Unlike their African cousins, who are constantly under threat of being killed for their valuable tusks, wild Asian elephants are most threatened by loss of habitat and the conflict that is intrinsically linked to it.
That holds true in Kui Buri, says Superintendent Khamhaeng: “Now the biggest issue is human-elephant conflict, not poaching.”
Still, in January a 20-year-old elephant was found shot dead inside the park. Though the circumstances are not entirely clear, Khamhaeng says the animal was most likely killed by a poacher. Such incidents galvanize his conviction about the necessity of regular arms and combat training for the park’s 116 rangers. “It is crucial,” he says. “Once we stop patrolling and doing what we are doing right now, the poaching will come back.”
Nineteen-year-old Thamanoon Parnprasart is attending one such four-day training. Together with some 50 other rangers in military camouflage, the shy youth with a hint of a mustache is running up and down a field with his rifle, simulating an ambush. He is the youngest in age and has the least experience, having joined the ranger force only five months earlier. But even after training that leaves him “very tired,” his commitment to conservation seems unshaken.
“I will continue working in this national park as long as I can,” he says. “I like being a ranger even though the salary is very low. All the rangers here are like my family.”
The list of Parnprasart’s responsibilities is long and varied. Among his duties are regular forest patrols to collect data from camera traps. The information is sent back to the Department of National Parks and eventually logged in a SMART patrolling system—software that allows wildlife conservationists to store and analyze data that facilitates better planning of protection efforts.
Parnprasart is also on the park’s emergency response team, and that means he works in the evenings and sometimes at night—when elephants are most active and likely to venture outside park boundaries into human territory. As the sun begins to fade and the sky turns from pink to dark gray, the youth patrols the border area together with his colleagues in order to prevent elephant encroachment.
And he can be called on at any time to help villagers chase elephants away from their plantations. His team leader is usually notified of the emergency via phone or text message. When this happens, a three-person team armed with slingshots and cherry bomb fireworks speeds to the rescue of the distressed farmer. They even have an “elephant cannon,” a metal tube that contains the cherry bombs but amps up the noise to jarring levels. Scaring the elephants with ear-piercing explosions seems to be the preferred and most successful solution, says Parnprasart, although sometimes signaling with torchlights suffices too.
After ascertaining that the impromptu visitor is no longer around, he says, “We need to assess the damage to the plantation, see if [the farmers] need financial compensation, or if there is anything we can help with.”
The emergency response team is an important component of community engagement, says Khamhaeng. “It makes the community understand that we are trying to help them.”
The park is also deep at work, with WWF, on a new, tech-focused early warning system. Thanks to a partnership with Thai telecommunication conglomerate True, photographs from camera traps around the park’s boundaries will soon be sent directly to rangers’ mobile phones. With photographs tracking the elephants’ movements right at their fingertips, rangers can preempt excursions.