Transforming Phuket animal conditions post-tsunami
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2005:
PHUKET, Thailand–Urbanization 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
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 habitat. Tourism employs one Phuket adult in
four. The August-to-November bird migration season 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
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 attentive 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
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
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
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 expected, the
Soi Dog Foundation led post-tsunami animal relief efforts on Phuket
and Phi Phi Island, farther off shore.
Establishing global credibility and recognition, leading 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 transition 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
Phuket has been disturbed habitat for so long that whatever
the “native” ecology might once have been is a matter of educated
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
Neither did Phuket ever have the alternating rice
paddy-and-swamp forest characterizing the Thai north.
As Phuket was not hospitable to rice-growing, intensive
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
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 abundant native
diurnal mammals. Bats are plentiful at night.
Eagles are returning, after virtually disappearing during
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, monkeys, 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 mountainside somewhat like
an ascending pueblo village. There is no visitor access to the
gibbons, just a visitor center that sells souvenirs 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 gibbons lack wild survival
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project still distributes
literature mentioning an attempt to start gibbon colonies on islands
in Phang Nga Bay, which were never native gibbon habitat. That
experiment failed, ANIMAL PEOPLE was informed, when the gibbons
taken to the islands disappeared, probably poached.
Historically, the bars and restaurants of Phuket were a
common destination of gibbons, orangutans, and other wildlife
captured for exhibition. Eating wildlife was also common. But
wildlife displays and consumption were eventually recognized as
offensive to European visitors. Phuket therefore became reputedly
the first part of Thailand to successfully discourage the illegal but
largely uncontrolled wildlife trading for which the nation has long
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 conservation education–and, often, with
humane animal care.
ANIMAL PEOPLE saw three elephant ride concessions. 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 aggravate foot and joint ailments
common among captive elephants.
ANIMAL PEOPLE also encountered a mobile exhibitor of birds of
prey at a roadside scenic overlook, charging passers-by for the
opportunity to photograph or be photographed 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 alongside it, and
battalions of Burmese temporary workers camp in new shanty-towns,
far up the steep slopes, where plantation workers resided
generations ago. –Merritt Clifton