Article: Nikhil Advani, Senior Program Officer, Climate Change Adaptation, World Wildlife Fund

This past June I set out on a trip to Kui Buri National Park in Thailand to see a World Wildlife Fund project that combines three vital areas of our work: protecting wildlife, preserving fresh water, and building resilience to climate change.

What’s the connection? Asian elephants!

Elephants in this part of the world need up to 225 liters of water a day for drinking, and that doesn’t include water for bathing and play. Climate change is putting their water supply at risk. This area has seen a significant decrease in rainfall since 2009. While parts of the world like Kui Buri are getting drier, others are getting wetter, and throughout the world we are seeing more extreme weather events and less predictable seasonality of rainfall.

Kui Buri National Park is a beautiful place. It lies in the southern-most part of the Kaeng Krachan-Kuiburi Forest Complex in Thailand’s Tenasserim Mountains. Established in 1999, Kui Buri is home to between 150 and 200 Asian elephants and many more people. My WWF colleagues in the region have been working for a number of years with both the Thailand Department of National Parks and local communities to help stop human-wildlife conflict in the park. The biggest problem facing the elephants and the people who live here? Water. There isn’t enough of it. Elephants and locals are vying for the same precious water supply, which leads to conflict.
During the dry season, elephants will often venture into lower parts of the valley to find more permanent sources of water, which happen to be dangerously close to agricultural fields. During my visit, I met Paechuap Pimpimai, a farmer who has lived in the area for thirty-seven years. She said that it’s become so hot nowadays that she works fewer hours in the fields than she used to. The rainy season is also shorter. However, human-elephant conflict isn’t as bad as it used to be and she says she’s grateful for that. Many of the elephants are now spending more time inside the park and away from farming fields.

The construction of check dams have greatly improved things. Check dams are small, relatively temporary structures that are used to accumulate water. WWF worked with partners to build dams in the central part of Kui Buri Park, away from human settlements and farms like Paechuap’s. These dams were intentionally built in streams that used to flow year-round but, thanks to changing rainfall patterns, are now only seasonal. When the streams do flood, the check dams can accumulate water for up to two months. This stored water is keeping elephants and other wildlife away from the more permanent sources of water, which reduces human wildlife conflict. Community members have also received support to construct wells and rainwater harvesting tanks to help them secure additional sources of fresh water.

The project I saw in Thailand is a promising example of a new approach WWF is taking around the world to help wildlife and humans adapt together to a changing climate. Most research has focused on how climate change directly impacts wildlife. Now, we’re starting to study indirect impacts, like increased human-wildlife conflict over access to water and how human responses to climate change may have other negative impacts on wildlife.
And we’re coming up with solutions:

● In the Virunga Massif and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in east central Africa, people are encroaching on this fragile mountain gorilla habitat to collect water, resulting in increased poaching and encounters with wildlife. WWF is supporting rainwater harvesting tanks for the communities to minimize park encroachment.

● In Asia’s high mountains we’re meeting with community members to better understand how they are responding to a changing climate. As they move to higher elevations, we are beginning to see people intrude into important snow leopard habitat. People are intimately bound up with the diversity of life on Earth. As our planet faces seemingly insurmountable odds, we must find new ways to survive and thrive together. It is our responsibility to help wildlife adapt to a changing climate. We need to move beyond assessments and recommendations and begin implementation. That’s why I’m so excited about our project in Kui Buri. It’s a vital step forward in our vision for a future where people live in harmony with nature.

Nikhil Advani focuses on climate change and species, and human responses to climate change. His species work includes conducting vulnerability assessments and developing and implementing adaptation strategies for WWF priority species. The human responses work primarily focuses on Africa, learning how communities are being affected by changes in weather and climate, and how their responses impact biodiversity.

PHOTOS: © Luke Duggleby/WWF-US

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