A Conservation Group from Thailand


Caroline Mullins and David Daballen

Date Published

Save the Elephants has hosted many visiting research groups in its Samburu camp from different parts of Kenya, and sometimes from further a field like South Africa, or even Sri Lanka and North America. These teams of researchers and government ambassadors come to discuss many conservation issues and view the work we do here; a great exchange of information is always possible on such occasions.

On Wednesday 4th October, a group of six researchers arrived in a white tourist minivan, driven by a Maasai guide and all conversing in a very strange sounding language. They unveil themselves (thankfully in English) as a contingent of wildlife and environmental conservationists emanating from Thailand. Their leader, Belinda Stewart-Cox, is actually English by descent, but has lived in many parts of the world, including Kenya, before arriving in Thailand to research the elephants of that area.

Their arrival is not fortunately timed for a large welcome, as most of the team is in Shaba investigating a dead elephant they had just been alerted to, but a warm welcome was still possible. Gilbert remained in camp and he was able to greet them, ensuring they were settled into their tents before we arrived back…hot, tired and in a cloud of dust! An eclectic dinner, mixing Thai and the simpler Samburu cuisine, soon stimulated interesting conversation and we were able to discuss many of the issues surrounding elephant conservation in both our countries.

It seems that there are more differences between the populations of Asian elephants (as seen in Thailand) and African elephants than simply size of ears! Although this factor did cause an eruption of laughter when one of the visitors, finding herself closer than ever in her life to an elephant, observed, “I learn one thing: ear of Africa elephant look very much like continent of Africa”.

A story unfolds about 2000 years of elephant domestication in Thailand, deeply rooted in their cultural and agricultural traditions. A large conflict now exists between those trying to protect elephants in the wild, and those who wish to tame the animals for use in people’s homes and businesses. On top of this, they have the same problems of land encroachment and habitat degradation due to human activity that exists in Kenya.

After hearing more about our collaring operations, how much information we gain from these projects about elephant behaviour and where they travel, a new possibility presents itself: that of using such technology within their own conservation network (ECN). This is something that has never been attempted in Thailand, but with the problems they have of tracking elephants through thick forest on foot, collars represent a solution that would enable movements to be followed through any terrain.

We then discussed many logistical issues at great length, giving much advice from our own experience. There was a slight language barrier with some scientists in the group, but we still managed to get our message across, leaving them well-informed to investigate such research ideas further. We planned a very full day and all went to bed trying to rest well before an early start, although the roaring of lions in the night may have prevented some from peaceful slumber!

The day started at the break of dawn, when we could drive more comfortably in the cooler air throughout Samburu Reserve. We saw many well known families of elephants, enabling us to show them exactly how individual identification works as a field technique, and what we do with the information gained. The Thais were very shocked by how relaxed the elephants were; even when the research vehicles were very close- apparently the elephants in their part of the world do not so easily tolerate such familiarity.

We were able to answer many of their questions, for example the reason why family units split into smaller groups and why there were very few elephants in the park at the moment, as well as elucidating many basic African elephant behaviours. A longer talk and electronic demonstration then followed back in the research centre about how radio collars are answering our research questions on more complicated elephant behaviours and movements.

This proved very interesting to the visitors, and a trip back in the field ensued to look for a collared female whose position was known through the GPS download. Unfortunately this search was unsuccessful as the females had just crossed the river, but a trip to Elephant Watch Safaris provided our visitors with more food for thought in another direction.

The story of Elephant Watch’s birth and its relationship with Save the Elephants, as described by Jackie, turned out to be entirely new concept to the visiting conservation group. They had never heard of initiatives in Thailand where ‘eco-tourism’ directly supports conservation in an area, through funding of both research and education.

Unique opportunities like this, where like-minded conservationists from all parts of the world can meet and exchange both experience and ideals, are crucial for the future of all species.

We can learn much from our counterparts in other countries, particularly where such large and influential mammals as elephants are involved. The main problems are similar all over the world, generally resulting from an ever-expanding human population, which is rapidly shaping the environment in an often unplanned manner. By working together we can help allow both humans and wildlife to coexist in the same environment.