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Experts urge policy rethink as elephant population boom sparks escalating conflicts

Written by World Events

2023 was a bloody 12 months in the ongoing saga of human-elephant conflicts in Thailand, marking the sixth consecutive year of escalating incidents. Records for 2023 show a disconcerting surge in encounters and casualties due to wild elephants across the country.

According to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), more than 13,000 incidents of wild elephant intrusion outside protected forest areas were reported during the 2023 fiscal year. These incidents resulted in 29 injuries, 21 deaths and extensive damage to crops and property belonging to local communities.

“We are living in constant fear of elephants. Though they are very intelligent animals, they are also very dangerous. They can be hostile to humans, and direct confrontations with them can be fatal,” said Wimwipa Ruangsri, a sugarcane farmer in Chachoengsao’s Sanam Chai Khet district.

For those like Wimwipa who live within the migration range of wild elephants, the giant creatures’ increasing presence poses a significant threat to life and property. While minimal casualties are reported among urban populations living outside these areas, the danger is very real for people like Wimwipa.

Despite her deep fear of the threat posed by the world’s largest land animal, Wimwipa, her husband and their young children camp out in the middle of their sugarcane plantation almost every night during the harvest season to guard against wild elephant attacks.

Clearing fields overnight

“Elephants love sugarcane and they often come to feast on our crop at night. They eat a lot, and when they come in a big herd, they can clear an entire field of sugarcane within a single night,” she said.

“We are lucky that nobody from my family has been hurt or killed by an elephant. But we have suffered significant damage to our crops and loss of income due to wild elephant raids on our sugarcane plantation.”

Repeated crop damage from wild elephant raids has left Wimwipa’s family in deep debt to the sugar company they are contracted to, trapping them in a cycle of being unable to switch to other crops until their debt is cleared.

“If the authorities do nothing to tackle this problem, it will be impossible for us to escape this debt trap, because the more crops the elephants damage, the deeper we fall into debt,” she said.

Population control necessary

Wimwipa and many other farmers who live in the vast agricultural zone spanning the eastern provinces of Chachoengsao, Chonburi, Rayong, Chanthaburi and Sa Kaeo are among those suffering the most from human-elephant conflicts.

DNP records show that there were more than 5,200 wild elephant intrusions last year in this region alone. This is nearly half of the total number of wild elephant intrusions in the entire country.

Taan Wannagul, coordinator of Eastern Elephants Education Center (EEEC), pointed out that the main factor fueling conflicts between humans and pachyderms in eastern provinces is an explosion in the wild elephant population in the Eastern Forest Complex.

“The major challenge to wild elephant conservation efforts is no longer a drop in population, but overpopulation, leading to a rise in human-elephant conflicts,” he said.

“Over the past decades, we have seen a steady rise in the wild elephant population in the Eastern Forest Complex, from around 50 elephants in the 1980s to around 600 as of 2023.

“This rapid surge in the wild elephant population demonstrates the success of conservation efforts, but it also indicates a major failure in population management. Now, the forest is overflowing with far more elephants than the forest ecosystem can sustain,” Taan said.

He added that though the Eastern Forest Complex is quite large – comprising three wildlife sanctuaries and four national parks spanning an area of 2,453 square kilometers – its habitat can only sustain around 325 elephants, or 0.19 per square kilometer.

“Since the current wild elephant population in the area is already double its actual carrying capacity, it suggests that right now, at least half of the elephant population in the Eastern Forest Complex is living outside forest reserves. This means the pachyderms are surviving by foraging on farmland,” he said.

Expanding herds

With farms outside the forest offering an “all-you-can-eat buffet” to elephants, he added, the pachyderm population is expanding at a rate of 8.2% per year. This means the total population in the region may exceed 1,100 within five years.

“There is a lot more we need to do and improve upon when it comes to mitigating human-elephant conflicts. We can start by creating a coordinated elephant-intrusion alert system among local communities and others affected. This will help minimize the risk of deadly confrontations and grievous damage from elephant attacks,” Taan said.

However, he stressed the importance of reevaluating approaches to human-elephant conflicts by focusing on population control and better planning and management to mitigate the problem in the long term.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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