Conservation leadership programme

Empowering local communities to improve elephant conservation in Thailand

One of the world’s largest Asian elephant populations, Elephas maximus, can be found along the borders of Thailand and Myanmar. In Thailand, the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi Province functions as an important conservation area for these elephants. Established in 1965, the sanctuary is known to be Thailand’s first wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, in the past 40 years, the sanctuary has been faced with threats such as illegal logging, wildlife trade, land encroachment, forest fire and human-elephant conflicts (HEC).
Without intervention, the sustainability of this sanctuary will deteriorate. Not only will this have a negative impact on the local communities, but will also threaten the elephants’ existence and disrupt the entire ecosystem.

At the moment, farmers use electric fences and firecrackers to counter crop-raiding elephants, a method which isn’t effective or sustainable. The electric fences are expensive, easy to destroy by elephants and cannot prevent wild elephants from crop raiding completely.

Community-based elephant conservation

In 2012, Thai foundation Bring the Elephant Home (BTEH) initiated a community-based elephant conservation project in Chong Sa Dao sub-district, the southern region of the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary. By providing financial assistance, social recognition, and ecological restoration expertise, BTEH and local community leaders encourage the local community to engage in conservation activities. In the past, BTEH and communities focused most of their conservation activities on community participation, education, awareness raising and capacity building on elephant conservation and forest restoration.

BTEH restores forest and makes it a healthy, balanced habitat for wild elephants, so there is less need for the elephants to roam outside the protected area. In 2015, BTEH received a grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) to launch the Conservation Leadership Programme, allowing the organization to grow and facilitate capacity building. This unique training programme allows conservation champions/leaders to make a real difference for wildlife. Through the programme, the foundation established a small team, comprising of local community leaders and sanctuary officers, to be more pro-active in their conservation efforts. Rather than choosing expensive solutions to prevent elephants from going out of protected areas, such as electric fences, the team explores new solutions, such as joint monitoring plan, crop/livelihood changes, education programme and beehive fence control.

In October 2015, BTEH and conservation leaders conducted a survey, interviewing 410 people who live around Chong Sa Dao sub-district. The key findings allowed BTEH to have a better understanding on the (HEC) in Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary. The survey findings are as follows:

  • People working in the agricultural sector have a more negative impression of elephants because elephants raid crops, such as cassava, banana, jackfruit and mango.
  • People who gain benefits through a community-based conservation program have a much more positive attitude towards the elephants, compared to villagers who do not benefit from these programs.
  • Most people (87%) feel that it is important to invest in elephant conservation because elephants attract eco-tourists and conservation initiatives. This is mostly due to the fact that the local villagers have a long history of coexisting harmoniously with the elephants and the fact that the elephant is considered a cultural icon of Thailand.

Dealing with conflict

In addition to the assessment with the questionnaire, BTEH organized a Participatory Action Research session to bring community members and park rangers together to talk about conflict reconciliation. In recent years, a conflict between community members and park rangers has arisen because villages let their cattle graze inside protected areas. Participatory Action Research facilitates dialogue and stimulates ownership of conservation projects by community members.
Under the common goal ‘A healthy environment for elephants brings people’s happiness’, the activities that are desired by both communities and park officers are:

  • a joint elephant patrolling program
  • promotion of environmental safeguards – such as forest restoration and improvement of tree nurseries.

In addition to the two issues above, group 1 (Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary) presented other strategies to mitigate HEC, which are:

  • introducing a bamboo collection control system
  • enhancing electric fencing capacity
  • planting economic plants in the buffer zone that are disliked by elephants and
  • adding more water sources inside protected areas.

Furthermore, in order to mitigate human-elephant conflicts and improve elephant conservation programmes in Western Thailand; BTEH organized a study trip for community members, park rangers, researchers and BTEH and ZSL staff to meet with a research team from Phu Luang Wildlife Research Center in Loei Province. The community members reacted positively to the beehive fencing concept and returned inspired and enthusiastic about the possibility of a new and more sustainable method of dealing with human-elephant conflicts.

Bees and elephants

It’s a well-known fact that elephants are afraid of bees. They even have a specific rumble to warn each other of the threat of bees. The bees’ presence deters elephants from encroaching on farmer’s lands. Initially, the beehive fence research work was inspired by the success stories in Kenya. The first beehive-fencing project in Thailand, designed and monitored by The Phu Luang Wildlife Research Center, has shown promising results. The Phu Luang Wildlife Research Center is the first research team in Thailand to conduct a beehive fence experiment with the aim to mutually benefit both farmers and elephants.

The conservation leadership group from Kanchanaburi was the first group of community leaders to travel to learn about beehive fences in Phuluang, Loei province. These inspired and motivated leaders will proceed with the possibility to apply beehive fence as a natural and effective solution. The knowledge gained from this capacity building tour incorporates the design of short-term projects that help conservation leaders realize their dream to live in harmony with wild elephants.
Find out more on how the beehive fence creates a win-win solution towards HEC mitigation in this photo series the ‘Beehive Fence Research’ Study trip.

About CEPF

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. CEPF’s fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.

CEPF provides grants to civil society organizations to help protect biodiversity hotspots – the planet’s most biologically rich but heavily threatened regions. In 2013, IUCN and CEPF launched a USD10.4 million, five-year investment for the conservation of globally important biodiversity in the ‘Indo-Burma Hotspot’ comprising Viet Nam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and parts of southern China. IUCN is leading CEPF’s Regional Implementation Team (RIT) in the Indo-Burma hotspot, working together with Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-conservation Network (MERN) in Myanmar, and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) in China.