A deadly outcome.
Picture having a new nightmare neighbour who has just moved in next door.
Would you avoid, confront or seek help?
For 400 wild Asian elephants in the Eastern Forest Complex of Thailand, avoiding the problem was not a choice. This area had been, after all, their home for 10,000 years. Also, they were just hungry.
Clearing of forests had removed food and water sources for the elephants, rendering it impossible for the herds to stay put. When they saw that their new neighbours were stocked with an abundance of crops, desperation for food and water kicked in.
“It walked right through the village,” a villager described.
“Stealing the crops is not a big problem, but stomping on them is. That causes the damage,” another explained.
It also seemed perfectly reasonable for the local farmers to feel threatened. For local communities, the plantation areas were a source of forest products, rubber, rice and other crops.
In early 2016, a herd of hungry and thirsty elephants left the forest and raided crops in Chumphon, alarming residents in the process.
The tension has continued to this day.
“I have no idea how the government will help us solve the problem,” a monk told us. Elephants had entered temple grounds to eat jackfruit.
Reports have it that farmers would kill the elephants to protect their fields and families. This is believed to be the leading cause of elephant deaths in Asia.
In the Greater Mekong region, poisons, guns and snares are commonly employed to bring down the elephants.
Every year, 40-50 elephants and about 100 humans are killed during crop-raiding in India.
If the wild elephants had a voice, we would hear an emotional plea.
There are just 3,700 wild Asian elephants left in Thailand. Deforestation, loss of habitat, poaching, illegal wildlife trade, infrastructure development, and farmland expansion have threatened elephant populations across the country.
The question remains: Are wild elephants invading residential places – or have we become the nightmare neighbour barging into their home for the last 10,000 years?
No matter, the extreme stress between the wild elephants and their human neighbours highlighted the critical need for a mediator.
TRACKING MOVEMENTS WITH GPS COLLARS
Thailand’s Department of National Parks (DNP) and WWF stepped in.
To prevent conflicts, they needed to know where incidents were likely to happen. With advance notice, livelihoods and lives – both human and elephant – can be saved. The decision was made to purchase six GPS collars.
“As part of our research on studying the behaviour of wild elephants, we can now track elephant movement patterns when they come out of the Eastern Forest Complex to the village,” said Dr Supagit Vinitpornsawan, Head of Dong Phayayen – Khao Yai Wildlife Research Station.
We successfully collared the first three in January this year, and are looking to collar the remaining three by the end of this year.
THE COLLARING DAY
Collaring day was a nerve-wrecking moment. The research team had been practising for more than a month to collar an elephant.
It was a misty morning, which proved to be risky for the team to approach the elephant with blurred vision.
Thankfully, the skies cleared within half an hour.
The team had received information that the leader of an elephant herd had been crossing the same road for over two weeks. The herd of elephants would leave the forest in the evening to look for food and return in the early morning.
Waiting in position, the team finally spotted the elephant targeted for collaring.
This was it.
Once tranquillised, the task of collaring the targeted elephant had to be carried out swiftly.
Sedatives would wear off after an hour. During this step, the elephant doctor also collected DNA, which would help to identify the collared elephant.
Everything was done in 10 minutes.
Collaring done, we now knew the exact whereabouts of the herd.
Every step recorded and monitored will provide valuable intel about the direction, distance travelled, walking speed – even the elephants’ eating and drinking patterns.
While the job is far from done, collaring and tracking elephants brings hope for the peace that once prevailed in the 250,000 hectares of pristine forest of the Eastern Forest Complex.
Forests continue to fall to human encroachment all over Southeast Asia. Will you continue to support our work with elephants and humans – and help bring back wildlife populations here?
Interviews have been altered slightly for clarity.
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