Where the wild beasts roam

Where the wild beasts roam

Farmers in Prachuap Khiri Khan's Kui Buri district are learning to co-exist with elephants after moving away from pineapple farming to other crops that don't attract the jumbos

Where the wild beasts roam

The bumpy path snaked down from the winding road to the sun-baked Ruam Thai village in Prachuap Khiri Khan's Kui Buri district. Here is where Thanasit Phiboonwatthanakorn's mother bought a small cabin and ran a rubber plantation because she wanted to live in the woods. When she passed away, Thanasit inherited the 28-rai farmland and knew that he would have wild guests.

Thanasit sat down under the roof of his wood house after he worked on the farm until noon. He pointed to the border where wild elephants often sneak in and out of the forest inside the Kui Buri National Park in search of "holy grails" at night.

"They forage for pineapples over there [at the back of the vast field]. When farmers chase them away, they become stressed and throw tantrums on my rubber trees. They break them or chomp on treetops and leaves," he said.

Above Elephants forage for food in Kui Buri National Park. (Photo: Stephen Steele)

Broken trees and their footprints are fresh evidence of their nightly presence. He said villagers hung lamps to ward the jumbos off but as time has gone by, elephants are no longer scared and come back. They dug a trench but it could only slow them down. When officials set up electric fences, they managed to break poles and stepped over.

"We end up guarding our farms at night and have fitful sleep because we must stay alert for strange noises and shine flashlights. Workers patrol at 2-3am every night," he said.

Right David Owen, project manager for the Bring The Elephant Home Foundation, helps villagers remove weeds at the demonstration plot in Ban Ruam Thai.

These many incidents of human-elephant conflict date back over half a century. At the time, forest land was reclaimed for pineapple plantations, which diminished the food source of wild elephants. In the 1980s, the expansion of pineapple farms caused the giant beasts to forage around. Many farmers suffered huge losses and sank into poverty. Poison, electric fences and guns were used to deter and kill them as a result.

As traditional methods failed, villagers knew they would need to develop new techniques to protect their crops and secure their income.

Thanasit Phiboonwatthanakorn, a field supervisor for the Bring The Elephant Home Foundation, noticed elephants ignored his kaffir lime trees while destroying pineapple crops.

A flash of inspiration occurred when Thanasit noticed that only his kaffir lime tree was spared damage. It sprouts back up even if elephants tread on it. He exhorted the other pineapple farmers to plant and sell the new crop. At that point, a wildlife conservation charity came in to help villagers grow alternative crops to promote human-elephant coexistence.


David Owen, project manager for the Bring The Elephant Home Foundation, was removing weeds at the almost two-rai demonstration plot behind Thanasit's cabin pointing out many problems of monocropping. Villagers grow only pineapples because it's a drought-resistant cash crop but wild elephants can smell them from a distance and know sweet fruit as "candy stores".

Jam made from chilli and other herbs grown in the Tom Yum Project. (Photo courtesy of David Owen)

"It results in economic loss and poses a safety risk. Eight people were killed in Thailand as a result of human-elephant conflict last year and many more injuries were recorded. Most of these cases happened outside the protected area of Kui Buri National Park. We feel like we have to do everything possible to keep elephants there. It not only means creating salt licks and doing reforestation but also decreasing the attractiveness of what is on the outside," they said.

Research conducted by Pichet Noonto, an elephant specialist, under the Thailand Research Fund (TRF), shows that human-elephant conflict from 2012-2018 led to 107 deaths and injuries for both species. On average, 1.6 people or elephants are wounded or killed every month. The study indicated that 72% of elephants were killed by electric fences and the rest by car accidents, gunshots, and poison, and 25% of humans were killed by charging elephants.

Honey made from beehive fences at Ban Ruam Thai. (Photo courtesy of David Owen)

Owen, a journalist from Canada, decided to travel abroad for a year and came to Thailand. As an English teacher in Phitsanulok, they discovered a passion for elephants. Instead of returning to Toronto, Owen tried a hand at elephant management for a few years before arriving in the village in July last year. Owen, who is conducting fieldwork for their master's degree in conservation biology, explained that villagers used herbicide and chemical fertilisers on pineapple farms for decades, which eventually depleted the once uber-fertile soil.

"Farmers are caught in a horrible cycle where they have to plant pineapples because there is no rain but because they plant pineapples, they can't plant anything else because the soil is not healthy enough to grow other crops," Owen said.

They said monocropping leaves farmers vulnerable to price fluctuation. Prachuap Khiri Khan grows more pineapples than anywhere else in the country. When many local farmers grow pineapples, the market value goes up and down.

"It typically takes 12-16 months to harvest. If we plant pineapples today, we have no idea what the price is going to be 12 months from now. In the last few years, the price was 15 baht per kilogramme, which was really high, but it has dropped to 2-3 baht per kilogramme," they said.

Candles made from herbs grown in the Tom Yum project.


Local residents held community workshops in September last year. When they sat in a circle and brainstormed ideas, they made interesting observations. Some said wild elephants don't touch kaffir lime trees and others added chilli and galangal to the list. It echoed what other researchers found in Nepal and Africa.

They divided 1.7 rai of farmland into 12 equal-size subplots. While two were for pineapples, 10 others were for experimental species, such as galangal, turmeric, citronella, lemongrass, chilli, lime, kaffir lime, and mulberry. The village's "Tom Yum project" is named after the iconic spicy prawn soup whose ingredients are not attractive to elephants.

"We monitor the number of times elephants approach the plot and cause damage. We can count the number of individual trees destroyed by elephants. Up until now, they have destroyed 97% of pineapple crops, but less than 6% of any other experimental species," Owen said.

At this stage, they are testing whether these alternative plants can withstand not only elephants but also drought. Meanwhile, villagers are making products that they sell via a local shop and on a website. In two weeks, they received orders from customers not only in Thailand but also in the US, the Netherlands, Canada, and France. Products range from beehive-fence honey and chilli jam to herbal soap and candles. When they develop more product lines, they will reach out to zero-waste shops.

Owen said human-elephant coexistence can be achieved when both benefit from each other. While the proceeds from the project will be used to restore elephant habitats in the national park, the conservation success story can add value to local products.

"It is not about getting rid of pineapples but creating social, economic, and ecological resilience in communities experiencing human-elephant conflict," they said.

A small group of over 10 villagers are currently taking part in the Tom Yum project. The cabin of Thanasit is their makeshift headquarters. Samon Sangthong, the activity coordinator for the foundation, said she joined because she thought it will allow local residents to generate supplementary income. They are also managing a nursery to sell pesticide-free seedlings.

"However, the project is in its early stages. Our village is in the rain shadow. Five years ago, even tap water ran out. We hope that we can make it through the dry season," she said.

Check out their products at elephantandco.org.

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