Wild Elephants are often found using the same space with people in Khao Yai, including roads. Credit: DNP/ Khao Yai National Park

Wild elephants use areas overlapping with popular camping grounds in Khao Yai: the new study finds

The National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department (DNP) is rushing to develop measures to prevent intra confrontations between humans and wildlife in its popular park, Khao Yai, following a tragic incident of an elephant attack, which resulted in one casualty late last week

Associate Professor Dr. Ronglarp Sukmasuang of Kasetsart University’s Forestry Faculty, a veteran expert on wild elephant studies, said a team of wildlife researchers from the faculty with the support of the department has been conducting an in-depth study on wild elephant ecology in the park following years of studies on its population structure.

Since there were reports on clashes between humans and wild elephants along the outer edges of the park as well as some confrontations inside the park following its increasing popularity that draws more and more visitors over the years, the researcher team has become keen to learn more of the animals’ behaviors as well as factors affecting these, including increasingly popular tourism.

This, the professor said, could help guide the park to come up with more proper park and wildlife management as well as better regulation of activities deemed to disturb wild animals there, especially the elephants.

Dr.Ronglarp and other experts at the press conference yesterday.
Credit: DNP

A year before, there was a big herd of wild elephants falling off the high cliff of the park’s popular waterfall, Haew Narok, and this tragic incident encouraged more serious approaches in park management and planning as it was suspected that the increasingly popular tourism had waded off wild elephants to roam in more difficult routes that eventually caused their lives.

This time is just opposite as a visitor was found being attacked by the elephant, reflecting unfinished rearrangement of their interactions in the same park area.

According to the data from previous studies by the study team, there are some 250 wild elephants roaming in Khao Yai, 251 in opposite Thap Lan and Pang Sida National Parks, and another 50 in Dong Yai and Ta Praya Wildlife Sanctuaries, all form the forest complex of the Dong Phaya Yen-Khao Yai World Heritage Site.

Wild elephants in the wild at Khao Yai.
Credit: DNP/ Khao Yai National Park

Better park and wildlife management

Some dominant elephants in the park have been picked to represent the population and satellite tracking collars have been attached around their necks to help track and monitor their mobility and uses of different areas of the park.

Based on the data collected, some wild elephants including the prominent male elephant, Plai Due, have been found roaming around the park’s popular camping grounds, including Pha Kluay Mai near Haew Suwat Waterfall, especially in winter, where food is available.

“In the past, we did not have much information on their mobility, nor their interactions with tourism activities in the park area. The knowledge is hoped to lead to better wildlife and park management,” said Dr. Ronglarp, citing an example of a creation of wildlife corridors to help expand wildlife habitats.

A source close to the issue said the department has been developing a holistic plan to manage wild elephants since the deaths of the elephants the year before, and assessments on risks and visitors’ safety in some of the park’s attractions have also been conducted based on information available.

The incident, in which a visitor was attacked right at Pha Kluay Mai was just very unfortunate, he said.

DNP’s Deputy Director General, Prakij Wongsriwattanakul, said the department gives importance to visitors’ safety too, so it has decided to close the Pha Kluay Mai and Lam Ta Kong camping grounds until more stringent measures are introduced to ensure visitors’ safety.

Normally, attractions in the parks would have rangers on guard. Under the new plan, early warning systems including elastic wires would be installed around camping grounds to alert rangers on duty every time when wild animals get near.

“But the realization that you are in their habitats, and you must always keep your distance and stick to the park’ rules would be the best safeguards, and with your cooperation and our attempt to protect you, we hope that unfortunate incidents would never occur again,” said Mr. Prakij.

The tracking data sent from a collar on Plai Due around Pha Kluay Mai camping ground.
Credit: DNP

Satellite tracking collars

The department has also dismissed speculation that the collars attached to the elephants in the study prompt behavioral changes in the animals.

Dr. Supakit Vinitponsawan, of the Wildlife Conservation Office, who leads the nationwide study on wild elephant populations using satellite tracking collars to help resolve human elephant conflicts, said the department has attached up to 11 collars on wild elephants in the conflict areas and found no effects on the animals’ behaviors so far.

Normally, equipment weighed no more than 2 % of animals’ weight are allowed in scientific studies, but the collars used in the study are only around 0.1 or 0.5 % of the elephants’ weight, as they are less than 10 kilograms each.

“They are very light, and they have no effects on the animals,” said Dr. Supakij.

According to WWF Thailand, such the collars have been popularly used internationally in wildlife studies and research such as those conducted in Indonesia and Tanzania.

Dr. Anak Pattanavibool. Country Director, Wildlife Conservation Society’s Thailand Programme said use of collars in wildlife studies especially in tracking wild elephants has been proved increasingly useful both internationally and domestically.

This is because they can help track and monitor wild animals unlike before, and the successful cases could be seen in wild elephants in Africa, which have been under severe threat from poaching.

With the collars, rangers could be alerted of their risks and approach them quickly through informed locations, thus being able to provide timely protection for the animals. The collars also help generate data on their distributions and habitats for long-term planning and management, he said.

In Thailand, the equipment has been introduced in recent years to help track some elephants roaming on the outer edges of the forests to help prevent clashes between them and nearby communities, he added.

Dr. Pattarapol Maneeon, the DNP’s Head of Animal Health Management Division, who has been intensively working on wild animals’ health in Khao Yai, said wild elephants during this period of time tend to be in musth, and this condition quite affects their behaviors as they would become more aggressive than usual.

But compared with negative interferences like tourism activities, which draw people close to them, it would rather be far less frustrating for the elephants.

“That’s why national parks have some guidelines for you to follow,  such as keeping a distance from wild animals, don’t selfie, and so on, because all these frustrate them, and they could be more frightening than the elephants in musth,” said Dr. Pattarapol.