Sea turtles are indeed in a precarious state, with around 40 to 50 becoming stranded in local waters in the past year alone. However, though turtles hog the limelight, there are many other species in need of constant help, including dolphins, whales and the oft-overlooked unfortunate-looking dugongs, or sea cows.
Balancing the field
The unequal spotlight on such animals does not escape Dr Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong from the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC). “Everybody focuses on the sea turtles, I think because there’s breeding and release programmes and things like that, and perhaps it’s seen as easier.”
In his role as the Chief of the Marine Endangered Species Unit at the PMBC, Dr Kongkiat rescues, rehabilitates and takes care of all at-risk animals, in particular those that are endangered in the Andaman region.
Dr Kongkiat was instrumental in the setting up of the sub-department 15 years ago, just two short years after graduating and starting work at the PMBC, which sits at the tip of Phuket’s Cape Panwa.
A hive of activity, there are around 150 full time members of staff working in the five different sections of the PMBC. Namely, the Marine Endangered Species Unit; Phuket Aquarium; Reference Collection; Ecological Unit; and Oceanography Centre.
In his role as the chief of the Marine Endangered Species Unit, Dr Kongkiat and his team are responsible for conserving endangered animals, and at the heart of their efforts is research.
Turtles, dolphins, whales and dugongs are highly migratory species, so the PMBC has treaties and memorandums of understanding with neighbouring Asian countries that help scientists share findings.
Rather depressingly though, Dr Kongkiat says that investigation and scientific exploration are unlikely to make any significant change to the devastation befalling sea creatures in the Andaman region.
“Around 70 per cent of the causes of death are from [trash and equipment used by] fishermen.”
Stopping the slaughter
“It used to be fishing trawlers that were the problem, but since the 1982 Fisheries Act stopped trawlers fishing in waters up to 3km from shore this is not so much the case. Now it’s nets, lines and traps.”
It is for this reason that a large part of Dr Kongkiat’s job is to educate the fishing communities on the island and attempt to raise awareness of how destructive they are to large endangered animals.
“Every year we go to different fishing villages to remind them that these are endangered animals. This [message] is also spread through the media.”
“We tell them to use certain sizes of nets, with bigger holes so that young fish, crabs and sea turtles aren’t caught in the haul.”
Sea turtles in particular also run the risk of being caught and eaten by members of the Sea Gypsy community, Dr Kongkiat says.
“We know for a fact that at least two sea gypsies have died from eating them in the last year. This is because the sea turtles ingest various toxins from eating sea snakes and trash, which they pass on to those who eat them.”
On the dugongs, Dr Kongkiat says that their number has fallen quite rapidly, to the point that there are only around 200 dugongs left in the Andaman region, most located in the waters of Trang province.
“The natural order dictates that there should be on average a 5 per cent increase in population each year. But this year we have found and retrieved 12 dugong carcasses, where normally we only recover around 4 or 5. There has been a huge increase in the numbers of deaths.
“I suspect that the dramatic increase in the numbers of dead dugongs is due to an increasing number of fishing boats and tour boats,” said Dr Kongkiat.
On average 80 per cent of the dugongs die from becoming entangled in nets and long lines, and around 15 per cent die from contracting diseases and parasites from eating trash and pollutiom
Dealing with death
While they are always on call to rescue injured or stranded animals, the PMBC’s Marine Endangered Species Unit are also called in if an animal has already died – they pick up the carcass and carry out an autopsy to ascertain the cause of death.
A recent incident involving a baby dolphin still clearly causes distress when Dr Kongkiat recounts it to The Phuket News.
“Last November we rescued a young dolphin from Karon who couldn’t follow his pod because he was sick. He stayed with us for a few weeks and then we released him, but we then found out that he had been caught in a net and had died a few weeks after we released him in Phi Phi.”
Although the PMBC didn’t give the baby dolphin a name, a bond was clearly formed with the amiable marine mammal.
“We loved him, he was very friendly. Every time we dived in he came close to us for our warmth.”
Dr Kongkiat’s says that his 17 years in the industry often leave him feeling ‘tired’ and emotionally drained, “My staff and I are never satisfied with the number of animals that die.”
“We always feel happy when we release them and they live, but sometimes when we put all that effort in and then they still die, we feel like crying. We want to save them all.”
Focusing on the future
Dr Kongkiat displays a range of emotions while showing The Phuket News around the PMBC, but never anger. Somehow he manages to stay calm and patient when fishermen continue to fish in protected areas or use fishing apparatus that kills or wounds the endangered animals.
“The majority of the fishing apparatus is not necessarily illegal, meaning new regulation wouldn’t necessarily help,” says Dr Kongkiat.
“We try to minimise marine animal deaths by raising awareness of the possible dangers of doing what they’re doing,” he says about the fishermen.
“They don’t mean to kill them... We keep on talking to the fishermen, but don’t get angry.”
“In fact in Thailand, we have good regulations to take care of the animals but not their natural habitat, plus there are few people who actually enforce the regulations.”
In an ideal world, he says there would be more government officials to enforce environmental laws, and the PMBC would have a bigger budget in order to buy better equipment and hire more staff.
However, Dr Kongkiat believes that the future state of Phuket’s marine life lies with those who are currently doing the most harm – tourists and fishermen.
A local solution
“Local people must be made more aware of the environment. It would be good to introduce an income-based reward programme and incentive, perhaps through eco-tourism.”
The Phuket News raises the point that the majority of Phuket drivers who hurtle down the road at 120km/h also probably don’t mean to kill people.
We suggest that drivers and fishermen must recognise the responsibility of their actions: that driving at such a speed or fishing in such a way increases the likelihood of such consequences.
Dr Kongkiat nods his head in agreement, “This is why education and awareness is very important, and why we are involved with local people in the area who deal with and can take care of the animals.
Giving the fishermen a reason to protect marine life would thus create a sustainable environment.
"If these communities had a fisheries or were working in marine conservation then the people in the area wouldn’t need to leave to find work elsewhere," says Dr Kongkiat.
They would stay in the village, feel responsible for their village and come to respect and value what makes it – and its waters – beautiful and priceless.
Despite the constant obstacles and heartache, Dr Kongkiat and his team press on; continuing to rescue, rehabilitate and release animals in what must seem to them like an endless cycle of life and death.