You’ve got slugs & you think you’ve got problems?
By John Roberts
27 October 2016 12:13:00
We haven’t said it for a long time so you could be forgiven for forgetting that we have two goals in life, both are about finding sustainable numbers. The first for captive elephants (where we think, at least for now they should come down) and the second is for wild elephants (where we’d love for them to come up).
The key to both our goals is the word sustainable, I think I lumped in a comfortable there too. Just as, in my opinion, there’s no point in having as many captive elephants as we do now if we have to keep them in manners not ideal, then there’s no point in working just to bring the number of wild elephants up without considering how much room we have for them, how those elephants will survive and what effect they might have on the areas in which they live.
Elephants may sit at the very top but, where they live in the wild, they are part of an ecosystem - an ecosystem they largely control and they, by turns, have evolved to be controlled by; inefficient digestion means that not only do they fart a lot they need to eat 10% of their bodyweight per day mean they need more space to exist than we can imagine, particularly in areas where rainfall (& therefore green stuff) is seasonal.
This system seems to have worked well for millennia and, while no-one knows why the extinct species went that way, we do know that when too many elephants are confined to too small an area the results are devastating first for that area and then, through famine, for the elephants themselves.
When too few are there, well, we don’t know yet as this school of study is relatively new in Asia but we’ve seen studies in Africa where their absence from an area appears to have changed savannah into forest as the tree species they’d normally control by eating when saplings take over.
So when we humans come along and start playing around with the places they live either in the name of (oxymoronic) Wilderness Management or just plain trying to eat, pay off debts & raise a family we can have far reaching consequences that can manifest themselves many kilometres from where we work, sometimes even in other countries.
These ain’t slugs or rabbits we are dealing with. When you cause a problem with elephants you can guarantee it will be commensurate with their size & appetite: Big.
This is why when we seek to help wild elephants we not only work on direct habitat protection, trying to ensure their current home is as pristine as possible (and, by the way, advising against measures to ‘improve’ it for them, these actions have a funny way of backfiring) we also work with the communities that surround them and have to live with them.
We do this because, unlike slugs, which may come upon your lettuce patch gradually and eat a few leaves before you notice them and take corrective action (& we don’t, by the way, advocate the poisoning of elephants but communities who feel uncared for when the elephants invade often resort to such measures) elephants can come and destroy your entire crop in one night.
Also slugs or rabbits are quite unlikely to squash you should you decide to shoo them away.
The other week I was able to visit one of the projects we help support, coordinated by Freeland Foundation, in villages along the edge of Khao Yai National Park (the project extends around several National Parks in the same area of Thailand, on the edge of the Isaan Plateau and protecting the watershed for the agricultural lands below - see, something else elephants do!).
It would perhaps be inaccurate to say that the village of Ban Wang Mee have always lived in harmony with the forest, they have at times been known for (ahem, let’s say) their unsustainable use of forest resources which is why Freeland started working there in the first place; to help provide more sustainable incomes for the local folks that didn’t rely on emptying the jungle.
But they never had trouble with elephants until about three years ago when groups of young bulls started appearing in the corn fields they had, for at least a generation, planted right up to where the trees stopped - maybe gaur & wild boar, the odd monkey & parakeet, the manageable stuff, but never elephants before.
No-one knows exactly why the elephants started coming but, as I have said above, because eles need so much and roam so far, the causes may be events many miles away and seemingly unconnected.
Despite having large, hungry neighbours the villagers in Ban Wang Mee, at least in part due to the Freeland programme we support, are remarkably phlegmatic about crop loss and nightly vigils - we will continue to work with Freeland and the Department of National Parks in the hope of keeping things that way.
We met at the Freeland office (which doubles as a community fruit & mushroom farm for ex-erm unsustainable forest users) for a brief and were quickly given an idea of the size, handsomnity and tuskiness of the problem.
Then we went to inspect the previous night's damage - I've seen cases like this before, these bulls do help themselves while helping themselves by being remarkably polite, they only take snacks on thier way to finding water, not often the whole crop.
When an elephant (or a vehicle or a naughty person with a gun) walks past this network of camera traps a photo is automatically e-mailed to a Google group of villagers to put them on alert.
The villagers take turns sleeping (or not!) on this relatively heavy trailer in an attempt to keep the eles from going deeper into the village and becoming a danger to others & themselves. Not sure I'd fancy it if my livelihood depended on it!
Sometimes, though, the damage isn't quite so confined - & a clothesline doesn't keep eles out despite your best efforts.
...& just think, where you have a scarecrow these guys have to have scare-elephants!
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