KOMPONG SPEU, Cambodia (Reuters) - From nightfall until 3 a.m. the villagers of Trang Troyeung commune, in Cambodia’s southwest Kompong Speu province, battled to protect their banana grove from attacks by elephants.
Camped in a field that backs onto Kirirom National Park, where some of Cambodia’s last 250 wild elephants roam, they repelled the animals’ by banging pots and patrolling frontlines. But not for long.
“We fell asleep because we were tired and the elephants came back and ate the bananas at 4 a.m.” said human-elephant conflict expert Tuy Sereivathana of the fateful night about a year ago. “We stayed up all night. We slept in the field. But we lost”.
Such small turf wars have plagued countless agricultural communities for thousands of years. But rapid forest clearances and dwindling elephant numbers have raised the stakes, both for humans and Asia’s 40,000-50,000 endangered elephants.
The continent’s fragmenting forests and high population densities mean more human lives are lost every year to rampaging elephants than in Africa, which is home to ten times more elephants.
And with less than 300 Asian elephants left in six of the 13 Asian countries in which they range, experts fear skirmishes over banana groves and rice fields have become a deadly threat that could edge vulnerable populations to extinction.
From the tea plantations of Sri Lanka to the rice fields of Vietnam, villagers who cannot afford to lose their crops turn on destructive elephants, hunting and killing them.
With elephants restricted to ever-smaller habitat blocks, violence flares more often now, said Simon Hedges, co-chair of the World Conservation Union’s Asian elephant specialist group.
“As they aspire to a better quality of life people become less tolerant of human-wildlife conflict,” Hedges said.
Rodents, birds, or primates, can cause greater damage to crops, but elephants inspire more animosity because they often injure or kill people during raids.
India, home to 60 percent of Asia’s wild elephants, holds the world record for annual human deaths from elephant conflict.
Between 200 and 250 people die in such confrontations every year, said Bangalore-based Raman Sukumar, one of the world’s leading authorities on Asian elephants.
This is far more than the 50 people killed annually in the second top flashpoint, Sri Lanka, where hundreds of crop raiding elephants have been shot with ancient shotguns, had acid thrown at them, and been sickened by pumpkins injected with poison.
While large populations such as India’s 30,000 elephants weather such losses relatively well, others are dangerously low. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, Nepal and Vietnam may have less than 300 individuals left, experts fear.
In Vietnam, where 80 elephants live in small groups by the border with Cambodia and Laos, the continent is facing its first recent elephant extinction because of habitat loss and hunting.
“The elephant habitats are in very sensitive areas where very poor people who needed to develop economically live,” said Ha Bich Nguyen, of conservation group Fauna & Flora International (FFI)’s Vietnam office.
“The conflict was whether people or the elephants survive,” she said, adding that humans appear to have won as the ratio of male to female elephants is now inviable.
“With all our efforts and doing our best, we cannot help save them from extinction”.
Reducing such conflicts to help elephants, and humans, is possible with careful management; but totally stamping out attacks is a tall order, Sukumar said.
“It’s a double-edged sword. You can put part of the blame on humans who have fragmented elephants’ habitat,” he said.
“(But) once elephants have tasted crops, they develop a taste for it. They’re just going to come out and seek them, because they are far more attractive to them than wild forest food”.
Cambodian expert Sereivathana believes it is possible to reverse negative attitudes to the beasts whose revered image adorns Cambodian cigarette packets and Thai beer bottles, but who also trash crops, destroy houses, and smash fishermen’s boats.
Blazing into remote villages with armed police to tell locals to leave elephants alone does not get results, he said.
Instead, in Kompong Speu and half a dozen other villages, FFI has built wooden watch towers, strung up anti-elephant electric fences, and started guarding groups to frighten off marauders.
“Three things go together -- law enforcement, education, and livelihood programs,” Sereivathana said. “We need to think about livelihoods, how people can find a new job ... Education is also very important, so people understand.”
His group also gives seed money to villagers to encourage them to swap frontline crops such as sugarcane, watermelon, bananas and rice, which elephants love, to unpalatable ones they won’t touch, such as aubergines and chillies.
For some farmers, however, the logic of changing crops to avoid conflict with elephants does not soften the economic loss.
“I‘m still thinking about growing sugarcane... It gets more money and it’s more popular than aubergine,” said villager Siep Nait, 50, as she picked piles of the purple-black vegetables in a quiet field that was once regularly raided by elephants.
“(But) If I grow sugarcane I‘m scared that the elephants will come and I’ll get none,” she said.
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Editing by Megan Goldin