Editor's note: A project in eastern Thailand has been striving to strike a balance between wildlife and human communities. This page reviews how the initiative uses technology and traditional knowledge to protect the ecosystem inhabited by nearly 600 wild elephants, while crafting innovative solutions to mitigate conflict between these creatures and villagers.
Authorities start project to restore natural habitats of the gentle giants, hoping it will stop them from going to farmland and houses to forage for food
Hidden in the forest of Chachoengsao Province in eastern Thailand, a compound of several single-story houses is being guarded by crews of security guards. In one of these houses, Piyawan Unaha is closely watching the monitors for the appearance of Asian elephants.
Piyawan works at the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Command Center, an advance warning project to detect the activities of wild elephants in five eastern Thai provinces, namely Chachoengsao, Chon Buri, Rayong, Chanthaburi and Sa Kaeo. The provinces are home to nearly 600 wild elephants.
The project, initiated by the Thai royal family, aims to ease the conflict between local communities and wild elephants as the animals encroach upon farmland and houses to forage for food.
Limited food sources have forced wild elephants into such behavioral patterns, posing risks to both elephants and humans.
"The name of the project literally means 'an elixir that strengthens elephants to be as strong as diamonds'," Piyawan said. "It equally focuses on the welfare of both wild elephants and humans alike and strikes that delicate balance where both species can comfortably exist side by side."
The Thai king and queen have made personal contributions to establish the Gajanurak Fund, which supports the purchase of elephant surveillance equipment, alarm systems, radio communications systems and flashlights for volunteers tasked with alerting the villagers of any possible elephant confrontations, she said.
Forests in the five provinces are equipped with comprehensive elephant surveillance systems, helping to track and monitor elephant movements via automated cameras.
"When the surveillance system detects elephants, an alert signal will be sent via the Line chat app to local villagers and the volunteer team, tasked with returning the wild elephants to their natural habitat," Piyawan said.
The system currently involves pilot projects in eight villages, with an additional 43 villages within the network. All 51 villages in the network are affected by foraging wild elephants.
Statistics from Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation show that the country now has about 3,000 to 5,000 wild elephants.
The elephant population has increased over the past decade, Thai nonprofit Human and Elephant Voices Network said.
However, problems such as habitat loss and degradation due to the increase in the human population and agricultural encroachment have also emerged, a trend also seen in other countries.
In China's Yunnan province, the population of wild Asian elephants has increased from about 150 in the 1980s to more than 300 last year due to protection measures, according to statistics from the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, or NFGA.
With the growth in the elephant population, conflicts between humans and elephants have become more frequent. To cope with the growing problem, Yunnan has introduced a commercial insurance model into its compensation mechanism.
Over the past decade, the province has paid out nearly 200 million yuan ($27.44 million) for losses caused by elephants.
"As long as humans and elephants live on the same land, such conflict will inevitably occur," Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, elephant expert and researcher from the Megafauna Ecology and Conservation Group at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said. "The essence of it is the competition for resources, which has existed since ancient times."
As humans have appropriated more and more natural resources, he said human factors have prevailed. "Human-elephant conflict is directly due to the loss of natural habitat," he said.
In Yunnan, such conflict even resulted in a rare phenomenon. In 2021, 15 wild Asian elephants in the province traveled 500 kilometers from their habitat, becoming a hot topic on the internet and in the media all around the world.
"The fundamental way to alleviate human-elephant conflict is to create more suitable habitats for elephants," Chen Fei, director of the Asian Elephant Research Center under the NFGA, said.
"In addition, ecological corridors can also be built to connect habitats."
He said China is exploring ways to further restore the habitat of Asian elephants by building national parks.
The parks will prioritize the protection of ecosystems rather than the utilization of natural resources. The strongest protection in the parks will occur within "red line "zones, a key government strategy that places designated areas under mandatory state protection.
Yunnan is currently pooling ideas from experts both at home and abroad to build a more science-based management system for the Asian Elephant National Park before its official launch.
Similar to the management principle of China's national parks, the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project has adopted a system to meet the needs of three different zones — forest conservation zones, buffer zones and community zones.
Forest conservation zones are mainly for the elephants. Designated water sources are provided to dissuade elephants from venturing out of their natural habitat in search of food.
The project plans to build a total of 60 water sources of different sizes, with a combined capacity of approximately 1.8 million cubic meters. A total of 23 water sources have been established so far.
General Chalermchai Sitthisad, privy councilor and executive chair of the Gajanurak Fund, said reforestation is also an important part of the conservation zones, which helps replenish natural food sources for wild elephants.
He said other suitable food crops and edible flora have been carefully planted for the wild elephants and other animals. These include bamboo, mangoes, bananas, as well as artificial salt licks.
In buffer zones, corridors connecting different ecosystems serve as temporary dwelling places for wild elephants, preventing them from venturing out to forage in local communities.
Buffer zones offer moist, grassy meadows and food sources for wild elephants and other animals.
"Some community forests have even been converted into buffer zones as they host a wide range of biodiversity and crop species, useful for both humans and wildlife," Chalermchai said.
In addition, medicinal plants such as red galangal, pepper, cardamom and water tubes have been included in buffer zones for household use.
"Strongly scented plants that elephants find repugnant, such as climbing wattle and cassia, are also cleverly added at the boundary of the zones as a natural perimeter to deter elephants from straying into local communities and damaging homes," he said.
In community zones, the focus is on community development, raising awareness and creating understanding among local villagers about the behavior of wild elephants.
In addition, community zones support training for volunteers to learn how to properly rehabilitate wild elephants back to their habitat.
"The project aims to create a natural setting where local folks and the pachyderms can share resources in nearby habitats through safe, lasting and practical solutions that can be maintained by the communities themselves," Rungnapar Pattanavibool, deputy director-general of Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, said.
"And the zoning approach creates a sustainable solution for coexistence between humans and wildlife."
Rungnapar said the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project has so far made progress in all aspects as it seeks to solve problems at the root. Nevertheless, since the conflict between elephants and local communities has been a long-standing issue, it will take time to change elephant behavior and assist their return to the forest.
"Brewing an elixir that works is never easy," Rungnapar said. "Hopefully, the current success of the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project will inspire many more on the quest for their own magic potion that will make a difference."