Humans have encroached on the animals’ habitat – now villagers face daily raids as the elephants break into their homes in search of food
It was around midnight when Kittichai Boodchan heard two loud crashes coming from in front of his home. He knew immediately what was happening. An elephant was outside, and it wanted the family’s stash of bananas.
Boonchuay, a local bull from the nearby Kaeng Krachan national park notorious for his habit of raiding the village in search of snacks, had come to call. Kittichai had earlier bought 200kg of bananas to sell and, although stored inside, the sweet scent had undoubtedly piqued Boonchuay’s interest.
Kittichai leapt out of bed and began slamming the door and shouting to try to scare the elephant away. Boonchuay, undeterred, continued to ram his head into the wall, cracking through the structure. He stopped only after about 10 or 15 minutes, when, unable to reach the fresh fruit, he sauntered off down the road.
That visit, in June last year, was the first of many for Kittichai’s family. Since then, Boonchuay has returned several times, entering their home and breaking parts of the wall. During his most recent break-ins, in June and July this year, he managed to barge his head into the kitchen, pinching plastic bags, cooking oil, instant noodles and flour.
“I’m not sure I have the right to be angry at them because we stole their space,” says Kittichai. “They lived here before.” Beside him, a pole shows fresh earth marks left by an elephant’s trunk. The elephants pass through every few days, he says.
Across Thailand, and Asia, humans have increasingly expanded into forest areas, fragmenting elephants’ traditional habitats, and often disrupting their access to resources. For communities in these areas, coexisting is a delicate and dangerous struggle. Conflict between animals and people can be financially devastating for humans, distressing and, at worst, deadly for both species. In Thailand last year, eight elephants and eight people were killed in conflict, according to Bhichet Noonto, a specialist in the subject at the Human Elephant Voices network.
Researchers warn that the competition for resources will intensify. “In Thailand the forest areas are still decreasing, and we have many, many projects that try to make developments inside the forest,” says Bhichet, adding that in 1933, 43% of Thailand was forested; by 2019 this had fallen to just under 32% of the country.
Kittichai’s village, Chalermkiat Pattana, close to Kaeng Krachan national park, is one of many on the frontline of the struggle to coexist. Signs outside a local homestay warn guests not to leave fruit in their cars. Residents, including Kittichai, have put wires strung with cans up outside their homes as a rudimentary alarm to warn of break-ins. Park rangers patrol the main road that leads to the village every evening, using a truck to steer elephants – usually either Boonchuay or another male, Boonmee – back into the forest.
Kittichai, like many in the village, is now accustomed to being woken up every couple of nights by the elephants, or by the sound of other residents trying to scare them away. “Once an elephant enters [your home] you have to do everything you can to push them out,” he says.
Many residents have stories of Boonchuay and Boonmee’s escapades. Restaurant owner Nongyao Kaewsulesai describes how one of the elephants raided her kitchen cupboard and made off with a 25kg bag of sugar. “They like sugar, noodle packets, and if you have papaya they will eat it all,” she says. Every night she moves boxes of crisps into the back room as a precaution. Her fridge has been knocked over several times by the elephants.
“I feel like I’m a security guard,” says Supa Taengthong, who sells fried banana and lives down the road. During several visits this year an elephant – she isn’t sure which one – managed to break through two walls, passing through the living area and the children’s bedroom to the kitchen at the back of the house.
“The elephant ate everything, not only bananas, but the rice – the cooked rice in the rice cooker, the uncooked rice – the sugar, everything,” she says. The authorities helped her rebuild the front wall of the house, but the inside is still damaged and she has not received compensation for the food that was stolen.
Supa has lived in the village for two decades, but says it is only in the past three years that the elephants have become a problem. “I want the two of them to be moved out of this area. It’s only these two that are the problem,” she says.
Simply removing them, though, could make matters worse – they may be replaced by another, more aggressive elephant, or even a herd. “Maybe the enemy of the enemy is a friend,” says Itthipol Thaikamol, head of Kaeng Krachan national park.
He believes there is sufficient food in the park for the elephants. “We also planted a lot of food and make a lot of salt lick. But sometimes, especially in the dry season, it might be harder for the elephants,” says Itthipol. It is also probably the case, he adds, that durian and jackfruit taste a lot better than grass.
For farmers, the elephant raids can prove costly. The worst local case Thongbai Charoendong is aware of cost 150,000 baht (GBP3,400) in lost fruit. Thongbai, pictured below, is a project coordinator for human elephant conflict monitoring and mitigation at Wildlife Conservation Society Thailand, and has worked in the area for 17 years. “In one night six elephants raided a pineapple farm and ate everything,” he says.
Hungry elephants also have an expensive habit of knocking over durian trees, farmers report, possibly so they can reach all the best fruit.
There are various theories as to why the elephants are increasingly invading Chalermkiat Pattana village – which was established as a royal project in 1977 – and straying on to nearby farms. Some question if the opening of a nearby pineapple canning factory, which prompted more local farmers to grow the fruit, might have lured the elephants out of their usual habitat. Others say that people used to leave leftover pineapple in the forest and that this might have led elephants to lose their fear of humans. Once elephants had explored further, it is also possible that they developed a taste for human food and crops.
According to Bhichet, research suggests that the encroachment of forest areas, the development of nearby farms with high nutrition foods, and the possibility that male elephants, for evolutionary reasons, are increasingly willing to take more risks to get at those foods, are all likely factors.
“Now in Thailand we see this phenomenon in many places. Many male elephants just move further than in the past,” he says. “I think they changed their habits to eat more human food.” This behaviour also seems to be extending across the elephant family, he adds, and the journeys they take are becoming less predictable. He cites the example of a herd in China that travelled for 15 months, far from their natural habitat, as a more extreme example of this trend.
Any solutions need to empower people and educate communities so that they better understand elephants, says Bhichet. Compensation or funding for people to adapt, or better protect their homes, will also help. “Many people want to change livelihoods but they have no money. They want to change from mono-crop to herbal plants, but they have no confidence that they have a good market to sell the product,” he says.
Near to Kaeng Krachan national park, communities have experimented with various ways of deterring the elephants – from setting off firecrackers to leaving sheets rubbed with chilli oil in the fields, building fences and digging ditches.
Thongbai says that fencing has been the most effective measure for reducing the raids on crops. A semi-permanent fence, which still allows small animals to pass, is being reinforced by tamarind trees in some areas, which will form a natural barrier. It needs to be planned carefully to avoid unintended consequences, such as cutting off access to water, he adds. “It definitely helps because the incidents have been reduced,” says Thongbai, though he admits that it won’t stop the most inquisitive elephants.
Back along the main road that leads to Chalermkiat Pattana, the park rangers drive around looking for signs of Boonchuay. “He is the star of this road,” jokes one of the rangers, Sangat Jamjaeng, from the top of the truck. They often shout at the elephant to get back in the forest, and he will pretend to comply, Sangat says. “Then when the truck passes he will come out again.”
Boonchuay appears on the main road, blocking cars. “Get back in the forest,” the rangers shout. They throw a firecracker, but Boonchuay doesn’t even flinch. He is refusing to obey. Darkness begins to fall, and a grey shadow can be seen lurking among the trees at the side of the road. They shine a bright light in his direction. Branches sway and rustle. Eventually he seems to have retreated from the road and the truck drives on.
Minutes later, a motorcyclist rides past: the elephants are back, they warn. The patrol truck turns round and makes its way back up the road. By the time they arrive, all that is left is a pile of elephant dung.