Field Update: Human-Elephant Coexistence projects

Projects update by David Owen

Since our story was launched on World Wildlife Day last year, Bring The Elephant Home has carried on with its mission to create human-elephant coexistence – in the name of Thailand’s famous soup. We have (quite literally) been watching the Tom Yum project grow before our eyes throughout the past year and are so proud of the dedication, innovation and creativity that is causing this community-based initiative to thrive. On the border of Kuiburi National Park, where Bring The Elephant Home is based, the vast majority of farmers plant pineapple as their main source of income. This sweet, fragrant crop is highly attractive not only to humans, but also to the 300 wild elephants living in the protected area. When darkness falls in Ruam Thai village, elephants cross the national park’s unfenced border and consume, trample and uproot pineapple and other crops, causing severe economic losses and threatening the livelihoods of local farmers.

In 2020, we began supporting the local community as they experimented with crop species which they believed would be unpalatable to elephants, such as lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, and chilli – all which happen to be the ingredients of Tom Yum soup. Preliminary results of our trials illustrated that lemongrass and citronella not only experienced the least damage from elephants, but was also resistant to insect-transmitted diseases, drought, and environmental factors that impacted the yield of other experimental crop species. A few weeks ago, a herd of nine elephants walked through one of the experimental plots, and no damage was recorded. They spent very little time in the plot, making their way to the neighboring pineapple plantation, so we believe that as the project grows, elephants will have less incentive to enter farmland, and if they do, farmers won’t experience such devastating financial losses as they did before.

We have planted over 1000 crops of each of these species in plots frequently visited by elephants, and with the yield, a community-run group is making unique, handmade products. Newest of the range are two herbal tea blends, and a dried Tom Yum soup kit, all created from the alternative crop yield and packaged in biodegradable bags. Currently, we’re only distributing products in Thailand through our webshop, Elephant & Co, but supporters can donate to the project through Bring The Elephant Home’s website.

2022 holds exciting things for Bring The Elephant Home and the Tom Yum project, including another holistic solution to even further increase the project’s benefits to elephants, farmers and their shared ecosystem. Our research on beehive fences suggests that protecting an area with beehive fences can not only reduce crop damage by wild elephants but can also offer a host of other benefits such as income through the sale of honey and bee colonies, access to new skills and capacity building opportunities and increased crop yield from the presence of pollinators. With funding from Save The Elephants – Elephants and Bees Project, and a partnership with Dr. Orawan Doungphakdee of King Monkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT)’s Native Honeybee and Pollinator Centre, we hosted a beekeeping workshop in Ruam Thai village so farmers, rangers and other stakeholders could learn the theory and techniques required to manage beehive fences in this region. Given that electric fences are the most common cause of death for wild elephants in Thailand, a sustainable, community-based fence that supports biodiversity, instead of harming it, could be the key to creating peace in a conflict zone.

During the workshop, we learned that one of the best ways to ensure success with the beehive fences is to plant crops that serve as high quality food sources for the bees. A true highlight of the workshop was watching the local farmers and BTEH field staff light up when learning that chilli, lime, galangal and some of the other unpalatable crops we’re growing as part of the Tom Yum project, also happen to be the best possible food resources to sustain bees.

The tom yum crops will ensure the bee populations are thriving, active and ready to deter the elephants, and the bees will pollinate the tom yum crops, thereby increasing their yield and economic output for the farmers. These two holistic initiatives go hand-in-hand, benefiting each other as they’ll benefit farmers, elephants, and their shared ecosystems.

You can support farmers seeking coexistence with elephants by donating to our Bee The Change project. Funds provide tools and training to farmers experiencing human-elephant conflict, so they can develop alternative livelihoods and experience greater social, economic, and ecological resilience.

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