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Are Elephants Going Somewhere?

By John Roberts
7 April 2018 01:29:00

Thailand’s wild places always amaze me, for many reasons of course, as wild places everywhere always do.  

One reason they stand out for me is their proximity with modernity, everywhere else I’ve been (with the exception, I guess, of Nairobi National Park - but this doesn’t hold for the country in general) to get to a National Park with significant wildlife you will turn off a main highway and wind through progressively more rural and slower roads for quite some time until you finally reach a park gate.

In Thailand you can be travelling along at {redacted for legal reasons}kph on a mega highway, turn off and within a kilometre be in forest.  Forest which elephants and sometimes tigers live in.

…& by elephants I mean lots of elephants.

Last month I was lucky enough to be taken on a guided tour of the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai World Heritage Site, otherwise known as the Eastern Forest Complex.  A massive lump of forest sitting in the middle of the Thai region of Isaan, an area known for it’s spicy food and, to me, the village of Baan Ta Klang, home to most of our mahouts and many of our projects.

This forest complex, though administered as a mosaic of National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Biosphere Reserves (whatever Biosphere Reserves are), runs contiguously from the famous Khao Yai - rural playground of Bangkok escapees - all the way to the Cambodian border, forming a watershed, catching and releasing what water there is in such a manner that, without it, the woes of Isaan’s farmers, endlessly alternating between flood and drought, would be a whole lot worse, the price of rice higher.

The reason I got to go on this guided tour is that we have, for the past couple of years, funded a project at the less trendy end of Khao Yai National Park to help villagers better get along elephants that frequently leave this forest and enter their farm land, eat their crops and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

The organisation that we work with to achieve this, Freeland Foundation, is active throughout the complex and I have been telling myself that our contribution to a small part of their project justifies me taking credit for all their other work too on the grounds that “helping here takes the pressure off elsewhere”.  Understandably they had become bored of this and offered to show me the sheer scale of what they do.

One of the things we’re all trying to figure out is why, given this massive chunk of forest full of elephant food, given that when they do come out to eat (admittedly tasty) crops they get shouted at at best & shot at at worst, why the elephants take the risks to come out when they don’t really have to?

I think they’re going somewhere.

Driving around and through these forests, as is my unfortunate habit, I try to imagine what the whole place looked like before we were here, a job made easier when, as a guest of Freeland, you get to go quite deep into these forests and see what entire valleys, caldera, mountains do look like after they’ve been left alone by humans for forty or more years and - with the obvious exception of removing all the large trees - it can be argued that forty or more years ago we humans were less impactful on the ecosystems we inhabited than we are now.

When elephants were young and before you had super crops & international markets that make growing in marginal places viable, before you had organised irrigation and inorganic chemical fertilisers that means a chunk of land that was periodically left fallow is now permanently cultivated, the whole place must have been forest pockets with villages in between, riverine plains filled with tall grasses.  When elephants were young we know they migrated, they didn’t live in small areas of forest, they used the whole landscape - they were designed to roam.

I’m not sure what came first, the administrative mosaic or the roads but it also seems that, even though the forest is contiguous, each of the boundaries between Parks, Sanctuaries & Biosphere Reserves is marked by a superhighway.

Turns out, as with all the grand theories I think I invent, there’s an whole branch of science that is dedicated to this stuff, called Movement Ecology.  Indeed, a month before my jolly around the forests, a paper had been published with wide ranging findings for many different animals but one of the findings was that African elephants in what they term a “high human footprint” area - and if they were using Save the Elephants’ GPS Data then I think we can safely say “high human footprint” for that bit of Africa is relatively low for Thailand - moved half as far, on average, as  elephants in a “low human footprint” area.

So it is my guess that one reason elephants come out of forests is that they’re trying to get ‘over there’, wherever that maybe.  Until an elephant generation or so ago getting ‘over there’ would have been possible, indeed routine, but today they come up against a road or wind up in a (tasty) cultivated landscape and perhaps lose whatever markers they had to find their paths, they eat some crops and go back to the safety of the forest.

Perhaps ‘over there’ doesn’t exist anymore so ‘here’ will have to do.

Now that the ancient and natural flow of elephants through the landscape has all but stopped what can we do about it?  It is probably too late to take these findings where they are taking the African Researchers - use the GPS records discover the ancient pathways and protect them - but we can begin to identify those paths still being used and look to protect them (indeed we have one exciting project upcoming that will help the Thai Government do just that) and we can keep studying their behaviour and intelligence here with our eles and (you guessed it, in another upcoming project with Think Elephants International) in the wild to look for clues as to how they would navigate a landscape and use those clues to both gently keep them away from farmers’ crops and learn where best to protect.

Protect and begin to connect the larger habitats to get the mega herbivores and seed dispersers flowing safely through the landscape once again.

That, I believe, would go a long way to reducing Human Elephant Conflict.

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