Hacking a path through dense, gloomy jungle, Prawing Klinklai pauses at a towering tree and pokes his machete into a mound of damp earth next to a patch of scratched soil.
“Leopard urine,” Prawing whispers, looking up at his companions. The leopard passed by some hours ago, urinated at the foot of the tree and covered the puddle with dirt scooped back with its forepaws, as cats -- big or small -- are wont to do.
A few years ago, Prawing, 41, would have followed the faint leopard tracks and hunted the big cat for its silky spotted pelt. Not anymore.
Once one of the most wanted poachers in Thailand, Prawing is on the other side in the battle over endangered wildlife these days. He works as a guide and tracker for a U.S.-based conservation group in this Southeast Asian nation.
His transformation is the result of a pioneering effort by New York’s Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society to coax poachers into giving up the killing of animals by providing them with paying jobs in the field they know best.
“Their experience is unrivaled. No biologist can match what they know,” said Antony Lynam, director of the society’s Thailand chapter. “These guys look at a track and tell you how many animals have passed, whether they were walking, jumping or running.”
So far, five former poachers have gone to work for the society here, among them Prawing and his brothers, Rawang, 40, and Wichai, 37. It’s a small beginning, but Lynam hopes that the Klinklai brothers will become role models and lure others out of poaching.
Prawing and his brothers grew up in a village on the edge of Khao Yai jungle in central Thailand. By the time he was 12, Prawing was hunting small animals, initially for food and later for trade.
He admits having killed more than 70 elephants for their tusks, selling the ivory for about $66 a pound to a businessman who provided him with an AK-47 assault rifle to hunt with. Just two pounds would earn him as much as a typical Thai farmer earns in a month.
“Back then, I didn’t know what was right or wrong. I feel ashamed now, but by the time I had come to my senses, I had already killed hundreds of animals,” Prawing said. “I killed any elephant I came across, even small ones.”
Prawing says he shot a tiger only once, but it lived. After getting hit by the bullet, the tiger turned around and transfixed him with its yellow eyes. “I couldn’t move and the tiger just walked away,” he said.
Poaching is a big problem in Thailand. No one knows how many poachers roam the forests, but the World Wildlife Fund estimates illegal trading in endangered animals is worth about $5 million a year. Ivory comprises about 85% of the trade, followed by crocodile and tiger parts.
Poaching and encroachment on jungles by farming and logging have pushed more than 40 species to the brink of extinction in Thailand, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says.
Only about 2,000 elephants are left in the wild, along with only about 40 to 50 Asiatic water buffalo. The Schomburgk’s deer, found only in Thailand, was once common in the lush swamps along the Chao Phya River but is possibly extinct, as is the Javan rhino.
The poaching problem cannot be solved with Thailand’s existing weak laws and enforcement, says Thanit Palasuwan, chief of the Thai government’s Wildlife Protection Division.
The maximum punishment is a three-year jail term and a fine of about $1,000, but convictions from the 50 to 100 arrests each year generally result in fines of only $50.
Thanit says that perhaps the best way to end poaching is to educate hunters about the need to conserve wildlife. His department is following the lead of the Wildlife Conservation Society in hiring poachers as part-time guides or rangers.
The Klinklai brothers’ latest assignment is to help field researcher Dusit Ngoprasert determine the effect of new roads on animals in Kaeng Krachan National Park, 80 miles southwest of the capital, Bangkok.
Dusit is studying the movement pattern of animals. He has put out dozens of camera traps -- infrared beam-emitting cameras chained to tree trunks. Every time an animal passes, it breaks the beam and the camera takes a picture.
Encased in waterproof steel boxes, the cameras are set up in the densest part of the jungle along tracks frequented by leopards, tigers, elephants, leopard cats, civets, deer, monkeys and other animals.
Dusit and his team venture into the jungle every three weeks to retrieve film and place reloaded cameras in new spots, guided by Prawing and his brothers.
Reaching the best places is not easy. The team must hike 10 hours every day for five or six days to cover six to nine miles through hilly jungles so dense that it is constant twilight under the canopy of trees.
The researchers have to push their way through thorny undergrowth sideways to keep their faces and hands from being cut. They are constantly climbing up slopes, pulling themselves on vines or sliding down slippery paths, clutching at shrubs.
On a recent trip, Prawing and his brothers sat down and talked to a reporter about their careers as poachers and the turnaround in their lives.
“I learned from my brother,” said Wichai, nicknamed “Little Bear” for his bushy beard and thick eyebrows.
As Prawing became increasingly notorious, the pressure from forest rangers became too much and he decided to lie low. Six years ago, he was introduced to Lynam, who hired him at a salary of $200 a month. His brothers signed on later.
“I used to kill animals; now I save them,” Prawing said. “I feel very proud. Back then, it was very exciting. Now it is exciting and a pleasure.”
Despite his poaching, officials never charged Prawing because of a lack of evidence.
“His past is history,” Lynam said. “It is the future that counts.”