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.”
The Human-Elephant Conflict
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.”
What’s Causing This Conflict
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 clear-cut for those who earn their livelihoods on the edges of Thailand’s protected areas.
Survival Of The Fittest
“My family can’t afford to forsake our 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 (S$1,158) 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 (S$206) 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.
Finding Compromise Between Two Parties
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.”