Wild elephant numbers rising, major rhino horn seizure

One week after seizing over 400 pounds of smuggled African elephant tusks at Bangkok’s international airport, Thai Customs officials confiscated over 100 pounds of African rhino horns. Meanwhile, conservationists announced that the Kingdom’s wild elephant population had increased by about 10 percent in recent years.

Officials have observed a “steep rise” in the wild elephant populations in the western Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary and the eastern Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai forest complex, said Adisorn Noochdumr, deputy director-general of the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department. He made the announcement on Thai Elephant Day, which the nation marks every March 13.

“This is the outstanding outcome of our efforts to protect the forest ecosystem and preserve the wild elephants, since we have worked on reintroducing wild elephants into the forest and building food sources for elephants,” Adisorn said.

More than a century ago, an estimated 100,000 elephants roamed the Thai countryside. But the spread of human populations, agriculture and industry has eaten away at their natural habitat and caused their numbers to drastically decline. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center believes there are only 2,000 to 3,000 elephants left in the wild in the Kingdom.

Thai success in turning the situation around, however, comes with its own challenges. As the elephant population expands, the pachyderms are more likely to wander out of the sanctuaries in search of food, bringing them into conflict with farmers and other humans.

Adisorn said his department is educating farmers and villagers about how to handle the problem using tactics that will protect their crops but not harm the elephants.

“We have tried a new method to chase away the elephants that invade people’s farmland by raising honey bees on the fences between forest and farmland, and it has proven to be very effective. When the elephants try to cross the fence, the bees will attack them and they will learn not to disturb the bees again,” he said.

The farmers also benefit financially by harvesting and selling the honey from the bees.

Meanwhile, Customs officials at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok uncovered 21 rhino horns worth an estimated $5 million that were smuggled in on a flight from Ethiopia.

“It’s the biggest confiscation of rhino horns in 10 years,” said Somkiat Soontornpitakkool, director of Thailand’s Wild Fauna and Flora Protection division.

Freeland, a wildlife protection activist group, praised Thailand for going after allegedly corrupt officials suspected of involvement in the smuggling ring.

“It is rare to see governments target corruption,” said Steven Galster, Director of Freeland, “but wildlife poaching and trafficking on the huge scale we are seeing, especially with rhinos, cannot happen without the help of well-placed corrupt officers. We applaud the leadership of Thai Customs, the police and Attorney General for taking this courageous and important move by investigating the possible corrupt links behind this scheme.”

Less than 30,000 rhinos are still left in the wild in Africa, their homeland.