Tucked within the sylvan embrace of Thailand’s Chachoengsao Province, a cluster of single-story residences are vigilantly guarded, bearing a secret. Inside one such dwelling, the diligent Piyawan Unaha is ever watchful, her eyes perpetually scanning the monitors for a glimpse of the majestic Asian elephants.
Piyawan lends her services to an advanced forward warning effort termed the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Command Center. The center is dedicated to monitoring the activities of these wild creatures in five prominent eastern Thai provinces – Chachoengsao, Chon Buri, Rayong, Chanthaburi, and Sa Kaeo. These lands are the beloved home to nearly 600 wild elephants.
A noble project initially put forth by the Thai royal family, its primary aim is to alleviate the growing tensions between the local communities and the wild elephants. The latter are compelled to encroach upon farmland and human residences in search of sustenance, a situation stoked by dwindling food sources.
“The term Bajrasudha Gajanurak denotes ‘an elixir that fortifies elephants, rendering them as resilient as diamonds,” shares Piyawan. “The project zeroes in on ensuring the welfare of both humans and wild elephants, striking just the right balance that enables harmonious cohabitation.”
A generous personal contribution made by the Thai king and queen to the Gajanurak Fund has facilitated the procurement of extensive elephant surveillance gear, sophisticated alarm systems, high-quality radio communications systems, and flashlights. The latter assists volunteers with warning local residents of possible elephant standoffs.
Strategically scattered across the five provinces, a thoroughly comprehensive surveillance system expressly designed for elephant tracking helps monitor these magnificent beasts via innovative automated cameras.
“In case the surveillance apparatus detects an elephant, an alert is issued via the Line chat app to the locals and the team of dedicated volunteers charged with guiding the elephants back to their natural habitation,” adds Piyawan.
This unique framework currently comprises of eight pilot project villages, along with 43 additional ones within the extended network. This network covers 51 villages that bear the brunt of the elephants’ foraging ventures.
As per data presented by Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, the country boasts a wild elephant population of approximately 3,000–5,000. A fact enthusiastically corroborated by the Thai nonprofit organization, Human and Elephant Voices Network, stating a considerable surge in this number over the last ten years.
However, upon this positive note, creep in issues like habitat degradation and loss, stemming from a parallel exponential rise in human population and rampant agricultural intrusions. This trend reflects itself in similar patterns across other nations.
China’s Yunnan province reveals an impressive spike, from a mere figure of 150 in the 1980s to over 300 wild Asian elephants in the previous year. This positive development owes itself substantially to dedicated protective measures.
Still, this growth is not devoid of its downfalls, marking a rise in human and elephant conflicts. To cope with these escalating encounters, Yunnan has thoughtfully incorporated a commercial insurance model into its compensating mechanism. Over the last decade, an estimated total of nearly 200 million yuan ($27.44 million) has been paid out for losses incurred through elephant-induced damages.
“Human-elephant confrontation is inevitable as long as they share the same territory,” eloquently puts forth Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, a renowned elephant expert and researcher affiliated with the Megafauna Ecology and Conservation Group at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “This ancient issue fundamentally revolves around resource competition.”
Congratulations to Yunnan as they successfully navigated this challenge and garnered attention throughout the global internet community and media circuits. In 2021, 15 wild Asian elephants from the province embarked on a monumental journey, covering 500 kilometers away from their natural habitat.
“The key to mitigating human-elephant contact lies in devising more apt habitats for these elephants,” earnestly suggests Chen Fei, the director of the Asian Elephant Research Center under the NFGA. “Additionally, the building of ecological corridors may also serve to harbor connectivity between different habitats.”
Echoing this sentiment, the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project has implemented a sys
tem tailored to cater to the requirements of its forest conservation zones, buffer zones, and community zones.
The main priority of the forest conservation zones lies in elephant welfare. Specific water sources are strategically arranged to dissuade elephants from leaving their natural environments in search of food, while the buffer zones offer temporary shelters for elephants during their movement between different ecosystems.
The eventual goal of such initiatives is simple but imperative – establishing a setting that allows harmonious cohabitation of humans and elephants. As Piyawan puts it, “Brewing an elixir that works is never easy. Hopefully, the current success of the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project will inspire many more on the quest for their own magic potion that will make a difference.