Myanmar’s working elephants are under threat from new restrictions on the logging that provided their trade. Many are being sold off into an uncertain future.
Taung Gyi, Myanmar (dpa) – After nearly 10 years logging in the jungles of Myanmar’s Shan State, the elephant Phoe Kwar now ekes out a living with work of a very different kind.
“We were happy working in the jungle, but since last year we are on the streets to perform in religious ceremonies and festivals,” said his 19-year-old handler, or mahout, Kalu Sai.
“It is more tiring than the logging camps, I think.”
Kalu Sai comes from generations of mahouts, and has worked, rested and played with Phoe Kwar since the elephant was captured, when both were just eight years old.
“We understand each other, we are like brothers,” he said. “But I don’t know how much longer we will be together. Boss is trying to sell him.”
During Myanmar’s isolation under the 1962-2011 military regime, up to 5,000 elephants worked in its teak-logging industry, hauling the felled two-ton logs to the nearest waterway to be floated to mills.
But the government has banned the export of round logs and slashed logging quotas, to conserve the depleted forests and stimulate the domestic milling and carpentry sectors.
“Since the logging ban last year, the private elephant owners had very hard time,” said Tha Cho, a 68-year member of the Karen ethnic group.
“It is difficult to even feed these giant animals,” he said at his home near Bagon city, 80 kilometres north-east of Yangon.
He used to own 10 elephants before the ban, but has had to sell six since then.
“I can rent only four to logging camps” in the area, where there is much less business than before, he said.
The people who bought the other six said they will be taken abroad for use in tourism and entertainment, he said.
Around 2,215 working elephants belong to the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise, with another 2,610 in the hands of private logging firms in the country, according to the Forestry Ministry.
Authorities have set up seven elephant camps to occupy the state-owned elephants and drive tourism, as per the government’s ecotourism policy and management strategy launched in May.
But there has been no such centralized initiative for their private-sector counterparts.
Many unemployed elephants may be released into the wild, said Saw Htoo Tha Phoe of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
But, “there are not enough habitats for them because of the deforestation,” he said.
Myanmar’s forest coverage fell from 58 per cent of the country in 1990 to 47 per cent in 2010, and 45 per cent, or under 32 million hectares, in 2015, according to Forestry Ministry figures.
“Competition for land and food brings elephants into conflict with humans,” Saw Htoo Tha Phoe said.
There were 63 such conflicts between wild elephants and humans during 2010-14, according to media reports, leaving at least 10 people dead.
In August, authorities had to herd four adult elephants and two calves out of a town near the central city of Mandalay, after the animals killed one person and injured two more.
The wild pachyderms had been driven from the nearby jungle of Pegu Yoma by encroachment on their habitat.
“I don’t wonder why they were 150 kilometres from their home jungle,” said U Yuzana, a Buddhist monk who leads the environmental conservation group Popa Lovers Association.
“Because they lost their homes, and they are victims of deforestation,” he said from the group’s base in Mandalay, the second-largest city in Myanmar.
Those individuals were taken safely back to another part of the jungle.
But the capture of another rogue young elephant sparked outrage when he was taken to the National Zoo in the capital Naypyidaw.
Animal lovers urged authorities to release the calf and return him to the wild.
“Please let him grow up in the jungle,” said Sabei Lwin, a tourism guide and Myanmar representative of Thailand’s Save Elephant Foundation.
The group is planning a march in Yangon in October as a first step to raise public awareness of the plight of the Asian elephant, classified as endangered by the World Conservation Union, or IUCN.
“The Global Elephant March in Yangon will highlight the untold stories about elephants,” said Sangduen Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation.
“Protect your elephants, Myanmar,” she said. “Otherwise, the only elephants for coming generations to see will be the statues in the pagodas.”