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Inexorable spread of humans endangers elephants


Almost every night for the last month, elephants have come on to the Mong Reththy

oil palm plantation near Sihanoukville. The animals, or possibly a single bull, have

eaten and trampled on the tender young palm trees. At least 500 of the plants have

been destroyed, said Bill Hilston, general manager of the plantation.

Provincial wildlife officers in a human-elephant conflict response team, after completing their training course in Pu Long village in Mondolkiri province on October 20.

The voracious appetite of the animals has cost the plantation owner thousands of

dollars. In Cambodia, he is not alone.

The last few years have seen a surge in the reported number of conflicts between

humans and elephants. Even as the population of Asian elephants slides toward extinction,

encounters with humans appear to be increasing.

Human-elephant conflicts occur around the world, particularly where conservation

efforts are succeeding. But in Cambodia, with between 200 and 600 elephants, a combination

of human population growth, rapid development and habitat loss have pushed the species

closer to human activity. Elephants are raiding crops as settlers establish new farms

in formerly forested elephant ranges.

Wildlife groups record on average two incidents of conflict per month, reported Chheang

Dany, director of the Wildife Protection Office at the Department of Forestry and

Wildlife (DFW). Most of the human-elephant clashes occur in the south and southwest

of the country. However, farmers as far north as Mondolkiri province have reported

crop damage and proposed killing the animals to protect their crops.

But NGOS are scrambling to offer non-lethal deterrents to stop the conflicts and

avoid the gruesome slaughter of elephants, which sometimes means strafing them with

automatic weapons.

"[Human-elephant conflict] is not a solvable problem, it's a manageable one,"

said Joe Heffernan, program coordinator at Fauna and Flora International (FFI) which

is leading the government's elephant program. "We have to make rural people

more tolerant [of the elephants' presence]. That will be the best way to reduce retribution


The human-elephant conflict (HEC) project coordinates three response teams composed

of provincial wildlife officials and NGO conservation workers in Bokor National Park

in Kampot province; Sen Monorom in Mondolkiri province; and Dong Tung Town in Koh

Kong province.

When elephant conflicts are reported, a team is dispatched to assess the site. They

offer local residents different ways to chase away elephants including firecrackers,

burning chili peppers or erecting fences and digging ditches. A team was dispatched

to the Mong Reththy plantation on October 22.

The HEC response team, a joint-operation between DFW, the Ministry of Environment

and FFI, aims to train government staff how to respond to elephant conflicts and,

ultimately, influence land use planning so that human encroachment on elephant habitat

is minimized. FFI is working with the DFW to designate "Managed Elephant Ranges"

for the long-term protection of the species.

The plight of Asian elephants is critical. Populations have plummeted throughout

Southeast Asia. The World Conservation Union estimates that about 50,000 individuals

remain in the wild, mostly in India, down from 100,000 at the beginning of the last

century. The species is threatened by hunting for ivory, meat and sport, forest loss,

crop conflicts with humans and capture for tourist shows.

At least four NGOS in Cambodia are tackling elephant conservation including WildAid,

the World Wide Fund for Nature, Cat Action Treasury and FFI.



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