Avoiding Elephants and Studying Fish Refuges in Thailand

by Aaron Koning
“At the next site we’ll have to be careful to avoid the elephants” warned my field assistant, Witu. His words would have struck me more soundly if I hadn’t come across the two Elaphas along the banks of the Ngao River while conducting snorkel surveys a day earlier. The two captive individuals belong to a village over the mountain, and were currently being rotated through various forest patches to browse their way through the dry season.

Elephants are just one of many considerations to keep in mind when working on Thai rivers. Photo: QSimple via Flickr
Elephants are just one of many considerations to keep in mind when working on Thai rivers. Photo: QSimple via Flickr

While conservation actions aimed at restoring elephant populations in Thailand have produced somewhat limited success, the protected river stretch I was surveying has been highly successful in increasing populations of native fishes, especially when compared to adjoining non-protected river reaches.
Local people have long been dependent on fishery resources in the mountains of northern Thailand. While less nutritionally dependent on local fisheries today, locals still prefer locally harvested fish, like the Mastacembelus eel captured by this boy. Photo: A. Koning
While less dependent on fish for nutrition than the past, local people in the mountains of northern Thailand still prefer locally harvested fish, like the Mastacembelus eel captured by this boy. Photo: A. Koning

Fishing pressure, which occurs year round and in a number of forms like gill nets, cast nets, bamboo fish traps, and spearfishing has reduced fish density throughout much of Southeast Asia to very low levels.
Partially motivated by reduced fish catches, and partially as a response to a local non-profit organization’s coaxing, several communities in northwestern Thailand have set aside short stretches of river (about 300-1000 meters) to serve as fish refuges. Creation of freshwater protected areas is not limited to streams in northern Thailand, but is a cultural phenomenon that has occurred throughout much of Southeast Asia.
The motivations for conserving freshwater fish are varied, but are often associated with an animist-based reverence to the spirits of a particular stretch of river.
Whatever the motivation for protection, the result is that certain stretches of river now teem with fish, while others do not.
World-wide, the creation of protected areas for fish has largely centered on marine areas and global marine fisheries. Recently, however, the creation of protected areas specifically for freshwater fish conservation has received increased attention.
Overharvest has depleted fish stocks in many river stretches, but in community-based protected zones fish like the Neolissochilus and Bangana species pictured here are found in abundance. Photo: A. Koning
Over-harvest has depleted fish stocks in many river stretches, but in community-based protected zones fish like the Neolissochilus and Bangana species pictured here are found in abundance. Photo: A. Koning

In northern Thailand, the creation of protected areas for fish nearly two decades ago provides an intriguing opportunity to study the efficacy of protected areas, albeit small ones, on a number of conservation goals including: enhancing fish abundance and diversity, maintaining and regulating important ecosystem functions, and potentially providing enhanced fish catches to in the fishing zones that border the off-limits protected areas.
Over the course of the next year, I will be in the Mae Hong Son Province of Thailand along the border of Myanmar (Burma), conducting research that will hopefully begin to understand the potential for freshwater protected areas to achieve these conservation aims. Already this year, I’ve finished fieldwork for one of my experiments. I hope it will offer me some insights that will guide my research over the coming months and, in the next few weeks, maybe I’ll even have some initial findings to report.
Aaron Koning packs for Thailand, December 2013. Photo: A. Hinterthuer
Aaron Koning packs for Thailand, December 2013. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

Aaron Koning is a CFL graduate student working with professor Pete McIntyre on research related to freshwater fish conservation.

1 thought on “Avoiding Elephants and Studying Fish Refuges in Thailand”

  1. In addition to avoiding elephants, I happen to know that Aaron Koning also excels at avoiding marauding free range cattle while studying fish. Is this guy good, or what?

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