Asian elephant conservation in Thailand
Asian elephants are forest elephants and it is very hard to count them, but fewer than 50,000 are thought to survive in total.
Although unlike the African elephant of the savannahs the Asian elephant is still a critical ecological driver opening up forests, creating highways for animals an encouraging grassland, so important for the diversity of the habitat.
In Thailand their status is particularly dire. Barely 1,500 survive in the wild, with twice that number in captivity, but neither number is assured.
The country’s largest population of wild elephants, a mere 600 or so individuals, inhabits a tract of protected forest along the Burma border, west of the infamous bridge over the River Kwai.
A quarter of these elephants inhabit a forest peninsula - an area known as Salak Pra - in the province of Kanchanaburi where a hydro-electric reservoir, access roads and advancing human settlements have all but cut them off from the much larger Western Forest Conservation Complex due north where their comrades reside.
Infrastructure development, human encroachment and the logging industry have combined to fragment the forest lands that were home to the Asian elephant, squeezing them into ever smaller areas. This loss of habitat has led to increasing human-elephant conflict, mostly in the form of crop-raiding. One nocturnal raid by elephants can deprive a human family of its staple food (rice) or cash crop (maize, mangos, or sugar cane), as well as the occasional death.
In this phase of the project, the aim is to better understand the nature and scale of the crop-raiding problem around the forest by documenting it in detail (with maps and measurements) whilst also plotting the seasonal distribution of elephants inside the forest. The project will also test different crop-protection measures – including ropes smeared with oil and chilli-pepper paste - and will develop a locally-based, and managed, ecotourism venture that builds on the project in such a way as to benefit those who bear the cost of living with elephants.
Inside the protected forest area, the project team works with rangers from the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Around the protected area, the team works with Thai villagers (most of whom originated further east) and with forest-dwelling Karen who settled here centuries ago.
The project aims for a practical, sustainable solution to human-elephant conflict so as to give these highly threatened elephants some chance of survival.