Transforming Phuket animal conditions post-tsunami
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1995:
is hitting Phuket much harder than the tsunami
of December 26, 2004.
What that may mean for animals on
the 400-square-mile resort island near the
extreme south of Thailand is anyone’s guess.
The Soi Dog Foundation and Gibbon
Rehabilitation Project, among Phuket’s most
prominent pro-animal organizations, are guard-
More development may mean more
homes for dogs and cats, and more donors to
support animal charities.
Paradoxically, more development
could even mean more protected wildlife habi-
tat. Tourism employs one Phuket adult in four.
The August-to-November bird migration sea-
son drives tourism from midsummer until the
winter holidays. That makes safeguarding bird
habitat, at least, a high priority for planners.
Yet more people might mean more
traffic and less tolerance of street dogs, already
considered a nuisance by much of the Buddhist
majority, and mostly abhored by Muslims.
Development may also restrict land-
dwelling native wildlife to increasingly isolated
“islands” of mountainous forest.
ANIMAL PEOPLE observed in the
villages behind Patong Beach and Surin Beach
that in Buddhist neighborhoods the dog-to-cat ratio was more
than eight-to-one. Both dogs and cats were abundant around
temples, scarce in between.
In dog-free Muslim neighborhoods, cats lounged on
steps and window ledges.
Buddhist temples function as quasi-animal shelters.
Homeless dogs and cats are dumped at the temples, and are fed
by visitors and sometimes by monks.
“Temples are thought to be shelters for all kinds of
poor things, ranging from homeless people to stray dogs, and
monks cannot refuse those asking for help,” an anonymous
monk at the Wat Luang Phor Chalong temple in southern
Phuket explained in 2003 to Achata Chuenniran and Onnucha
Hutasing of the Bangkok Post.
Wat Chalong then housed about 40 dogs, Achata and
Onnucha wrote. After visitors complained that the dogs scared
them and soiled the temple, the dogs were caged for a time,
monks told Achata and Onnucha, but European and American
visitors objected, so the dogs were released.
The Wat Kosit Wiharn temple, north of Phuket city,
housed 20 dogs and 20 feral cats, Achata and Onnucha said.
Visiting other temples around the island, ANIMAL
PEOPLE confirmed that the typical resident animal population
is about 40. About 30 dogs usually dominate the courtyards in
several separate packs, each with a home territory where they
are fed. Cats keep to the fringes, where they can climb a tree
or run into a monk’s dwelling built on stilts or duck under
something if dogs chase them.
Temple animals have at times been poisoned by
orders of head monks, but in recent years such incidents have
often attracted media notice as far away as Bangkok and
Singapore––twice in fall 2004––and head monks who are atten-
tive to image may fear bad publicity more than bad karma.
Estimating that about 2,000 of the ten to thirteen
thousand dogs on Phuket occupy temple grounds, and trying to
reduce their numbers, the Phuket Provincial Livestock Office
in July 2004 opened the first pound on the island, over the
objections of Soi Dog Foundation founder Margot Park and
Linda Wells of Dogs In Distress.
Occupying part of a former rubber plantation near
Thalang, the pound holds about 300 dogs at a time. Far more
escape than are adopted. Most freely roam the fenced outdoor
premises, but returned escapees are confined in tin-roofed runs.
Only three of the 19 Phuket municipalities contribute
to the pound operating costs, the Phuket Gazette reported on
June 24, 2005. Governor Udomsak Uswarangkura told the
Phuket Gazette that he was the only contributor to a foundation
he incorporated to raise funds for dog food.
Local hotels donated their scraps until the tsunami.
After the tsunami, tourism and the supply of scraps fell off.
The Soi Dog Foundation took over feeding the pound
dogs on an emergency basis, resisting pressure to become the
fulltime pound managers.
At least four other expatriate-directed animal welfare
societies operated on Phuket before Margot Park formed the Soi
Dog Foundation in September 2003, but the others focused on
rescuing and placing a few dogs at a time, or sheltering small
numbers in care-for-life arrangements, or helping to look after
the dogs and cats at particular temples and resorts.
Park, a Dutch expatriate with an American husband,
brought a long-range perspective to the work. Her dynamism
soon attracted three supporters of note. Leone Cosens, a new
Zealand expatriate, started the Phuket Animal Welfare Society
in 1992 but moved on in frustration a decade later. John
Dalley, a seasoned British anti-vivisection activist, retired to
Phuket in 2003 with his wife Gillian.
Introducing high-volume free sterilization to Phuket
by taking a mobile surgical set-up to temples, the Soi Dog
Foundation had sterilized nearly 1,500 dogs and cats in the 14
months preceding the tsunami.
Misfortune hit in October 2004, when Gillian Dalley
lost both legs to septicemia contracted while rescuing a dog
from the middle of a muddy water buffalo pasture, and hit
again when Cosens was killed by the tsunami.
Instead of disintegrating, as might have been expect-
ed, the Soi Dog Foundation led post-tsunami animal relief
efforts on Phuket and Phi Phi Island, farther off shore.
Establishing global credibility and recognition, lead-
ing to increased donor support, the Soi Dog Foundation then
stepped up the sterilization pace, adding to the mobile clinics a
spacious fixed site clinic almost in the dead center of the island.
The clinics are served by an animal ambulance donated by the
World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Short-term, the Soi Dog Foundation is preventing
homeless dog and cat births. Long-term, removing street dogs
and feral cats from Phuket is part of the third major habitat tran-
sition to overtake the island in about 150 years. This may leave
open to other species the ecological niche now occupied by
free-roaming dogs and cats––but which species?
Phuket has been disturbed habitat for so long that
whatever the “native” ecology might once have been is a matter
of educated guessing.
Immigrants from India opened tin mines on Phuket
circa 100 B.C. Chinese, Siamese, Burmese, and Malay
invaders by turns captured the tin mines, but none managed to
exhaust the deposits until political stability under Thai rule
coincided with the arrival of modern hydraulic mining and strip
mining in the late 19th century.
The tin mining epoch re-contoured and polluted much
of the landscape, but Phuket remained sparsely inhabited.
Formed by ancient volcanic activity, Phuket never
had the miles of low-lying mangrove swamps that characterized
much of the Thai coast, before logging and shrimp farming
denuded them in recent decades.
Neither did Phuket ever have the alternating rice
paddy-and-swamp forest characterizing the Thai north.
As Phuket was not hospitable to rice-growing, inten-
sive cultivation came only with the introduction of coconut,
pepper, tea, pineapple and rubber plantations in the early 20th
century. Just as the tin mines declined, growing demand for
rubber automobile tires saved the Phuket economy, at the
expense of whatever remained of the native forests.
If rubber could be grown on a piece of land, it was.
Even protected forest habitat today still includes tell-tale
straight rows of rubber trees, interrupting 30-year-old second
growth at predictable intervals.
Phuket is today more densely forested, despite the
recent development boom, than at any time since the beginning
of the plantation era, but small squirrels may be the only abun-
dant native diurnal mammals. Bats are plentiful at night.
Eagles are returning, after virtually disappearing dur-
ing decades of heavy DDT use to control mosquitoes.
Tourism succeeded rubber as the dominant Phuket
industry coincidental with the advent of nylon as a tire-making
material, beginning in the 1960s. A landmark event in Phuket
history was the creation of the Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife
Conservation Center in 1969. The 5,500-acre park exhibits
“languors, barking deer, mouse deer, bear, wild boar, mon-
keys, gibbons, porcupines, macaques, reptiles, lizards and
several species of birds,” it advertises, in semi-natural habitat.
Most of the animals are believed to have once been native to
Phuket, and some may still persist in the steeper and most
densely wooded areas, but many of the animals on exhibit
appear to have been imported from the north.
Two other protected habitat areas were designated
after Khao Phra Thaeo. The Ton Sai Waterfall Forest Park and
Bang Pae Waterfall Park are popular hiking venues, but the
only easily seen large mammals at either site are reputedly the
caged gibbons at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project complex
near the Bang Pae entrance. The gibbons can only be seen from
below, at a relative distance.
Founded in 1992, sponsored by the Asian Wildlife
Fund and the Wildlife Rescue Foundation of Thailand, the
Gibbon Rehabilitation Project consists of a series of large but
sparsely outfitted chain link cages arranged on the mountain-
side somewhat like an ascending pueblo village. There is no
visitor access to the gibbons, just a visitor center that sells sou-
venirs and an educational sign board. The project offices are
about two miles away, at the edge of the nearest village.
The rehabilitation concept is that gibbons who have
been confiscated from traffickers or surrendered by people who
illegally keep them as pets are moved ever higher into the forest
as they become more habituated to being there.
After the gibbons pair off and produce offspring in
captivity, the families are released together.
The 38 gibbons at the center seemed reasonably
happy and well-looked-after, but at least one was previously a
pampered pet and was still having adjustment trouble. Eighteen
gibbons were in the lower tier of cages, 11 were in the high
tier, according to the staff, and nine are nominally in the wild.
Three gibbon families have been released in 12 years,
ANIMAL PEOPLE was told. All still receive supplemental
feeding, and they do not seem to be rapidly recolonizing the
forest. This may be because the habitat is not ideal for them,
differing considerably from the forests of northern Thailand
where gibbons are most abundant, or because the released gib-
bons lack wild survival instincts.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project still distributes lit-
erature mentioning an attempt to start gibbon colonies on
islands in Phang Nga Bay, which were never native gibbon
habitat. That experiment failed, ANIMAL PEOPLE w a s
informed, when the gibbons taken to the islands disappeared,
Historically, the bars and restaurants of Phuket were
a common destination of gibbons, orangutans, and other
wildlife captured for exhibition. Eating wildlife was also com-
mon. But wildlife displays and consumption were eventually
recognized as offensive to European visitors. Phuket therefore
became reputedly the first part of Thailand to successfully dis-
courage the illegal but largely uncontrolled wildlife trading for
which the nation has long been notorious.
Wild animals are still displayed here and there.
ANIMAL PEOPLE did not visit but heard no good
words about the small Phuket Zoo. The zoo advertises circus-
like wildlife acts, once common at U.S. and European zoos,
but long ago abandoned by most as inconsistent with conserva-
tion education––and, often, with humane animal care.
ANIMAL PEOPLE saw three elephant ride conces-
sions. They offered holding conditions ranging from relatively
good to one facility alongside the approach to Bang Pae at
which a waiting elephant was inexplicably kept on a concrete
pad. Elsewhere throughout the world, elephant keepers are
revamping captive habitats so that elephants need not stand on
concrete, as standing on hard surfaces is known now to aggra-
vate foot and joint ailments common among captive elephants.
ANIMAL PEOPLE also encountered a mobile
exhibitor of birds of prey at a roadside scenic overlook, charg-
ing passers-by for the opportunity to photograph or be pho-
tographed with the birds.
Back up & running
The tsunami killed 5,395 people in Thailand, with
2,991 missing, but only 262 people were killed on Phuket, 105
of them visitors, among 261,390 fulltime residents.
Relatively well-protected by cliffs and high ground,
Phuket was soon almost back to business-as-usual. Six months
after the tsunami, the ongoing clean-up looked much like other
development. The most evident effect of the waves was to
sweep squatter settlements away from the beach areas. Rather
than removing most of the debris, landholders buried much of
it beneath truckloads of fill.
More Phuket residents now work in construction than
in agriculture, fishing, mining, and forestry combined. The
island unemployment rate is officially just 1.3%.
The main road through the middle of Phuket is
expanding to four lanes, big shopping malls are rising along-
side it, and battalions of Burmese temporary workers camp in
new shanty-towns, far up the steep slopes, where plantation
workers resided generations ago.