part of Thailand has the most species of birds? And where can the
greatest number of rare and threatened birds be found? The answer
is not Huai Kha Khaeng,
Kaeng Krachan, Khao
Yai or any other extensive wilderness as you might suppose.
In both cases, the answer is "Right here, on Bangkok's doorstep!"
Such a counterintuitive
statement deserves qualification. One should not seek to directly
compare say, Huai Kha Khaeng, which supports mainly forest birds,
including hornbills and green peafowl, with the Bangkok area, which
supports more waterbirds and migratory species. This is comparing
chalk and cheese: Both sites, in their own way, are equally important
in the national biodiversity conservation picture. But whereas the
wildlife importance of, say, Huai Kha Khaeng is already recognised,
that of the Bangkok area is not.
The Lower Chao
Phraya Delta, a 20,000km2 expanse of mainly rice paddies, with the
mega-city of Bangkok slap bang in the middle, and extending to the
coastline of the inner gulf, is one of the greatest wetlands in
Southeast Asia. Recognised as an IBA (Important Bird Area) by BirdLife
International, it is the single area most deserving of urgent
conservation attention, yet it is largely ignored by those government
officials whose jobs supposedly concern them with biodiversity conservation.
area holds some of the rarest birds in the world - for instance,
the enigmatic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which breeds at the far tip
of Arctic Northeast Asia, and flies to winter on salt pans and coastal
mudflats on Southeast Asia. Its global population has declined by
80 to 90 per cent in the past 20 years and only 600 to 1,000 individuals
remain, at most. Ask any globe-trotting bird-lister the best place
in the world to see Spoon-billed Sandpipers, and he will unhesitatingly
give you the name of a salt-farming cooperative a few kilometres
from the booming fishing port and industrial centre of Samut Sakhon.
Khok Kham, and its
local conservation club - the guardians of their traditional salt-farming
lifestyle - are world-renowned, thanks to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper,
which finds a safe haven there. Altogether, the Lower Chao Phraya
Delta holds at least 21 threatened and near-threatened birds, and
another 40 species for which the numerical concentrations are internationally
between the freshwater hinterland, and the brackish water coastal
strip in Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon and neighbouring Samut Songkhram
provinces has been irrevocably severed by an ugly and chaotic sprawl
of industry and barracks-like housing along the arterial roads leading
in and out of Bangkok.
west, in more rural Phetchaburi, the gradual transition from inland
freshwater marshland and rice paddy and the brackish flats, ponds,
salt pans and mudflats of the coastal zone remains uninterrupted,
rendering this area of unique interest. With its lower human population
density, rice paddies, scattered farms and hamlets, groves of sugar
palms interrupted by the occasional glittering temple roof, it is
an area of bucolic splendour and serenity. This a mega-destination
for birds and birdwatchers alike, supporting tens (if not hundreds)
of thousands of waterbirds for much of the year. Besides Painted
Storks and Asian Openbills, Indian Cormorants, egrets and Spot-billed
Pelicans, there are large flocks of smaller, insectivorous birds
including pipits and wagtails. Hundreds of pairs of Oriental Pratincoles
- actually a waterbird, but one with short legs and bill, which
makes its living by hawking flying insects - lay their eggs on dry-baked,
post-harvest mud-soil of the ricefields during the hottest months
of March and April.
at least four species of eagles - the globally threatened Greater
Spotted and Imperial Eagles, the Steppe Eagle and Booted Eagle also
frequent rice paddies around Phetchaburi, along with other predatory
birds including several hundred Black Kites and a few tens of Eastern
Marsh Harriers and Pied Harriers.
and eagles are highly migratory, and the habitat they seek out when
fleeing the snowy winters of their Central and North Asian breeding
areas is single crop rice-paddy in Thailand's Lower Central Plain.
Where the ricefields remain fallow for a few months after the single
crop is harvested in the early dry season, the food web is uninterrupted.
A diverse array of herbaceous plants among the harvested rice stubble
sustains many insects, which provide food for frogs, small reptiles
and small insectivorous birds. These, together with rats and other
small mammals, are in turn consumed by the many predatory birds,
while ricefield crabs and small fish in ditches provide abundant
food for waterbirds. The productivity of the system is also enhanced
by the dung of grazing animals - cows and buffaloes - that are turned
out to roam on the fields after harvest.
This used to
be true of ricefields throughout Thailand's Central
Plain, but in recent years, the pattern of growing rice has
been stood on its head. Most areas are now within reach of irrigation
schemes, while better flood control means that rice can be readied
for harvest more rapidly. Instead of a single crop, planted during
the wet season and harvested in December or January, now two or
three crops of high yield rice - chemicals replacing the fertiliser
that nature used to provide for free through the medium of nutrient-rich
silts deposited by floodwaters - are grown. No sooner is one crop
harvested than another is planted, and there is no longer any fallow
irrigated rice now occupies over half of the rice-growing area of
the Central Plains. The uninterrupted emerald expanse may look easy
on the eye, but in reality it is a sterile, pesticide and herbicide-laced
"poison green" biological wasteland. It produces food
for humans, but very little else.
for the effects of changing agricultural land use on birds is clear.
Roughly 20 years ago, before rice-multi-cropping had completely
supplanted traditional mono-cropping around Ayutthaya and Pathum
Thani, roosts of hundreds of black kites, and a few greater spotted
eagles could even be found in sugar palms near the Pathum Thani
Bridge, on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. These concentrations
have long since vanished. Even the numbers of small insect-eating
birds such as long-tailed shrikes and black drongos have plummeted
in the past 25 years, and their decline has been tracked as the
food web that used to sustain them has collapsed. High diversity
ricefields and their bird fauna are now confined to a few shrinking
areas of mono-cropping around the margins of the Central Plains,
in Prachinburi to the east and Phetchaburi to the west.
The key point
about the Bangkok area is that the survival of the most endangered
and sensitive birds depends upon traditional forms of land use that
have been in place for hundreds of years. Salt pans and traditional,
shallow prawn-capture ponds provide high-tide loafing and feeding
areas for spoon-billed sandpipers and a host of other shorebirds;
the largest, least disturbed ponds support spot-billed pelicans,
painted storks and other larger waterbirds; while single-crop rice
paddies support a diverse array of predatory and insectivorous birds.
None of these bird species is represented in significant numbers
in any of Thailand's national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. They
are betrayed by our lack of any comprehensive nature conservation
some farmlands have retained their conservation value because traditional
patterns of use have evolved gradually, shaping the land over centuries.
This is well recognised in Europe where, once the role of traditional
land-use systems in maintaining wildlife populations and unique
landscapes was recognised, it has often proved possible to regulate
present-day land use through management agreements, legislation
or financial incentives.
A strong case
can be argued for likewise preserving the human-modified wetland
habitats of Thailand's Central Plains. Rice mono-cropping in the
freshwater zone, salt-farming in the coastal zone and other traditional
forms of land use that sustain biodiversity, could be maintained
through agricultural subsidies, to safeguard not only wildlife but
also the quality of life of the human inhabitants.
Before you snort
with derision over the impossibility of instituting such a system
in Thailand, consider first how much taxpayers' money is wasted
by the central government, by province and tambol administrative
organisations, local and national politicians, on frivolous and
unnecessary construction projects such as grandiose buildings, tourist
facilities that are never used, roads that are much wider than needed
and which crumble into potholes during the first monsoon season.
Why? Because leakage of money from ceaseless construction projects
provides patronage - the grease that oils the wheels of Thailand's
political machine. More construction means more money entering the
system: It is as simple as that. Construction projects are the means
by which the politicians extract money from taxpayers in order to
boost their own election prospects.
make more sense to use some of this money to sustain traditional
land use rather than spending it ceaselessly building, building,
As a signatory
of the International Convention on Wetlands (the Ramsar Convention),
the Thai government is already legally obliged to integrate wetland
conservation into its national and land-use planning, and to promote
and implement so-called "wise use" or sustainable use
of wetlands: This means all wetlands, not just protected areas.
Up to now this provision of the wetland convention has been ignored.
Rice paddies are wetlands too, albeit wetlands that are modified
from their original state. They support globally threatened species,
and it is therefore grossly negligent of the government to fail
to implement measures that would offer these habitats a measure
At the present
time, anybody (more or less) can build anything, no matter how inappropriate,
anywhere they choose, provided they have sufficient money. This
cannot be allowed to go on. Thailand urgently needs to implement
zoning legislation that takes account of biodiversity and landscape
values of rural areas, and imposes some restrictions on land use.
This is not just a matter of safeguarding aesthetic and conservation
values; it also makes good economic sense. There will not be enough
money in the whole of the national budget to defend Thailand's Central
Plain against the effects of flooding caused by rising sea levels
due to global warming in the future. Why spend money protecting
buildings in inappropriate, flood-prone locations when they should
never have been built in the first place?
although farmers may prefer to grow dry season irrigated rice as
the sale price is higher, this practice is not sustainable. It places
unreasonable demands on scant water resources: There is just not
enough water to go around. Increased costs for labour, agrochemicals
and diesel undo any short term benefits reaped by farmers from increased
global demand for rice. Ultimately small rice farmers may be forced
into selling their land to developers in order to pay off their
rice farmers to return to a single, rain-fed cropping pattern in
all but those areas most accessible to irrigation would both relieve
demand for water and benefit biodiversity, while at the same time
sustain rural communities. It would help maintain the diverse rural
culture of the Siamese heartland while at the same time enable the
Thai government to live up to its international obligations under
the Ramsar Convention.