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Bring The Elephant Home: Update from the Field

Updates from Bring The Elephant Home, a story Our Better World told in 2021.
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By David Owen, Project Manager of BTEH

David Owen is the project manager for Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH), an international NGO in Thailand which advocates for  innovative, and community-based solutions that allow for coexistence between humans and elephants. BTEH works closely with locals in promoting awareness of the role of elephants in the ecosystem, and developing fresh initiatives that are both elephant and people friendly.

Since our story was launched on World Wildlife Day last year, Bring The Elephant Home (BTEH) has carried on with its mission to create human-elephant coexistence - in the name of Thailand’s famous soup. We have (quite literally) been watching the Tom Yum project grow before our eyes throughout the past year and are so proud of the dedication, innovation and creativity that is causing this community-based initiative to thrive. 

On the border of Kuiburi National Park, where BTEH is based, the vast majority of farmers plant pineapple as their main source of income. This sweet, fragrant crop is highly attractive not only to humans, but also to the 300 wild elephants living in the protected area. When darkness falls in Ruam Thai village, elephants cross the national park’s unfenced border and consume, trample and uproot pineapple and other crops, causing severe economic losses.

In 2020, we began supporting the local community as they experimented with crop species which they believed would be unpalatable to elephants, such as lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, and chili — all which happen to be the ingredients of Tom Yum soup. Preliminary results of our trials showed that lemongrass and citronella not only experienced the least damage from elephants, but was also resistant to insect-transmitted diseases, drought, and environmental factors that impacted the yield of other experimental crop species. 

A few weeks ago, a herd of nine elephants walked through one of the experimental plots, and no damage was recorded. They spent very little time in the plot, making their way to the neighbouring pineapple plantation, so we believe that as the project grows, elephants will have less incentive to enter farmland, and if they do, farmers won’t experience such devastating financial losses as they did before.

 

Elephant footprints observed adjacent to a field of citronella. From the footprints, it is clear that elephants approach and even enter alternative crop plantations, but little to no damage is recorded in Bring The Elephant Home’s experimental trial. 

We have planted over 1,000 crops of each of these species in plots frequently visited by elephants, and with the yield, a community-run group is making unique, handmade products. Newest of the range are two herbal tea blends, and a dried Tom Yum soup kit, all created from the alternative crop yield and packaged in biodegradable bags. Currently, we’re only distributing products in Thailand through our webshop, Elephant & Co, but supporters can donate to the project through Bring The Elephant Home’s website

Some of the Tom Yum Project’s newest products, dried tom yum soup set, ginger-galangal-turmeric tea, and lemongrass-butterfly pea tea (from left to right).

2022 holds exciting things for Bring The Elephant Home and the Tom Yum project. Our research on beehive fences suggests that protecting an area with beehive fences can not only reduce crop damage by wild elephants but can also offer a host of other benefits such as income through the sale of honey and bee colonies, access to new skills and capacity building opportunities and increased crop yield from the presence of pollinators. 

 

With funding from Save The Elephants - Elephants and Bees Project, and a partnership with Dr Orawan Doungphakdee of King Monkut’s University of Technology Thonburi’s Native Honeybee and Pollinator Centre, we hosted a beekeeping workshop in Ruam Thai village so farmers, rangers and other stakeholders could learn the theory and techniques required to manage beehive fences in this region. Given that electric fences are the most common unnatural cause of death for wild elephants in Thailand, a sustainable, community-based fence that supports biodiversity, instead of harming it, could be the key to creating peace in a conflict zone. 

During the workshop, we learnt that one of the best ways to ensure success with the beehive fences is to plant crops that serve as high quality food sources for the bees. A true highlight of the workshop was watching the local farmers and BTEH field staff light up when learning that chili, lime, galangal and some of the other crops we’re growing as part of the Tom Yum project, also happen to be the best possible food resources to sustain bees. 

You can support farmers seeking coexistence with elephants by donating to our Bee The Change project. Funds provide tools and training to farmers experiencing human-elephant conflict, so they can develop alternative livelihoods and experience greater social, economic, and ecological resilience. 

Highlights from a beekeeping workshop conducted in Ruam Thai village, on the border of Kuiburi National Park, hosted by Bring The Elephant Home and the team from KMUTT’s Native Honeybee and Pollinator Centre.

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