Buffaloes named for student

by Chanyaporn Chanjaraen

For most Thai people, having an animal named after one is a real insult, particularly if that animal is a water buffalo, which is often made fun of as stupid. But environmentalist Theerapat Prayurasiddhi considers it an honor.
Since 1996, the subspecies of wild water buffaloes in Thailand have been known internationally as Bubalus arnee theerapati. Australian taxonomist Dr. C.P. Groves named the endangered animals after Theerapat, who took the first photo of the live animals in 1987 in Thailand’s Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. Wild water buffaloes had not been seen alive at all in Thailand for decades.
“The name (theerapati) honors Mr. Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, whose continuing fieldwork in Huai Kha Khaeng has added notably to our understanding of the ecology of gaur, banteng, and the 50-100 remaining wild buffaloes, laying a sound basis for their conservation,” wrote Groves in his article on “The Taxonomy of the Asian Wild Buffalo.” It was published in the International Journal of Mammalian Biology — a Germany-based publication.
“My friends started calling me ‘Theerapati,'” says Theerapat, now a Ph.D. student finishing up his doctoral dissertation in conservation biology at the University.
Minnesota, with over 50 inches of average snowfall and subzero winter temperatures, is a far cry from the tropical rain forest at Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary where Theerapat has worked for the last 10 years.
A former chief of the forestry department’s wildlife research center at Huai Kha Khaeng, Theerapat is well-known both in Thailand and abroad for his strong commitment to researching and publicizing wildlife in Thailand. For his doctoral dissertation, Theerapat chose to study gaur and banteng, two other endangered species. The importance of his work comes from the fact that not many large wildlife animals are systematically researched in Thailand.
“Thailand’s forest and wildlife policy has been emphasized on the protection side,” said Theerapat. “Now I think it’s time we to invest more in research, both small and large animals. I know the large ones have not been the subject of studies because of all the difficulties, danger and diseases in the wilds.”
In May 1995, the German magazine Geo Saison, an equivalent to America’s National Geographic, published a story in May 1996 on Theerapat’s tracking of gaur and banteng. A Minnesotan publication, The Asian Pages, also featured him in its cover story in the March issue this year.
“I saw a flock of wild water buffaloes in Huai Kha Khaeng while patrolling on helicopter in 1987 and managed to take a distant shot of the animals,” recalled Theerapat of the first encounter. “There were about six to eight of them. Before that, I saw only the photos of the dead ones.”
Although wild water buffaloes have been on the list of preserved animals in Thailand in 1960, the last wild water buffalo was reported shot dead much earlier, in 1908.
A soft-spoken person, Theerapat seems determined and committed in whatever he does. After the discovery, Theerapat began researching the buffaloes, which led to more studies of them in Thailand.
In 1995, Theerapat met Groves at the Asian Wild Cattle Group meeting in Cholburi. Theerapat is also a member of the organization. Groves came to Asia to study the subspecies of buffaloes.
Like many other large endangered wildlife in Thailand, they have not been studied a lot. The only material left for taxonomist Groves to study are some scalps collected by the late Dr. Boonsong Lekagul, photos and some basic information from Theerapat.
It is estimated that there are not more than 100 of the buffaloes left in Thailand. The biggest group spotted contained 12.
The subject of Theerapat’s doctoral dissertation, gaur and banteng, belong to the same “bovidae” species as wild water buffaloes. However, their genuses differ. Gaur and banteng belong to the genus bos, while wild water buffaloes belong to bubalus.
According to Theerapat, the Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group declared Huai Kha Khaeng an ideal sanctuary for both bos and bubalus in 1995.
The Thai wildlife biologist estimates that there are about 1,000 gaur and banteng in Thailand, 600 of which are in Huai Kha Khaeng.
Theerapat came to the realization that wildlife and forest protection in Thailand is progressing slowly because the country lacks commitment to wildlife research. He met his present adviser, Dr. David Smith, when Theerapat was chief of the Wildlife Research Center at Huai Kha Khaeng. Smith is an expert in Nepalese tigers at the University. At that time, Theerapat already has his master’s in wildlife biology.
“I considered myself very lucky to meet Dr. Smith. He is interested in what I do and, together with the support of many organizations, namely U.S. World Wildlife Fund, the University, Thailand’s Sueb Nakasathien Foundation and others, helped me to pursue my Ph.D at the University.
“What I study here does not focus on wildlife conservation only. It is more like an interdisciplinary program covering other disciplines like biology, economics and others, to apply with wildlife management,” explained Theerapat.
During his study, Theerapat also exposes himself to the use of technology in the study of wildlife. For his dissertation, Theerapat installs radio transmitters on animals for the purpose of monitoring their behaviors. The technology is still costly and not prevalent in Thailand.
“I also want to adapt some forest management ideas here to use in our country. Adapt, not adopt. The situations here and there are not the same,” said Theerapat.
“What I like most here, though, is the practice of local participation. Here the government listens to problems of local people and takes them in to consideration.”
Theerapat expects to graduate some time before the end of the year. His future career depends very much on Thailand’s Forestry Department. It could be either in the forest he loves or in the central office where he may have a chance to deal more extensively with forest policy issues.
Theerapat is now also the president of the Thai Student Association in Minnesota. In addition to networking with Thai students abroad all over the world, Theerapat usually organizes nature trips for Thai students during quarter breaks.
“I believe learning should not be limited (to the) classroom only. There is a lot to learn out there,” said Theerapat.