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Corruption scandal in Thai parks agency has far-reaching impacts, activists say

An elephant in Kui Buri National Park.

An elephant in Kui Buri National Park. Image by Tontan Travel via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

  • The head of Thailand’s parks department, Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayutya, was arrested Dec. 27 after anticorruption authorities found envelopes and gift boxes in his desk containing the equivalent of nearly $150,000 in cash.
  • Rutchada had allegedly demanded bribes from underlings to secure positions, as well as a cut of departmental budgets.
  • Conservationists say corruption in the department, as well as recent budget cuts, has had severe implications for the country’s protected areas.

BANGKOK — A graft scandal involving the head of Thailand’s national parks department has raised questions about the effects of institutional corruption in the agencies charged with protecting the country’s biodiversity.

Rutchada Suriyakul Na Ayutya, director-general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), was arrested on Dec. 27 in a joint operation of the anticorruption police, the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).

Officers found 4.94 million baht (about $150,000) in 16 envelopes and gift boxes in his office, which he’d allegedly extorted from officials from the forest reservation units under his control.

While the arrest shocked the public, for Chaiwat Limlikit-aksorn, a senior forestry officer who gave the bait envelope that resulted in the arrest, it had been a long time coming.

“I received complaints from many of our personnel right after the new director came to office in February 2022, that he demanded money from them to secure their job positions,” Chaiwat said at an interview with multiple outlets, including Mongabay. “Those who refused to pay would be removed and sent away. Some started selling their belongings or looking for loans to meet this demand.”

Chaiwat said he saw many of his staff members fall into despair, and not only because of their personal finances. “A cut was also demanded from the budget allocated to their units, followed by monthly payments to the director until they barely had enough money to work for the forest.” He said that the percentages demanded varied from 10% to up to 30% of departmental budgets.

Chaiwat filed complaints with anticorruption authorities in August 2022, then waited months for an operation to be planned.

Rutchada has denied all allegations, citing conflicts within the department. Chaiwat, the whistleblower, has himself been caught up in a scandal involving mistreatment of ethnic minority people residing in national parks, including two deaths. Chaiwat has denied his report was motivated by any conflict of interest.

A park ranger in Khao Yai.
A park ranger in Khao Yai, Thailand. One forest ranger team leader described having to pay a monthly bribe to his superiors to avoid being transferred to another location. Image by Vyacheslav Argenberg via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

The cost of bribes

One envelope full of cash found in the raid had the words “Dong Yai Trench” written on it, as well as an amount: 126,000 baht ($3,800).

According to the investigation team, this coincides with a $1.5 million project to build an elephant-proof trench in Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary, which is part of the Dong Phayayen–Khao Yai Forest Complex, the country’s second-largest protected forest complex.

The project, part of an $11 million nationwide scheme to reduce human-elephant conflict, is intended to prevent wild elephants from roaming outside of protected areas and into human settlements and farms.

Human-elephant conflict is a major problem for Thailand. Wild elephants injured 116 people and killed 135 between 2016 and 2022, according to DNP data. More than a dozen elephants have also been killed, and thousands of hectares of farmland damaged.

Authorities have vowed to deliver the results of their investigation within a month, revealing how much of the budget for projects like these may have been diverted due to corruption.

A warning sign about wild elephants.
A warning sign about wild elephants in Khao Yai Forest Complex. Image by xiquinhosilva via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

‘Look after the master’

Recent cuts to forest department personnel budgets add sting to the scandal. In early 2022, citing loss of visitor revenue due to COVID-19, the environment ministry slashed the number of DNP’s forest rangers by a third, from 5,163 to 3,432. Those willing to stay struggled through pay cuts of up to 25%.

In an interview with Thai news program 3 Miti, one forest ranger team leader described having to pay 2,000 baht ($60) a month to his superiors to avoid being transferred to a location far from his family.

“It’s not big money even for a low officer like me,” he said. “But I’d rather use this money for my men who work hard protecting the forest.”

What he found most bitter, the ranger said, is that this bribe money was described as money to “look after the master.”

“My forest rangers work in ragged clothes and barely make ends meet,” he said. “I’m incapable of looking after them but have to look after those big masters.”

“Forest rangers are the spine of forest and natural resources protection,” said Sasin Chalermlarp, executive director of the Sueb Nakhasathian Foundation, a Thai conservation organization that has recently lobbied in support of better pay for rangers. “They patrol hours and hours, day and night, checking if there’s anything wrong. It’s them who face poachers or wild animals. All operations could not be achieved without their hard work and sacrifice. So how can we mistreat them or dare to call for bribe money from them?”

Forests of Khao Yai National Park.
The Dong Phayayen–Khao Yai Forest Complex is Thailand’s second-largest protected forest complex. Image by xiquinhosilva via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

‘Hot air’ anticorruption commitment

Creating a “corruption-free” country is part of the Thai government’s official agenda, and all public officials are subject to a “no gift” policy. However, Thailand currently scores just 35 out of 100 points in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, ranking 110th out of 180 countries.

“It’s hot air without sincerity,” Mana Nimitmongkol, secretary-general of the private-sector led Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand, said in an interview with local media, adding that such policies amount to little more than show.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission gave the DNP a grade A rating for its handling of issues relating to corruption, granting an impressive total score of 100/100 for three years running. Until shortly after Rutchada’s arrest, the DNP website featured a photograph of the fallen director-general smiling with the logo of the no-gift policy and the office’s slogan: “Transparent and fair.”

Plum posts

According to Chaiwat, the southern national marine park of Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi was ranked as a prime posting for DNP staff; the cost to be chief of such a park was said to be “a kilogram of banknotes,” a metaphor for 1 million baht ($30,000).

In an interview with local media, Damrong Pidet, former DNP head, recalled his first day in office in 2005. “People ran all over the place, asking me to put them or their men into the marine national parks,” he said. “There is easy money over there.”

Boats at Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi Marine National Park.
In its peak year, Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi Marine National Park earned 639 million baht ($19.4 million) in tourist receipts. Image by shankar s. via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Before the pandemic, roughly 20 million tourists visited Thailand’s national parks each year, with marine parks at the top of the list in terms of both numbers and revenue. In its peak year, Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi Marine National Park earned 639 million baht ($19.4 million) in tourist receipts. By contrast, Khao Yai National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, collected roughly 100 million baht ($3 million).

This influx of cash has long been a significant concern for the NACC. All major national parks have been advised to switch to electronic tickets with real-time cash reports for transparency and to avoid corruption on site. The DNP kept saying it was trying. However, within days of its top executive being arrested for bribery, the DNP announced that it could immediately start issuing e-tickets in six national parks.

In the first week of 2023, Thailand witnessed an unprecedented scene: Luxury boats moored over the coral reef near Phi Phi Island, which falls within the park. Divers also walked directly on the coral, adding to already significant damages.

“How could you who work in the Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi Marine National Park, let this happen,” advocacy group Monsoon Garbage Thailand posted on social media. Days later, a boat owner and other involved parties were arrested.

Pidet, the former DNP head, linked these blatant infractions to the hollowing-out of the DNP: “With a smaller workforce and a little budget left for their operation, these things happen.”

Banner image: An elephant in Kui Buri National Park. Image by Tontan Travel via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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