Thailand's pledge to double the number of endangered wild tigers in the country's jungles by 2022 will be in jeopardy if a new dam at a national park is built, environmental organizations have warned.
The dam on the Mae Wong river, at the national park of the same name in Nakhon Sawan province, north-west of Bangkok, forms part of the government's flood management plan. The project reportedly will help irrigate up to 480 square kilometers of farmland.
However, to do that, it will destroy around 1,760 hectares of low-lying forest - the best habitat for wildlife, including the tiger. The accompanying access roads could also open up the forest further to illegal activity.
Thailand was among 12 Asian countries that committed themselves at the Global Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010 to doubling the world's tiger population to 7,000 by 2022.
The 900-square-kilometer national park has been protected for more than 24 years.
"Successive governments have invested in total more than THB 300 million (US$9.65 million) to make the park as secure as it is today," Anak Pattanavibool, the director of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Thailand program, wrote last week in the Bangkok Post.
The park is part of Thailand's Western Forest Complex, the largest system of protected areas in mainland Southeast Asia. In all, it covers 17 protected areas, totalling 18,000 square kilometers and overlapping the border with Myanmar.
It is seen as the only habitat in Southeast Asia capable of supporting a large number of tigers on a sustainable basis if it is adequately protected.
"The entire Western Forest Complex is Thailand's very last stronghold for many globally endangered and vulnerable species," Anak wrote in the Post.
"The international community... has hailed the long and firmly held policy of Thailand to protect the Western Forest Complex and its associated natural heritage as an example for others to follow."
Some environmental agencies are urging that the Mae Wong National Park be recognized also as one of the country's natural heritage sites, the Post reported.
Thailand's Cabinet approved the THB 13 billion dam project on April 10. So far, no assessment of the environmental impact has been carried out.
The project has now become a test of Thailand's flood management plan - and also the clout of the Department of National Parks, which has the authority to turn down the project.
Building a dam and reservoir in a national park is illegal in the first place, Anak said in an interview. Constructing the dam and reservoir would destroy Thailand's reputation for wildlife protection, he said.
Conservationists have an ally in the Stop Global Warming Association (SGWA) - an independent non-government organization headed by lawyer Srisuwan Janya, who shot to fame some two years ago after winning a landmark judgment against polluting industries in the Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate. Both WCS and SGWA do not believe the dam will help in flood control.
SGWA has started a campaign against the dam on cost grounds, saying the estimate given last year was only THB 9.6 billion ($310 million). It is trying to gather 13,280 co-complainants to file a legal challenge to the project.
"The approved budget for the construction is too high," Srisuwan said last month. "The budget for the construction will come from massive foreign loans, and our offspring will have to repay the loans. They will also suffer the loss of forest land."
Villages once situated in the area that will be flooded by the reservoir were relocated in the interest of wildlife conservation, Anak said.
The ecosystem recovered and wildlife, including prey species and tigers, returned to the area, he said.
The dam was first mooted 20 years ago, but the project did not gain traction for a long time. In 2002, the National Environment Board turned it down.
Thailand's Royal Irrigation Department is expected to complete a health and environmental impact assessment study for the project in July.