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Turf Wars: Man and mammal

By: Expat Advisory Posted: January-01-2006 in
Expat Advisory

With rising food prices weighing heavily on the wallets of Cambodia's human population, decades of war and human encroachment have also left the revered Asian Elephant hungry for survival, and the two groups are struggling to find a balance. Charlotte Lancaster talks about human-elephant conflict in Cambodia.

At the Angkor Thom temple in Siem Reap, the magnificent 11th century stone Elephant Terrace pays homage to Cambodia's long history of honoured reverence for this mighty mammal.

But as available land shrinks, food prices rise and the human population grows, this ancient respect has given way to human necessity, and turf wars between man and mammal have left the Asian elephant population unnaturally depressed and increasingly reliant on the humanity of man as it stares extinction in the face.

Economic pressures in a developing economy recovering from years of instability and war have left much of Cambodia's forest vulnerable to illegal logging, poaching, land grabbing and development, according to elephant experts.

As environmental issues are often sidelined for political and economic advancement, they say, the destruction and disturbance of Cambodia's natural habitat has extreme consequences for Asia's largest land mammal.

"Historically, the Asian elephant was killed for its ivory. The elephant population in Cambodia experienced a heavy decline in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s," says Tuy Sereivathna, Manager of the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group (CECG) of Flora and Fauna International (FFI), a non-government organisation whose goal is to act strategically and pro-actively to ensure stablisation and the increase of the wild Asian elephant population.

"They have still not been able to re-colonise their previous range," he says. "Poachers, taking advantage of the years of conflict, killed hundreds and hundreds of elephants, especially along the Laos border in Steung Treng province."

Cambodia's porous borders proved lucrative for the ivory trade and warring factions were keen to sell it to fund their battles. This has had dire consequences for the elephant colonies, and growing demand for the precious commodity from newly booming economies such as China means the trade continues.

"Unfortunately, the elephants have not been able to recolonise to pre-conflict numbers," Sereivathana says.

The elephant, with a 22-month gestation period, struggles to regain populations for decades after a massacre such as the one in Indochina, he says. Elephants are only expected to give birth four to six times, and will not mate if stressed.

Elephants need large forest landscapes in which to live and conduct their normal migratory and social behaviour; separation of these habitats, migratory corridors and food resources through road building and development fragment herd structure and drastically reduce the animals' chances of survival.

Inbreeding and the emergence of genetic mutation as a consequence of such habitat disintegration also has severe repercussions on a herd's ability to re-populate. With around 20% of the world's human population living in or near the present range of the Asian elephant, elephants have been made to pay a heavy price to maintain a foothold in their ancient territory. Of the estimated 30,000 remaining Asian elephants, it is loosely approximated that 200-600 remain in Cambodia.

"Cambodian elephants represent a significant percent of the remaining population in South East Asia and thus is one of the last strongholds," says Matt Maltby, Project Advisor for CEGG. "The majority of Asian Elephants are now found in the Indian Subcontinent."

But although modern humans have been intolerant of their pachyderm co-inhabitants, it is a two-way street - elephants are immensely intolerant of human encroachment into their habitat, too, say experts.

Driven by hunger, frustration and desperation, elephants have been known to raid villages and farms looking for food. Humans looking to avenge their financial or personal loss often retaliate by killing or harming the elephants.

In Sri Lanka, statistics put deaths as a result of humanelephant conflict at an average of 150 elephants and 60 humans per year.

"In some areas wild Asian elephants co-exist with people, but they are increasingly restricted to protected areas, which in some countries are not large enough to support very large populations of elephants," Pollard says.

However there have been small triumphs, offering a glimmer of hope.

"Since the inception of our project, we have tackled HEC by focusing on community based solutions such as crop changes away from rice to "elephant friendly crops" (taro, chili and mango) and a reduced reliance on forest products. This has resulted in a year on year decline in wild elephant poaching from five confirmed elephant deaths in 2003 to zero in 2007," says Maltby.

"Killings are obviously still a threat," says Maltby. "But new developments like mining and road building and the subsequent loss of habitat integrity threaten the long term viability of the population."

The FFI-CECG project tries to facilitate a balance, so man and mammal can co-exist peacefully by implementing measures that protect the environment while improving the livelihood of local residents; encouraging farmers to change the way they work so as to not either attract elephants nor to upset their natural habitat.

"CECG has been hugely successful in tackling human elephant conflict at a local level," reports Maltby, and its three-year Koh Kong pilot project in Treng Troyueng to test and perfect elephant conflict mitigation methods has recently expanded to Prey Prosegh village, Kompong Seila district in Koh Kong and now involves over 10,000 people. Increased habitat loss and population growth coupled with higher numbers of elephants make these areas a hotspot for HEC and a priortity site for CECG's intervention.

CECG provides training programmes to educate this community on the importance of undisturbed forest for elephant existence. "Individuals are taught how to increase production in an efficient and sustainable manner," says Emily Woodfield, Country Coordinator for FFI.

By encouraging the farmers to stop growing crops that elephants like to eat such as rice, bananas and sugarcane and grow crops that are unpalatable to them such as chilli, taro and cucumbers, the CECG has shown farmers an incomeearning alternative that not only deflects elephant interest away from the crops but is also financially viable.

"Inter-cropping is another effective measure that deters elephants from trampling and eating a farmer's yield," says Maltby explaining that this double use of land whereby tempting watermelons are grown amongst unpalatable mangoes is a simple way of tricking the elephants.

As elephants like rice, farmers are encouraged to farm alternatives like chickens. Within the two and a half months that Yauk Kimthan has been raising chickens his feathery family has grown to 200 birds. 'I joined this programme because it benefits the people and elephant conservation,' says Kimthan.

Thirteen watchtowers are manned at night time by various members of the community who watch out for approaching elephants. 'If an elephant is spotted we will make loud noises to scare them away,' says Rorth. 'Of course shouting isn't always effective, so we sometimes make small controlled explosions to scare the elephant away.'

Two electric fences five hundred metres in length protectb crops from raiding elephants. However a trail of footprints and destroyed trees found on May 7 show that determined elephants can find any weakness in the barrier. 'As elephants will eventually become habituated to any one deterrent, we need to keep coming up with innovative solutions in order to keep people and elephants apart,' Maltby says.

But the news seems good for Asian elephants, in Cambodia at least, thanks to concerted efforts by conservationists and the willingness of the local people to look at ways that will allow them to retain the centuries-old relationship with this beautiful beast.

'Since the establishment of the CECG, there has been increased sightings of infant elephant footprints and dung. We have reason to believe more elephants are being born,' says Sereivathana.

'We have found that increasing numbers of people understand more about the value of elephant conservation and have since reduced or stopped illegal activities in the forest and changed their negative attitude to elephants and wildlife to a positive one,' says Sereivathana.

'Asian Elephants are under pressure throughout their range, though it appears that Cambodia has a stable and possibly increasing population. Levels of protection are good in most cases, and as long as forests can be maintained this population should grow further,' says Pollard.

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