At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than 100,000 wild elephants living in Thailand. By the early 2000s, fewer than 3,000 remained nationwide as extensive poaching, logging and encroachment into forests severely impacted the population. These actions had put Thailand’s national animal, the elephant, on the endangered species list.
The response was quickly to protect the remaining forests, forming wildlife parks and sanctuaries where the animals could live in safety. But this protection was so effective that the numbers of key species – including the elephant – exploded and certain national parks became unable to sustain this booming population.
As a result, the elephants started to roam, looking for food and new areas outside the forests, leading to Thailand’s most intense and dangerous human-elephant conflict (HEC). Many of the elephants never returned to the original forest and now live almost exclusively amongst the eucalyptus, rubber and palm plantations and occasional community forest within close proximity to villages.
With the highest concentration of wild elephants per square kilometre of natural forest in the country, the four provinces of Rayong, Chonburi, Chachoengsao and Chanthaburi to the east of Bangkok have become an unlikely battleground between farmers trying to protect their livelihoods and wild elephants who need to eat. This area is known as Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) and is the largest economic zone in the country.
To mitigate the problem, communities formed volunteer groups who are on alert every night and, together with forestry officials, are ready to drive the elephants away from their crops.
But this is dangerous work and would claim many lives on both sides. Between 2012 and 2023, a conservative figure says that 105 people were killed (15 in 2023 alone) by elephants and 133 more injured, while 92 elephants were killed and 46 injured.
At Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, the heart of the Eastern Forest Complex, the population soon exceeded the park’s carrying capacity and around 15 years ago the first elephants began to venture outside. This put them in direct conflict with the communities that live around the peripheries of the park.
Today, experts estimate that approximately 600 wild elephants live in this area with more than half living permanently outside the boundaries of the sanctuary.
Opinions about possible solutions vary and ultimately there is no perfect answer other than trying to manage this fragile coexistence. But with a birth-rate estimated by Thai researchers to be at 8% per annum in this area, one thing many agree on is that the problem is only going to get worse.
Until then, local communities will be on the frontline to protect their livelihoods and the elephants will continue to search for food and shelter.
These photographs will be on display along with several more of such previously unseen shots from the field in a photo exhibition, A Fragile Coexistence – Humans and Elephants in Eastern Thailand, from August 22 to September 3, 2023 at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC). It’s the work by the British documentary photographer Luke Duggleby with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
(@lukedugglebyphoto and www. lukeduggleby.com)
This photo essay was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center
Luke Duggleby is a freelance documentary photographer who has been based in Bangkok, Thailand, for over 15 years. Working for a range of global media and NGO’s he also allocates a significant amount of time to personal work which focuses predominantly on issues related to human rights defenders and environmental justice particularly at a grassroots community level. In 2018, he was awarded by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand for his contribution in covering human rights issues.