Where Wild Elephants and Thai Farmers Are Forced to Be Neighbours

In Wildlife
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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.

A herd of wild elephants foraging for food in a rubber plantation.
©WWF-Thailand

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.

Farmers depend on the crops for livelihood.
©WWF-Thailand

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.

The state of the crops after the elephants foraged for food.
©WWF-Thailand

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.

About 129 critically endangered elephants have died in Sumatra, Indonesia from poisoning or shooting in less than a decade.
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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.

With shrinking forest habitats and expanding farms, human-elephant conflict has escalated, especially in Thailand’s Eastern Forest Complex.
©WWF-Thailand

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.

“Another reason to implement this project is to try and reduce the human-elephant conflict. We need to protect the elephants from being attacked by the communities so they can live their lives peacefully in the conservation area – while the villagers, too, can keep their crops safe,” Dr Supagit Vinitpornsawa (right) continued.
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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.

Morning of the collaring day.
©WWF-Thailand

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.

The leader of the herd of elephants.
©WWF-Thailand

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.

The moment the research team was waiting for: a “connected” signal satellite collar to appear on the screen, marked by a red dot, to track the elephant’s real-time position.

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.

If you like reading this story, see this shocking surprise in Sabah’s restored forest, how this former turtle egg poacher switched to being a turtle guardian, and why the haze could be much worse than it is now.

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