Anantara Blogs Elephant Tails

Why Don’t You Let Them All Go?

By John Roberts
3 August 2017 01:06:00

I was recently up in the mountains, a pretty village with one road in and one road out, a valley surrounded on four sides by three different National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries, which one were we in?  In all the excitement I kind of lost track myself.

We were there to discuss elephants (kind of of course), creatures the villagers claimed not to have thought too much about despite having lived in this valley surrounded by forest since times when the forest spread far further than its current limits.

In the past three years or so that, as it seems to have done in many places, has changed.  Not in a hard-core way, there other villages in the vicinity that seemed to be at all-out war with elephants, nightly visits from the big beasts taking a terrible toll on crops.  These gentle villagers, perplexed as they were, had a relatively small problem, four times in the past three years elephants had appeared in their valley and eaten crops - that it had happened twice this year already was why they called our potential partners in this project who then called us.

The headman called the village together, our partners got to presenting while we sat and observed.

These meetings always fascinate me for the human element: nowadays we all move around so much (and in truth some people always did) we have to remind ourselves when we walk into an elephant village as strangers and we watch for the reaction of the crowd that these people, some 40, some 60 years old have probably seen each other on every day of their lives.  At the very least they have grown up together, been to school together, competed over the same loves, been to one another's weddings, witnessed the birth of others’ loved ones, witnessed the death of others’ loved ones (possibly even been responsible for either).  To say they know each other is an understatement.

We often get into trouble by dictating policy for “the elephants” as though they weren't separate characters; we cannot, either, go to one meeting and say to ourselves “the villagers” want this or want that.

There was so much potted personal history under the head man’s lean-to, characters you have to live in the village to understand - one guy may always be the one to take up new ideas, but he may not be the person to talk to, he may have history of giving up after two weeks; that guy at the back may always stand up and shout in village meetings - whether they are about elephants or the price of peanuts - but that doesn't mean he is skeptical he just thinks he should've been headman (or wishes the head man's wife had chosen him after being his first kiss in school 40 years ago), he may have history (with his long-suffering wife) of taking a task sticking to it (albeit just to prove the headman wrong).  Those two ladies arguing with one another may actually be friends working together to steer the meeting in a direction they want under a scheme they cooked up on the lao khao last night.

This is why you don't take me to serious meetings, I spend my time making up all these outrageous histories for these polite and gentle people and so when the time comes for me to talk I have no train of thought at all and cannot.

But I was also listening & I thought it worth recording their proposed solutions to their new found elephant problem because, cut off as they are - not entirely: they travel, they have phones that work outside the valley - from the barrage of information, misinformation, opinions and idiotic blogs like this one we call the internet they can be thought of something close to traditional values regarding wild elephants.

What the old folks would call common sense, a solution to a problem suggested while only taking the parameters of that problem into account.  

The first interesting point was that they were convinced that these elephants were ex-captive elephants recently released to the forest, they maintained that the elephants were not scared and did not react the same way as wild elephants (there being only one road out we didn't point out that, if they haven't seen elephants in the valley before and the only way they could know wild elephants react is if they had spent time in the protected areas that they swore they never went into to do things they had always done that they didn't do any more) so these eles, we surmise, were from somewhere deep in the forest, migrating, rather than from the edges where most of the humans they met threw things at them that made them sting or burn.

Having run through a presentation of recommended strategies for keeping elephants and crops apart our partners then asked the meeting what their preferred solution would be.

The first locally proposed solution, following a presentation that had not included this is an option, was to anesthetise the eles and move them elsewhere, anywhere, not here.  We explained that there was nowhere to put them and anyway they'd probably come back.

The second raised hand had a cleverer solution, his thought was that we catch them, train them & sell them.

We more urbane types had a good chuckle and said, ’no, that would be illegal’ for we didn't have a better reason why not - potential cruelty is a weak argument when human livelihoods are under threat.

The discussion then moved on to the solutions our partners had presented and I admit I went back to making up life histories of the people present and trying to guess which ones with the ones who still doing what they’d always done and really knew, had experienced recently, how wild elephants react in the forest.

The exchange stuck with me because it reminded me of conversations we have in conferences, or accusations we have timelines, phone calls we've had with campaigners.  When we discuss the ‘problem’ of elephants in captivity and I am, quite often, told my solutions are not acceptable to those folks who live in cities on other continents.  When I ask them for their solution and they say “why not just release them back into the wild?”.

There are many legal and scientific reasons why it would be difficult to release more than a handful of our 10,000 captive elephants across Thailand and Myanmar back into the wild, that’s why conference discussions on the subject are long, tense and full of heads-in-hands.

Perhaps the most powerful argument, though, is that when these people who live surrounded by forest, who know the forest and travel through it (yeah they do) are posed a similar question their answer is to propose exactly the opposite.  Their first ‘common sense’ tells them to remove elephants from the forest not put them back in.

Their proposals were gentle and contained no malice but let’s not forget this valley suffered the extreme of low intensity human elephant conflict, let’s also not forget that when I refer to “doing what they’ve always done”, well, that includes guns, bullets, snares and wild animals - and given that this is a protected area we know they have friends who are able to help them dispose of illegally obtained forest products.

Before we talk of releasing elephants into the forest, or even pushing these guys to accept their new guests as neighbours we also have to be sure they’ll be on our side when the guy who collects the bushmeat says "yeah - elephant skin, bones, meat & ivory I can sell that too".

Common sense don’t make no sense no more.

How Many Times Have You Seen Eles in Your Fields?

First we asked them how many times they'd seen eles in their fields, getting an idea of the extent of the problem...

Impassioned Date Wrangling...

There is always some debate of exact months, but everyone in the village remembers it happened.

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We bought along our own anthropologist, eventually my imagined life history rantings will be replaced by something more scientific, a way to ensure we help solve the right problems first and don't go off on impotant looking tangents.

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Stuff that has worked elsewhere presentation "We don't have mobile signal so it won't work here", true enough of early warning e-mail camera traps.

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Some explanations why the fear based stuff can be counter productive.

Impassioned Date Wrangling...

...where, exactly, have you seen elephants?

Impassioned Date Wrangling...

...then a bit of confusion over whose field is whose and what got eaten.

Impassioned Date Wrangling...

But we get the picture of the four incidents & the routes they took through the valley.

Impassioned Date Wrangling...

Then the discussions continue.

Impassioned Date Wrangling...

But it never hurts to walk the fields, get a feel for the lie of the land.

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