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Elephants v/s Humans: Inside the Astonishing Clash for Resources in Thailand – Exclusive Peek into the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project!

Nestled within the lush woodlands of the Chachoengsao Province, tucked into the far recesses of eastern Thailand, sits an unassuming cluster of houses. A protective presence is tangible, thanks to the stern-faced security guards vigilant against potential dangers. Within one of these structures, Piyawan Unaha maintains an unwavering focus on her monitors, awaiting the majestic sighting of an elusive Asian elephant.

An esteemed employee at the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Command Center, Piyawan is part of an innovative early-warning system tailored to detect potential disruptions caused by wild elephants in five eastern provinces of Thailand. These aromas include the provinces of Chachoengsao, Chon Buri, Rayong, Chanthaburi, and Sa Kaeo, the home of nearly 600 majestic, wild elephants.

Born from the thoughtful generosity of the Thai royal family, the project seeks to soothe the increasingly intricate conflict between human and elephant communities. Both complete for resources as the astonishing animals venture into farmlands and homes in search of food sources made scarce due to human activities.

The limited sustenance has propelled these elephants into adjusting their behaviors, consequentially triggering risks to the safety of both the human and elephant populations. According to Piyawan, the project’s name translates to ‘a potent elixir that empowers elephants to inherit diamond-like strength,’ an attempt to embed an equal focus on the ensured welfare of both species. The thorough execution of the project aims at equilibrium, a perfectly balanced situation allowing harmonious cohabitation for both elephants and humans.

In a grand display of their personal commitment, the esteemed King and Queen of Thailand established the Gajanurak Fund, a fiscal resource tasked with acquiring essential equipment. This inventory includes sophisticated surveillance technology, alarm systems, a radio communications network, and even flashlights for the devoted volunteers proactively involved in averting potential conflicts between village dwellers and the elephants.

The five provinces, blanketed with lush forests, are equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems. These systems conduct continuous tracking and facilitation of elephant movements through automatically-operating cameras, ensuring the safety of the local habitat.

Equipped with the ability to alert local authorities and volunteers as soon as the presence of elephants is detected, the system sends prompt notifications via the Line chat application. All eight test villages, along with 43 additional villages within the network, are affected by these migrating monumental creatures. To date, the network encompasses a total of 51 villages.

Based on statistical data presented by Thailand’s Department of National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation, it can be inferred that Thailand provides habitat to a striking population of approximately 3,000 to 5,000 wild elephants. The population has shown substantial growth over the past decade, as reported by the Thai non-profit organization, Human, and Elephant Voices Network.

However, a surge in human population and a simultaneous increase in agricultural activities have led to problems such as degradation and loss of natural habitats for elephants. A similar trend is also noticeable in other nations globally. The wild population of Asian elephants in China’s neighboring Yunnan province has effectively doubled, raising from a mere 150 in the 1980s to over 300 in 2021 due to protective measures.

Regrettably, the growing elephant population has inevitably led to an escalation in human-elephant conflict. To handle this prevalent issue, Yunnan introduced a commercial insurance plan to their compensation process. Over the past decade, the province has compensated nearly 200 million yuan ($27.44 million) in damages caused by wild elephants.

An elephant specialist and scientist from the Megafauna Ecology and Conservation Group, Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, noted the inevitability of the conflict between humans and elephants. He further elaborated on the inherent competitive struggle for resources that has been prevalent since antiquity. With the rapid increase of the human footprint and continuous depletion of natural resources, the direct causation of the human-elephant conflict is root in the loss of natural habitat for the elephants.

In 2021, this conflict manifested in an unusual manner that captured worldwide attention. A group of 15 wild Asian elephants in Yunnan province embarked on a striking 500-kilometer journey away from their native habitat. Chen Fei, director of the Asian Elephant Research Center under the NFGA, believes that creating robust and suitable habitats for elephants is crucial in mitigating these conflicts. He further discussed China’s exploratory methods to restore the shrinking habitats of Asian elephants through the establishment of national parks.

Echoing the principles of China’s national parks management, the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project also endorses a similar model. This initiative includes three descriptive zones – forest conservation zones, buffer zones, and community zones. Forest conservation zones are primarily reserved for elephants with water resources sufficient to dissuade them from venturing into human settlements in search of food and water.

The Command Center plans to construct approximately 60 water points of varying sizes, with an estimated total capacity of about 1.8 million cubic meters. To date, 23 of these points have been successfully established. As summarized by General Chalermchai Sitthisad, the executive chair of the Gajanurak Fund, other conservation efforts include reforestation and introduction of additional food crops designed to supplement the natural diet of wild elephants. This effort also helps maintain a stable population of other animals in these regions.

In addition to providing a temporary residence for elephants, buffer zones act as physical dividers connecting different ecosystems and preventing elephants from exploring local communities. Chalermchai described the value of these zones, which host a plethora of biodiversity and crop species that benefit both humans and wildlife.

Community zones focus on raising awareness about the behavior of the elephants amongst local villagers. These regions also provide a platform to train volunteers to appropriately respond to situations where elephants need to be returned to their habitats. As Rungnapar Pattanavibool, Deputy Director-General of Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation, emphasized, the project strives to foster a sense of shared responsibility within the local community to ensure the safety of both the humans and elephants. Efforts to change the behavior of foraging elephants will take time, but the long-term benefits are well worth the wait.

Impressively, the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project has significantly progressed in its mission while tackling the root issues of these conflicts. Rungnapar optimistically reassures that with continued patience, the project’s success will inspire others to contribute to this mission of cohabitation and shared resources. After all, developing a successful elixir for a problem of this magnitude cannot be achieved overnight. It requires careful cultivation, strategic planning, and untiring efforts – all of which the Bajrasudha Gajanurak Project certainly appears to possess.

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