She recalled how, years ago, as the leader of a crime suppression and patrol team at Phu Mieng Phu Thong Wildlife Sanctuary in Phitsanulok province, she and some subordinates were surrounded by angry protestors and one of her men asked her whether or not she had a gun. She realised then and there that she must do whatever was necessary to be prepared for any situation.
Ms Weraya, now chief of Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi province, started right away to learn how to handle a firearm. Although she humbly says she is still not a good markswoman, since that day she has carried a .38 revolver on the job. At 43, Ms Weraya is the only female forest sanctuary chief within the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP), an organisation where the male sex dominates almost every sector.
''I have to say that there was tremendous pressure on me,'' Ms Weraya said of that first posting as a team leader. Then and now, she's handled the pressure of being a woman in charge in a man's world very well.
She joined the men on her team in every aspect of the job, from checkpoints to forest patrols, and proved she was physically fit. She thinks the quality that won her colleagues over, however, was her problem-solving ability. The petite, dark-skinned Ms Weraya said that at first she didn't know much about law enforcement, but in order to help her male subordinates, especially in court cases where they hardly had any knowledge, she began to study the relevant laws. She also made sure not to neglect softer ''feminine qualities'' that helped her in her job, such as a willingness to compromise.
In the end her male subordinates accepted her. The day she realised this was when they forgot that she was a woman and asked her to help arrest a suspect who was running away.
''For women to be able to do some jobs, you can't deny that it's about being given the opportunity. My boss asked me if I could do the job, so I told him that I would try. If he hadn't made the offer, I may not have had a chance to take over at Thung Yai Naresuan.''
HITTING THE TRAIL
As a young student in Phitsanulok she had no idea what conservation was about. She only knew she loved travel, and she loved nature. A student mentor who came to the school to advise younger students suggested that she enroll in the Faculty of Forestry at Kasetsart University, and she eventually won a place there, majoring in forestry management. After graduation, she took an examination for a position at the Royal Forestry Department headquarters, which oversaw forestry affairs in the country at that time.
She passed the test and was about to be deployed at a map production and translation division, but after some hard thought the young graduate suddenly decided she was not cut out for a desk job. So she decided to decline the post, and, grabbing her backpack, travelled to Phu Kradung National Park in the Northeast in order to take a temporary job working in the field.
Ms Weraya was first assigned to take care of tourists at the park's tourist information centre. In two years working there, she began to win the trust of her supervisors and was allowed to conduct a patrol with male colleagues.
It was the very first time that she was tested as a team member and worked with male colleagues.
''I have to say that it's not a one-day success story,'' said Ms Weraya, recalling the first time she worked with men.
''It took me over a year to gain their trust that I, although I'm a woman, could do what they do. So, I had to prove it to them. I joined them in several forest patrols, stayed overnight in the forest, ate what they ate, and eventually they had no questions about me.
''My bosses were also supportive. They wanted to see me accepted,'' she added.
Ms Weraya worked at Phu Kradung National Park for two years before leaving for nearby Phu Hin Rong Kla. She only stayed there for two months as there was ''hardly any work to do''. She moved on to a community forestry job before reapplying for a permanent position with the Forestry Department. She was offered a chance to work at the wildlife conservation division and she leapt at it.
Ms Weraya worked at the central office for two years before she was sent to Huay Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, at the age of 30. She was exposed to the story of revered conservationist Sueb Nakhasathien, who had taken his life when she was in her third year of university.
''It was at that time that I set my mind on doing everything I could to follow his [Sueb's] example,'' said Ms Weraya.
After working at Huay Kha Khaeng for about a year, Ms Weraya was asked to take the job cracking down on forest crime at Phu Mieng Phu Thong Wildlife Sanctuary by the chief there, who had been Sueb's assistant. She gladly accepted.
In four years at the Phu Mieng Phu Thong reserve she managed to make around 50 arrests, breaking department records. Her determined efforts to stop wildlife poaching and other crimes in the sanctuary also brought her a death threat. Her superiors considered that it would no longer be safe for her to continue working there, and they decided to to transfer her to Lam Pao Wildlife Sanctuary in the Northeast as the chief of the nature reserve. She was 35 at the time.
Ms Weraya worked at Lam Pao Wildlife Sanctuary for 18 months before moving on to another sanctuary nearby, and then back to her hometown in Phitsanulok to take a senior position at the regional wildlife conservation office.
The same boss who gave her the opportunity to head the crime suppression team at Phu Mieng Phu Thong asked her to come to Thung Yai Naresuan in 2008 as his assistant.
''I had been here before and it never left my mind. I still remember a hornbill flying low from the forest over our car. When my boss invited me to come and work here, I had no hesitation at all,'' said Ms Weraya.
ON TOP OF THE THREATS
The area encompassing Thung Yai Naresuan and Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuaries was registered as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991, stretching over 600,000 hectares along the Myanmar border. It contains almost all the forest types of continental Southeast Asia, and is home of a very diverse array of wildlife, including elephants, tigers and leopards. According to Unesco, 34 threatened species are found within the confines of the two sanctuaries.
The declaration of the World Heritage Site came about largely through Sueb's efforts. In 1987 he successfully campaigned against the construction of the Nam Choan Dam, a 580 megawatt project planned for the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. He was appointed head of Huay Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary, and in September, 1990, he took his own life in the sanctuary following the shooting deaths of two of his rangers by poachers. His tragic suicide was also attributed to frustrations in trying to preserve the pristine natural environment he loved. Ms Weraya considers Sueb as her role model for his unflagging conservation efforts, and says it is a tremendous honour and responsibility to follow in his footsteps at Thung Yai Naresuan. ''Sueb was a real thinker, so determined, and he worked so hard to get the job done. My accomplishments may not be at the same level, but I will try my best,'' she said.
As the current chief of the sanctuary, Ms Weraya's biggest concern is wildlife poaching. She has laid out a strategy to protect the biodiversity of the forest and says that thanks to the reserve's rangers, they are keeping on top of it. Statistics from her office show that during the first few months of this year, rangers detected 27 cases of wildlife poaching, two cases of forest encroachment, four instances of illegal logging and a few other offences.
Ms Weraya is well aware that she and her staff need to keep up their guard against these threats, and she stressed that they also need extra support because of the rough topography of the forest. With more than two million rai of pristine forest, it is one of the country's least accessible protected areas. During the rainy season, some rangers who work in units far away from headquarters have to walk up to 100km to reach them, frequently cutting through the forest and swimming across streams as forest trails are washed away by rains.
Ms Weraya said she has issued a gentle challenge to her approximately 200 rangers in 17 patrol teams to protect the forest from any and all threats.
WATCHING THEIR BACKS
A rusty white Toyota pickup slowly climbed a hilly forest track to bring a group of forestry officials, including Ms Weraya, to one of Thung Yai Naresuan's wildlife protection units. A heavy rain had caused the track to become muddy, and the truck began slipping on the track. Boonchai Sansapsin, 46, an experienced chief ranger, pushed down on the accelerator in order to try to make it up the slippery slope. Some rangers jumped out of the truck to help push it forward.
Ms Weraya, in her camouflaged uniform, also got out of the front and observed her male subordinates. After they had pushed for a while she suggested they use a winch. The incident illustrates the way Ms Weraya operates, always at the side of her male subordinates, watching their backs and offering solutions in a feminine, non-confrontational manner.
But this year, Ms Weraya has gotten some bad news. Apparently because she and her staff have been doing there job so effectively, the budget for the forest sanctuary has been cut and will be diverted to other areas where the problems are rampant.
She said this policy is not responsive to the needs of the area. She noted that the rough terrain is especially hard on vehicles, and said they actually needed to double the budget to maintain them, from 15,000 baht per truck per year to 30,000 baht.
''If the government believes Thung Yai is important to the country, it should help rangers and provide support to them as we work relatively harder than in many other places due to the natural features here,'' said Ms Weraya.
She said the sanctuary receives only around one baht per rai a year in budget, a rate not much different than that which was provided more than 20 years ago, when Sueb was alive.
''Now the pressures I feel concerning gender have eased, but the pressure from the lack of understanding and being overlooked is hurtful,'' said Ms Weraya, adding that she has no plans to leave her post at Thung Yai Naresuan.
''I cannot be certain we've developed a system to ensure that this forest will be well protected, but I will not give up until the work is finished,'' she said.