkeys.

Thai government intentions are laudable: the country has more “protected” forestry than any other SE Asian nation. And now it intends to raise the percentage of forested land to 40% of the country by 2017.

Thai people are pretty switched on environmentally. They have led successful protests against hydrodams, against the Chinese “rapid-busting” intentions (to allow navigation by big boats) for the small stretch of Mekong that passes through the country, and there are regular anti-pollution protests, which are only out-classed by the protests against selling counterfeit goods (a bit like shutting down the coal industry in Newcastle – Oh, yes, I remember…).

Environmental preservation is an uphill struggle for any developing nation. But 21st century tourism, for which the natural environment is a major attraction, may provide the lifeline that has failed to materialise from international carbon trading agreements – avoided deforestation is still not eligible for credits.

Yesterday, we visited a forest 100km outside Chiang Mai, which has been wired up with ziplines. It was a fantastic experience. Being so high in the canopy – and flying through it – offers a great new perspective, the only sounds are birds, gibbon calls (although all we saw of them were swinging branches) and the screams of terrified zipliners.

The company (Flight of the Gibbon) employs ex-poachers as guides and guardians of a forest that everyone has a vested interest in, and 10% of profits go towards conservation projects, which include a gibbon breed and release programme.

Contrast this with another “wildlife attraction” in Chiang Mai, in which you can pay to cuddle a baby or adult tiger. This being a personal dream, we went to investigate. One look at the drugged animals lying sedated in tiny cages was enough to sicken anyone. We turned heel and fled. Tiger cuddling will have to remain an unspoilt dream.

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