The two, along with a group of Kaeng Krachan National Park rangers, were there to try to move on some wild elephants reportedly damaging crops in villagers’ fields around Pa Dang village in Tambon Pa Deng, one of four tambons bordering the park.
The elephants could be heard nearby, but it was hard to locate them precisely with the pickup’s engine running. But turning off the engine and searchlight increased the risk that the elephants might attack.
Mr Somporn and the Kaeng Krachan park rangers had no choice — if they could locate the elephants, they would at least know in which direction they should drive the beasts away from the fields.
Silence blanketed the pickup. Between the rangers and the villagers’ fields was a small outcrop of forest. Every few minutes, Mr Somporn ordered his men to shine their spotlights into the trees in the hope the lights would drive the elephants away. They also had other devices including balloons (effective in scaring them when popped), whistles and firecrackers to help drive off the animals.
But as midnight approached, and they still hadn’t found the elephants, Mr Somporn decided to abort the operation.
“At least they’re not in the villagers’ fields now, and we’ve tried our best to scare them back into the forest,” said Mai.
A team of six Kaeng Krachan park rangers has been assigned to keep an eye out for wild elephants coming out of the forest to the south of the park. In recent years, Kaeng Krachan has also formed a special elephant surveillance team led by Mr Somporn, in collaboration with Thap Praya Sua military unit, to back up the team as the numbers coming out of the forest have increased.
Kaeng Krachan National Park is one of several protected areas in the East, Northeast and upper South where conflicts between people and elephants are regularly reported. Thailand has an estimated 3,000 wild elephants that roam freely in 69 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, but these protected areas form a central habitat of forest clusters where most of the wild elephant population lives.
According to the latest study and policy recommendation paper by the Forestry Faculty of Kasetsart University, Master Plan for Elephant Conflict Resolution and Conservation, published last year, the problem has become more severe, with more frequent appearances of elephants from the forests and more clashes between them and humans.
At Kaeng Krachan, the problem has led to severe consequences. In recent years, elephants have been killed. Some have been electrified, others have been found hacked to death. The incidents have mostly occurred to the south of the park, where elephants reportedly roam freely.
Statistics from 2005 to 2013 collected by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has been working with the park on research to solve the problem, show that at least 13 wild elephants have been killed.
THE ROOT CAUSES
According to the Kasetsart University study, which has reviewed the problem and its history, the current difficulties people are having with wild elephants are just history repeating itself.
As noted in the paper, conflicts with elephants became common about 100 years ago, usually when people started farming previously uncultivated land. When canals were first built in the Rangsit area, and people started farming rice in paddies irrigated by the new canals, wild elephants were reported to have invaded the fields. Up to 1,000 wild elephants were once said to have invaded the area, but at the time there was little that could be done.
Many elephants in the central plains were killed, and they almost disappeared from lowland forests. Some moved on to nearby forests, including Khao Yai.
Today’s problems with wild elephants were first reported about 20 years ago, when some were electrocuted and poisoned, mainly in Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Kui Buri district, south of Kaeng Krachan, where farmers had been encouraged to switch to growing pineapples due to big export demand.
Since then, wild elephants, mainly from protected areas in the East, Northeast, upper South and nearby forests which form large forest clusters, have been reportedly coming out of the forests to adjacent fields, causing conflicts with farmers. And the problem seems to be intensifying.
Associate Professor Naris Bhumipakpan, former head of Kasetsart University’s Forest Biology Department, and lead author of the study, suggests conflicts between wild elephants and humans in several forest areas are a result of the animals’ loss of habitat.
Based on his review of the problem, habitat loss is the key driver forcing the wild elephants from the forest.
Elephants generally prefer lowland areas, but over the years these have been widely encroached on, from the central plains to lowland forests.
Wild elephants, he said, have been forced to live on higher ground, where water is scarce, and they are barley able to survive in such habitats.
“The elephants cannot talk, but we can see that suitable habitats have been shrinking. This can be clearly observed during the dry season, when water runs almost dry and they come out of the forests,” Mr Naris said. “We tend to think of the problems with wild elephants from a human perspective, and hardly discuss seriously the elephants’ plight.
“The fact is the animals need to eat almost all of the time, for 18 hours on average. So, if we consider the habitats that are left for them, we can see that it’s an ecological problem concerning the feeding capacity of the forests that is essential to the survival of the animals.”
The paper says that several forest areas, although under state protection, have seen extensive encroachment, and problems with wile elephants have been widely reported.
Nam Nao and Phu Kradung national parks in the Northeast, for example, used to be connected forests. However, several new villages have sprung up between them, disrupting the routes the wild elephants have traditionally used to roam between the two forests.
Ang Lue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, at the centre of the Eastern forest cluster, has been encroached upon and adjacent areas have been turned into corn fields. A paved road was also built in the sanctuary, further interrupting wild elephant roaming.
The situation is not much different to Kui Buri and Kaeng Krachan, where forests have been encroached upon and turned into crop fields, and communities have resettled and grown.
EFFORTS TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM
With limited resources, forest rangers in several areas have been trying to come up with measures to at least stop the elephants from leaving the forests. From traditional tools such as simply shouting and making noise, to more modern devices such as spotlights, balloons, fireworks and electrified fences, rangers have been doing what they can to deal with the problem.
Second Lt Channarong Inla, a unit chief in the Thap Praya Sua military task force, has been lending a hand to the park rangers at Kaeng Krachan.
At present, Kaeng Krachan has been implementing various measures to deal with the elephants. It has erected special fences to stop the elephants leaving the forest, but to be completely effective would require a fence tens of kilometres long. But so far, only tens of metres of fencing have been erected as it is costly, according to Mr Somporn, the leader of the elephant surveillance team.
Forest rangers have also been trying to improve water and food sources in the forest in the hope of providing a more sustainable habitat for the wild elephants, but this is also hampered by a lack of funding.
The park has also deployed its elephant surveillance team, which uses whistles, spotlights and fireworks to try to frighten the elephants back into the forest. In recent years, it has worked with 2nd Lt Channarong’s unit, and has also set up seven elephant watch units along the most risky route in Pa Deng, about 11km long.
“What we have been doing is trying to avoid confrontations between the elephants and humans for fear that they will injure people. We have not yet seriously looked at solutions for the elephants, and if we have to do so, I think it would be something beyond the authority of officers in the field. Policymakers should come together to help solve the problem,” said 2nd Lt Channarong. More....