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CAMBODIA: When elephants and humans clash

Living peacefully with elephants is possible, says Sereivathana Tuy  Photo: Contributor/IRIN
OH KONG, 15 December 2010 (IRIN) – Sokha Seang, a 33-year-old rice
farmer, recalls the night last spring when a herd of elephants trampled
over his property.

“They were hungry. I was angry, but I understand why they did it,” he said. The pachyderms ate most of his food stock.

In Cambodia, poor farmers like Seang cannot afford to lose crops; a
third of the population lives below the national poverty line of
US$0.75 a day, according to government statistics.

They kill marauding elephants with guns, sharp bamboo sticks, or by
leaving out poisoned food. Sometimes, the elephants retaliate by
running over people.

This time, Seang set aside his instinct to fight back, with the help of
NGOs. “We need to live with them peacefully,” said Seang, whose remote
village of Prey Proseth lies in the southwest province of Koh Kong.

Protecting livelihoods, preserving wildlife

Conflicts between elephants and farmers are common across Asia, one
factor that has caused the animal population to dwindle and farmers to
lose their livelihoods.

Experts such as Sereivathana Tuy, 40, are encouraging farmers to find
ways to live peacefully with the elephants. Tuy is a Cambodia-based
elephant specialist at Flora and Fauna International, a wildlife non-profit organization based in Cambridge, UK.

He teaches farmers to alternate crops such as cucumbers and white
radishes, which can be harvested several times a year. This gives
elephants fewer chances to eat them.

Villagers have also learned to ward off elephants by planting chilli
peppers around their land, rather than maiming them with weapons, as
elephants dislike the smell, Tuy said.

For Tuy, both sides can preserve their ways of life. The villagers keep
their harvest while the elephant population can also be conserved, he
told IRIN in Koh Kong.

In Cambodia, fewer than 500 elephants are thought to roam in the wild
today. In 1995, there were an estimated 2,000 wild elephants.

Building trust

clash between elephants and humans became a problem after the communist
Khmer Rouge regime was ousted in 1979. In the next two decades,
under-regulated development caused deforestation, forcing elephants to
search for food and water on farmlands outside their traditional

Some Cambodians sought expensive elephant tails, tusks and the tips of
their trunks – body parts that were believed to bring power – and
displayed them in their houses to show their status.

These practices led to widespread poaching, says Tuy.

As a park ranger in Cambodia in the 1990s, Tuy developed a
community-based model for ending human-elephant conflicts that revolves
around building trust with farmers.

Tuy’s method begins with hiring teachers who teach children about
elephants in four schools in remote areas. The children then pass the
knowledge on to their parents, who are supposed to discuss it with the
other villagers.

Before 2005, elephant killings were often reported to the police, who
would arrest the perpetrators, then jail or fine them more than $2,000.
Under Cambodian laws, poachers or elephant killers may also be jailed
for 10 years.

Angry villagers said they knew of no other option to protect their land.

The situation might be improving, however. Tuy estimates there have
been between five and 10 elephant attacks on humans since 2003, and
only one death since 2005 – a sign that farmers are using safer methods
to drive away the elephants.

Many methods are backed by empirical evidence. One study last year
found that “community-based crop-guarding methods” – the sort of
collective guarding using traditional tools that Tuy teaches to
villagers – warded off elephants in about 90 percent of attempted raids
around Way Kambas National Park, on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

“It ties in with a growing realization that a lot of the top-down
methods haven’t worked especially well,” Simon Hedges, Asian elephant
coordinator at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), told IRIN from London.

“It’s not really realistic for all communities across… Africa and
Asia to expect that the government is going to deal with elephants for
them,” he added.

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