The history of Tarutao is tied to the history of democracy in Thailand. The need for an isolated and forbidding environment to lock away enemies of the state caused the Corrections Department to build a penal colony there in 1939.
Two important revolutionary groups were imprisoned here: the Bowondet coup group and the Petty Officers' coup group. Their coup attempts were unsuccessful, but ushered in change nonetheless, and soon a democratic constitution was drafted.
The first prison was located at Talo Udang Bay, but hundreds of new prisoners came every month, so Talo Wao Bay became the second site. Prisoners were forced to build a road 12 km. long and 6 m. wide between the two bays.
From interviews of old guards and prisoners, it was learned that almost 1/3 of the convicts died on the island. Malaria was the main cause of death; but cruelty from guards and starvation were also other major factors.
Escape was a disheartening prospect, due to crocodiles, sharks and fierce guards. But not all prisoners were miserable. The political prisoners were naturally respected due to their social status, rank and education; and enjoyed an "open prison" atmosphere away from the common prisoners. They whiled away their time in useful projects, including agriculture, plant propagation and translation and dictionary-writing. After their return to the real world, many returned to high government posts.
Order eroded in the camps during WW II. Supplies no longer came from the mainland, and starvation ensued. Both guards and prisoners soon became the most feared pirates in the area, preying on merchant ships in the Strait of Malacca. This quote describing earlier piracy sums up the boat owners' terror:
"Not only on land, but perhaps more so at sea, the Western traveler feared for his safety ..... countless white travelers recorded their fears of, and warnings about the savage marauders of the archipelago who thrived on massacre, violation and rapine. In many eyes, the rich and beautiful islands seemed to have become mutated into some nightmarish landscape -- the indented coasts, estuaries, creeks, rivers and narrow channels affording concealment for the pirates' murderous pillage, with 'no vessel ..... safe, no flag ..... respected.' (Raffle)"
[from Western Impressions of Nature and Lanscape in Southeast Asia, Victor R. Savage, Singapore University Press, Natl. Unibersity of Singapore]
After WW II ended, British naval troops were sent to Tarutao to clean out the pirate groups. After the Corrections Deparment closed the prison on Tarutao, villagers from nearby provinces began to settle on Tarutao, in the valleys and inland of the bays. There were fishermen and farmers who planted rice, fruit trees, rubber trees, coconuts and jackfruit. In 1972, the government decided to make Tarutao a national park and surveyors were sent to the island. In 1974, Tarutao and Adang-Rawi islands were declared a national park; Thailand's second marine national park.
The making of a national park: Insight into early park conditions is available from Tarutao's first director, Mr. Boonruang Saison. Mr. Boonruang is well-known throughout Thai and foreign conservation circles for his sacrifices in struggling to establish national parks. He studied at Prae Forestry College, Kasetsart University and the SUNY School of Forestry and Environmental Science. In his field career he carved out no less than four national parks: Thung Salang Luang, Khao Yai, Doi Inthanon and Tarutao.
When he first came to Tarutao in 1973 to establish the park, there were 1,000 villagers living primarily at Jak Bay, Talo Udang Bay and Talo Wao Bay. The settled residents were not pleased at the new land status and relations were very bad between the villagers and the park workers. One or two workers were killed in ambush, and there was much other conflict. Finally the villagers realized that they could not continue fighting, so most moved away. At last only 17 families remained. The Royal Forest Department started a restitution program -- the richest villager, Mr. Ju, received the most compensation money; 25,000 ß for his Molae Bay coconut plantation.
Mr. Boonruang explains that sea gypsies are the oldest residents of the park, living in harmony with the sea long before prison days. Originally they were true' gypsies,' migrating from beach to beach and living in temporary houses. Their traditonal fishing methods caused no detrimental impacts on their environment. Only later when mainland people moved out to the islands to buy land and finance more intensive business activities did sea gypsies become culprits in illegal trawling, dynamite fishing, piracy, log and wildlife poaching. The relation between park workers and the outer islanders were bad, many workers died in shoot-outs. But Mr. Boonruang stresses that the sea gypsies themselves were not responsible; most were not involved in the conflicts.
At first the park had only one small boat to patrol the wide park waters, and even later could not match the boat power and weapons of illegal fishermen. During one famous incident in 1981, 10 park workers in a long-tailed boat were surrounded by illegal trawlers and dynamite-fishing boats. As their boat became riddled with bullet holes, they broke away and returned to Laem Sone at Ko Adang. When the illegal boats followed them and surrounded the area, they were forced to radio for help. Finally a helicopter carried them out of the predicament.
Other obstacles for the pioneering rangers were bad weather and storms, capsizing boats, malaria and loneliness. Sometimes the men stayed by themselves in distant guard stations for long periods of time. Boonruang says he always tried to provide proper health care and security programs for his workers to make up for the dangerous conditions. He knew he could never expect his men to risk their lives if their own boss wasn't brave, so Boonruang is known for his daring exploits as well. During one very stormy monsoon period, the park was almost out of provisions, so he took the boat out to Pakbara himself to buy rice and food, on the verge of capsizing all the way. The intense training in weapon use, swimming and park protection was successful in his era. One heroic worker with one small boat and a gun one night managed to arrest 7 trawling boats and bring them into headquarters.
The wild days of Tarutao are almost over, but somehow a whiff of danger and intrigue still is in the air.
The 51 islands of the park archipelago lie in the Andaman Sea from 20-70 km.. off the extreme southwest coast of peninsular Thailand. Tarutao, the largest of the islands, is 26.5 km. long and 11 km. wide. The topography is mostly mountainous (highest point 708 m.) with a few broad plains and valleys. Semi-evergreen rain-forest blankets about 60 percent of the island, and pure mangrove swamps are found in several areas. Long sandy beaches lie along the western coast from Pante Bay to Makham Bay, and at Talo Udang Bay in the south.
Tarutao is a Malay work meaning old, mysterious and primitive. Preliminary geological work has borne out the first of these adjectives. Much of Tarutao is composed of very old Cambrian sandstone. The northern and southeastern portions of the island consist of limestone rock. Most of the caves on the island are formed in limestone rock.
The Adang-Rawi group of islands lies about 50 km.. west of Tarutao and includes Adang, Rawi, Dong and Lipe. Adang Island. with a steep and rugged landscape almost completely covered by tropical rainforest, may be the most wild and appealing of the islands. Sparkling clear water and superb coral reefs provide habitat for a wide variety of marine life forms, including many brightly colored fish. Beautiful beaches consist of quartz derived from Adang's Cretaceous granite makeup and coral fragmants. Several waterfalls plummet down Adang's eastern slopes in times of heavy rain.
Tarutao and the west coast of peninsular Thailand are subject to a monsoon climate. In the summer months high temperatures in central China cause the air to rise, thus creating a massive low pressure area. This draws wind from the cooler area over the Indian Ocean. The winds coming off the Indian Ocean pick up moisture and dump heavy rains on the west coast of peninsular Thailand from May through October. Normally 250-400 mm. of rain falls in each of these months. The other six months of the year receive little or no rain. Total yearly rainfall averages about 2500 mm. The monsoon winds make boat travel dangerous from May through October; that is why visitors are encouraged to come to the park from November through April.
The mean yearly temperature is between 27 and 28 degrees C. The warmest month of the year is April, with the April mean about 29 degrees C. High temperatures in April may be 35 degrees C. or more. November and December are the coolest months of the year with mean temperatures of about 15 degrees C.
The mean yearly humidity is about 80%. It is highest in September, October and November and averages about 85%. Humidity is lowest in February and March, varying from 70-72%.
The climatic data recorded here was not taken on Tarutao. It is based on data actually collected at Phuket and Trang, and is thus not completely accurate. But it is unlikely that the actual values for Tarutao would be much different.
In rainy season, the national park will be closed (Adang - Rawi Islands) during 16 May - 15 November every year for visitors safety.
For more extensive details on Tarutao National Park's natural resources, see the following publications in the library, but please do not remove them from the library.
Vegetation: The bioclimate of Tarutao is influenced by its position just north of the "Kangar-Pattani line" which approximates the transition from rain to monsoon forest. The change is due to decreasing rainfall and increasing seasonality in the climate northwards. Further complications of geology and azonal soil types create a mosaic of both Thai and Malayan forest species in the park. The dominant vegetation type in the park is moist evergreen forest. Other types are dry evergreen forest, mixed deciduous forest, mangrove forest, secondary forest and old agricultural land, beach forest, coconut plantation and scrub forest.
Wildlife: As is typical of island fauna, Tarutao National Park contains relatively few terrestrial vertebrates and resident birds, though visitors are still able to see wildlife. Dusky langurs, crab-eating macaques, mouse deer and wild pig are common on the islands. Due to prolonged isolation by sea, over 13 insular subspecies occur on the islands. There are at least nine insular subspecies of squirrels, five of common treeshrew and three of lesser mouse deer. Other wildlife occurring in the park are slow loris, otters, civets, flying lemurs, fishing cats, soft-shelled turtles, monitor lizards, pythons, cobras, coral snakes and vipers. Crocodiles may inhabit the saltwater swamps of Tarutao, but no sightings have been reported for several years. The feral cattle will soon be removed from Tarutao, and the rule against other domesticated animals is strictly enforced.
It is likely that over 100 bird species occur here, either as residents or migrants. The reef egret, which has both a light and dark color phase, is a commonly seen bird of both rocky and sandy coasts. Majestic white-bellied sea eagles and ospreys have been seen soaring over the park in their search for fish. There are three species of hornbills as well as more rarely encountered species such as frigate birds, dusky grey herons, pied imperial pigeons and masked finfoot. Just off the southwest tip of Tarutao is Ko Rang Nok (Birds' Nest Island) where a limestone cavern harbors a large colony of edible nest swiftlets; a shrine at the entrance was once used to make offerings of cattle skulls to placate the cave spirits and protect nest gatherers who scaled long bamboo poles to the cave's roof, a practice now prohibited
Marine Life: The area of Adang-Rawi contains many coral reefs of high species diversity. Degradation of some reefs by natural and man-made causes is significant but has not affected the overall ecological value of the park. The map insert shows some of the more interesting coral reefs in the park. The damage to some reefs are due to dynamite fishing, storm damage and crown-of-thorns starfish predation.
It is estimated that the park contains about 25% of the world's fish species. Some of the more important include members of families such as shark, ray, grouper, eel, carp, catfish, salmon, flying perch, angelfish and butterflyfish. 92 species of coral-reef fish were identified in one study.
Among marine mammals which can be spotted in the park are dugong, the common dolphin, the Irawadddy dolphin, sperm whale and minke whale.
Three species of migratory sea turtles nest on several of the island's beaches from September to April. Tragically, the present number of turtle nests may be less than a tenth of those found in 1974, a decline likely due to over-collection of eggs as well as mortality from fishing trawlers which often net adult turtles. Two American scientists studied the turtles during 1980-81, but their program of research and protection has largely been abandoned because of lack of manpower and funds.