Man against beast

IN THAI­LAND REV­ER­ENCE FOR WILD ELE­PHANTS IS MIXED WITH FEAR. AND WITH SHRINK­ING HABI­TATS FORC­ING AN­I­MALS OUT OF THE FOR­EST AND INTO HU­MAN DO­MAINS, THE CON­SE­QUENCES ARE PROV­ING DEADLY

AugustMan (Malaysia) - - Exposé - WORDS BY DUN­CAN FORGAN PHO­TOS BY AARON SAN­TOS

Rev­er­ence for wild ele­phants is mixed with fear, and with shrink­ing habi­tats forc­ing an­i­mals into hu­man do­mains, the af­ter­math is deadly

SIT­TING ON A col­lapsi­ble chair in his yard, with a por­trait of his late fa­ther Uthorn propped against his legs, Ti­ti­pan Khan­thong is a study in re­strained grief and rage. Po­lite and forth­com­ing, he barely man­ages to con­ceal his feel­ings as he talks to me about his fa­ther’s death. He clenches and un­clenches his fists in­vol­un­tar­ily and oc­ca­sional flashes of clear anger ig­nite his oth­er­wise im­pas­sive face. The 41-year-old teacher has good rea­son for an­guish. A month ago Uthorn had left the fam­ily home in the small com­mu­nity of Wang Mee in north­east Thai­land to check on his corn­field lo­cated just out­side of the Khao Yai Na­tional Park: the coun­try’s old­est pro­tected area.

It was sup­posed to be a rou­tine look to see if the crops were ready for har­vest and to check that the wild ele­phants that tended to wan­der out of the forests of the na­tional park weren’t tak­ing a sur­rep­ti­tious nib­ble on his pro­duce ‒ as they had been wont to do in re­cent years. He never re­turned.

“I was watch­ing TV when I heard a noise,” Ti­ti­pan re­calls. “I had a feel­ing that some­thing was hor­ri­bly wrong. I rushed out­side and called out for my fa­ther but got no re­ply. I searched for four hours and then I found him. He was dead.”

At this point Ti­ti­pan holds out his phone to show me a photo. It’s hard to square up the im­age to the air­brushed por­trait of his fa­ther in the pic­ture frame. So crushed and dam­aged was his corpse.

“My fa­ther had al­ways said it was not their [the ele­phants’] fault that they had to raid our farms to have things to eat,” says Ti­ti­pan. “But look at what hap­pened to him? If the au­thor­i­ties can’t stop the ele­phants then we will have to stop them our­selves.”

Such an­tipa­thy to­wards wild ele­phant pop­u­la­tions is not a new thing. In Africa, In­dia and other coun­tries around Asia, hu­man-ele­phant con­flict is prov­ing lethal on both sides.

The causes of the prob­lem are not dif­fi­cult to as­cer­tain. As hu­man pop­u­la­tions con­tinue to grow, more land is re­quired to build homes and grow crops to meet de­mand. And as peo­ple en­croach into ele­phant habi­tats, the an­i­mals are forced to ven­ture out of their fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory to find al­ter­na­tive sources of food and wa­ter.

The re­sult is reg­u­lar raids by ele­phants on farm prop­er­ties, caus­ing dam­age amount­ing from a few thou­sand dol­lars to mil­lions of dol­lars. That is no mi­nor loss when you are a strug­gling farmer in ru­ral Asia.

It’s lit­tle won­der then that this mu­tu­ally de­struc­tive (and seem­ingly in­tractable) sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues to spur con­flict be­tween man and beast.

“It’s a power strug­gle, but it’s one that has been caused by hu­mans,” says Tim Red­ford, pro­gramme di­rec­tor of Sur­viv­ing To­gether.

The ini­tia­tive, run by Bangkok head­quar­tered NGO, Free­land, is in­volved in nu­mer­ous con­ser­va­tion ac­tiv­i­ties in and around the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai (DPKY) For­est Cor­ri­dor, a 6,500-square-kilo­me­tre swathe of jun­gle run­ning east­ward from Khao Yai to near the bor­der with Cam­bo­dia that shel­ters wild ele­phants and other rare wildlife such as tigers and bears.

Sur­viv­ing To­gether’s work in­cludes the re­duc­tion of hu­man/wildlife con­flict. Thus far, the pro­gramme has achieved no­table suc­cess in Wang Mee by fos­ter­ing a com­mu­nity ini­tia­tive to re­duce flash­points.

But, says Red­ford, there’s un­likely to be last­ing peace when the pri­or­i­ties of farm­ers and hun­gry ele­phants con­tinue to col­lide.

“By grow­ing their crops right at the edge of the pro­tected area, they are al­most giv­ing the ele­phants a ‘come and get me’ sig­nal,” he adds. “It’s like open­ing an ice cream shop across the road from a school.”

Once ele­phants have got­ten a taste for th­ese treats, it is hard for them to kick the habit and go back to for­ag­ing for food in in­creas­ingly frag­mented and bar­ren habi­tats. This clash of in­ter­ests is spark­ing an up­surge in hu­man/ele­phant con­flict all over the world. Ac­cord­ing to the World Wildlife Foun­da­tion, up to 300 peo­ple and 50 ele­phants are killed an­nu­ally dur­ing crop raids in In­dia.

In Viet­nam, mean­while, the once healthy pop­u­la­tion of wild ele­phants, es­ti­mated in the thou­sands as re­cently as the early 1980s, has dwin­dled to fewer than 100. Ram­pant poach­ing has played its part in the dec­i­ma­tion of ele­phant pop­u­la­tions, as has the sev­er­ing of breed­ing routes for wild pachy­derms by hu­man de­vel­op­ment.

But con­flict be­tween farm­ers and ele­phants has too been de­struc­tive, with an­gry vil­lagers pick­ing off ele­phants by dig­ging pits to trap and kill the an­i­mals in re­tal­i­a­tion for lethal raids on their fields of corn, sugar cane and sweet potato. Con­ser­va­tion­ists have all but given up, pre­dict­ing that Viet­nam will be the first coun­try in Asia to lose its wild ele­phants.

Wild ele­phants are also en­dan­gered in Thai­land ‒ des­ig­nated as such since 1986. But the sit­u­a­tion in the King­dom is less acute than in Viet­nam, Laos and Cam­bo­dia.

In 2017, Thai­land’s De­part­ment of Na­tional Parks claimed that the num­ber of ele­phants in the wild is in­creas­ing by up to 10 per cent year on year. It said this is a re­sult of bet­ter law en­force­ment and ef­forts to rein­tro­duce wild ele­phants to the for­est and build­ing up food sources in the jun­gle.

An­other im­por­tant fac­tor in the resur­gence in the wild ele­phant pop­u­la­tion is the Thais’ tra­di­tional rev­er­ence for pachy­derms. The ele­phant, or chang in Thai, is the coun­try’s na­tional an­i­mal ‒ cel­e­brated in ev­ery­thing from art­works in royal palaces and tem­ples to the name of one of the coun­try’s favourite beers.

While the days (only just over a cen­tury ago) when an es­ti­mated 300,000 plus wild ele­phants roamed the jun­gles of Thai­land are lost and gone for­ever, the fu­ture of the species at least ap­pears to be se­cure.

Yet while this in­crease in num­bers is great news for con­ser­va­tion­ists and other friends of the Asian ele­phant, it is much less clearcut for those who earn their liveli­hoods on the edges of Thai­land’s pro­tected ar­eas.

“My fam­ily can’t af­ford to for­sake our

CON­SER­VA­TION­ISTS ARE PRE­DICT­ING THAT VIET­NAM WILL BE THE FIRST COUN­TRY IN ASIA TO LOSE ALL ITS WILD ELE­PHANTS

corn just be­cause a cou­ple of ele­phants pre­fer the taste of our crops than the food in the forests,” con­tin­ues Ti­ti­pan. “Look at us,” he says, ges­tur­ing around a yard whose di­shev­elled ap­pear­ance gives off an air of ne­glect. “We are not rich peo­ple. Be­ing de­prived of in­come from our crops is bad enough. Los­ing a fa­ther be­cause he tried to chase the ele­phants away makes it worse.”

Clearly hu­man/ele­phant con­flict is a ma­jor is­sue in the coun­try. The sit­u­a­tion is es­pe­cially dire in ma­jor fruit-grow­ing prov­inces such as Ray­ong and Chan­thaburi where the high eco­nomic value of durian, man­gos­teen and pineap­ple plan­ta­tions makes farm­ers even more de­ter­mined to stop crop raids by any means nec­es­sary.

In th­ese ar­eas, Red­ford tells me, vil­lagers and ele­phants are get­ting killed al­most every day.

On the fringes of Khao Yai Na­tional Park near Wang Mee, the de­struc­tive po­ten­tial of wild ele­phants can be seen as we sur­veyed the perime­ters of the jun­gle from our bat­tered truck.

Foot­prints that mea­sure well over a foot in size lead from the for­est to­wards murky wa­ter holes and into the fields of sug­ar­cane and cas­sava. A barbed wire fence erected to dis­cour­age the beasts from en­ter­ing the crop fields lies bro­ken and twisted, its use­ful­ness as a se­cu­rity mea­sure neutered by the pow­er­ful nudge of a pachy­derm paw.

It gives me an in­sight on how ter­ri­fy­ing it must be to live with wild ele­phants as hun­gry next-door neigh­bours. But live along­side them peo­ple do, plant­ing their crops and thus leav­ing a smor­gas­bord of tasty morsels within easy raid­ing dis­tance.

“I shone a flash­light at the ele­phant while I was on the floor and said ‘Please don’t kill me’,” re­calls Chaina­hanap Nai, an­other farmer whose land lies at the edge of the jun­gle. Wild ele­phants have been raid­ing her crops since 2011.

At first, she says, it was just a sin­gle an­i­mal that ap­peared oc­ca­sion­ally to take a nib­ble on her sug­ar­cane. Each year since then though, the con­tin­gent has grown. So too has the fre­quency and the im­pact of the raids. One night in 2015, she was sit­ting in her ram­shackle wooden home when an ele­phant crashed through the wall.

“I ran for my life,” she says. “I was ter­ri­fied be­cause I knew that they could eas­ily kill me. When I re­turned, there was noth­ing left of my house ‒ only my be­long­ings ly­ing un­der the splin­ters.”

As well as hav­ing her home de­stroyed,

Nai has had to con­tend with se­ri­ous harm to her in­come. Dam­age from raids, she es­ti­mates, cost her around THB28,000 in the har­vest of 2017 alone. While that sum might not sound cat­a­strophic, it’s a mighty hit in the north­east of Thai­land, the most im­pov­er­ished area of the coun­try, where the av­er­age in­come for farm­ers is around THB5,000 per month.

De­spite her tra­vails, Nai in­sists that she bears no bit­ter­ness to­wards the ele­phants. “It’s hu­man na­ture to feel anger,” she says. “And I felt it at first, es­pe­cially when they stomped my home. But now I am philo­soph­i­cal, be­cause this is na­ture and it’s some­thing that no­body can con­trol.”

Not ev­ery­one in Wang Mee, and in­deed around Thai­land, is so san­guine. Poach­ing had been rife in Wang Mee un­til re­cently, and it’s clear that some in­di­vid­u­als in the com­mu­nity are not averse to moon­light­ing as mer­ce­nar­ies to cap­ture and kill ele­phants and other an­i­mals if not for the strict jail sen­tences and the for­est rangers who are au­tho­rised to shoot to kill poach­ers.

“It’s the tra­di­tional way of con­trol­ling wild an­i­mal pop­u­la­tions that are out of con­trol,” says Som­nut, an­other farmer im­pacted by crop raids as he lays out his scorched earth so­lu­tion to hu­man/ele­phant con­flict.

Thank­fully cooler heads ap­pear to be pre­vail­ing, at least in Wang Mee. Since es­tab­lish­ing a pres­ence in the area, ini­tially to com­bat poach­ing, Free­land has helped spear­head ef­forts to nip hu­man/ele­phant con­flict in the bud. Its ini­tia­tives in­clude set­ting cam­era traps to help mon­i­tor wild ele­phant ac­tiv­ity, con­struct­ing two watch­tow­ers and plant­ing “bio-bar­ri­ers”. Th­ese bar­ri­ers are nat­u­ral de­ter­rents of crops that ele­phants are known to find re­pug­nant to the palate.

Com­mu­nity ef­forts have also been key in keep­ing con­flict in check. With en­cour­age­ment from Free­land, vil­lagers have set up the Wang Mee Con­ser­va­tion Group. Each day, mem­bers of the group meet in the early evening to share in­tel­li­gence about re­cent sight­ings of wild ele­phants. Groups then pile into pick-up trucks for a cou­ple of hours to pa­trol the perime­ter road and scout out re­cent ar­eas of en­croach­ment. If ele­phants are spot­ted, they can then usher them peace­fully back into the jun­gle be­fore any dam­age is done.

With its smat­ter­ing of ba­sic res­tau­rants and a petrol sta­tion with a con­ve­nience store, Wang Mee is no­body’s idea of an en­ter­tain­ment hotspot. And, pil­ing into the pick-up on a Fri­day night with men, women and chil­dren, I feel as though the pa­trol may well be the hottest ticket in town in terms of ex­cite­ment. The lo­cals, though, are clearly en­thu­si­as­tic about the un­der­tak­ing.

And, as head vil­lager Arun Keawsamaket, re­lates, it’s a far more pro­duc­tive com­mu­nity en­deav­our than poach­ing or pick­ing off wild ele­phants in re­venge at­tacks.

“We can’t blame the ele­phants for steal­ing our crops,” she says, “so when I hear that some­one is an­gry about the an­i­mals, I go to their home and warn them not to act on their emo­tions.”

No such ra­tio­nal­ity is ap­par­ent a few min­utes down the road though, where Ti­ti­pan con­tin­ues to sim­mer over his fa­ther’s tragic death.

“He loved ele­phants,” he says. “He al­ways told me and my broth­ers never to go af­ter them with guns ‒ no mat­ter how much dam­age they were do­ing to our crops.

But we can’t let th­ese an­i­mals ruin our liveli­hoods, our lives.” AM

A BARBED WIRE FENCE ERECTED TO DIS­COUR­AGE THE BEASTS FROM EN­TER­ING THE FIELDS LIES BRO­KEN AND TWISTED, ITS USE­FUL­NESS NEUTERED BY THE POW­ER­FUL NUDGE OF A PACHY­DERM PAW

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