Myanmar is home to almost 5,000 captive elephants, many who work alongside humans in the logging industry.
A 2015 forestry assessment done by the UN found Myanmar had the third highest rate of annual forest reduction in the world.
Lost habitat and a ban have left elephants with less habitat and less work.
On a still, heavy afternoon in September, with monsoon clouds massing lazily in the sky, the threat of the elephants seems far away. But U Sein Than, a 50-year-old rice farmer living in remote Taik Kyi village in Myanmar, says there is one nearby.
He will not take us near in case it charges.
“When the elephants come, I light a fire and order the children into the tree houses,” says Than. “If you go near them, they chase you. We know when they are coming because we can hear them.”
Instead, we walk in the footsteps of the elephants across leech-infested paddy fields. He points out a tree where he says an elephant gouged a hole in the wood with its tusk.
Ten minutes later, we reach another tree house. It is deserted, tattered sheets hanging loose from the beams.
“This was my brother-in-law’s, but he abandoned it. He got too scared,” Than says, indicating at least a dozen elephant footprints clustered around the base of the tree, and a smooth patch of bark high up, where he says the elephant scratched itself.
In this village in the Burmese jungle just 45 miles from Yangon, elephant and man are at loggerheads.
The villagers aren’t sure why the elephants started coming to their village – perhaps logging destroyed their habitat, perhaps flooding from a dam – but they do know the consequences: 40 human deaths in the last eight years, according to village leader, U Sai Than Hlaing, 45.
“The elephants lost their habitats, so they come down to the village,” Hlaing says. “At first they only came for sugar cane, but then the elephants learned to eat human food.”
U Sein Than knows all about that. He describes his farming business as a “lottery” because of the elephants. “If three come, they destroy two acres of rice paddy. If I cultivate 100 percent of the rice, I only get 30 percent of it because of the elephants.”
The farmers can’t protect their crops, but they can protect their families.
Hence, the tree houses.
But Than’s brother-in-law isn’t the only one to have given up and relocated. Two other villages nearby have been abandoned because of the elephants.
“But I am not going,” says Than. “I have no other option. We have lived here for generations. If I left, it would only be to go and live in the jungle.” He doesn’t blame the animals, though.
“I just don’t want the elephants to come here anymore,” he says. “I want the government to help the elephants. I want them to find them somewhere to live.”
This loss of a place to live – not just for elephants, but for many other animals and plant species – is a huge issue in Myanmar. A 2015 forestry assessment done by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that the country had the third highest rate of annual forest reduction in the world.
In the years between 1990 and 2015, Myanmar lost almost a staggering 15 million hectares of forests and other wooded lands.
There was a glimmer of hope this summer when Aung San Suu Kyi’s new democratic government set about banning logging for the next fiscal year (although detail is still scant, and illegal logging remains a major problem in Myanmar).
It is currently unclear what will happen when the year-long ban – which builds on the previous administration’s raw timber export ban – ends, but conservation groups have welcomed it.
“If the logging doesn’t stop, everything is going to go,” says Dr. Amirtharaj Christy Williams, Myanmar country director for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “It’s important to have a ban and really think about how to do this in the future.”
But there’s a snag. While the ban sounds like it is good news for wild elephants in Myanmar, and maybe even for villagers like U Sein Than too (if, for example, elephants can move back into newly quiet forests), it’s not quite as simple as that.
Simon Hedges, elephant co-ordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society, explains.
“One of the challenges unique to Myanmar is the very large number of captive elephants relative to the wild population,” he says. “And they are obviously now underemployed – if not unemployed – because of the logging ban. And the big question is what to do with lots of those elephants.”
The logging-elephant bond
If Hedges doesn’t pose the million dollar question, it’s certainly the 5,000 pachyderm question. That is the rough number of captive elephants in Myanmar, according to the WWF. Wild elephant numbers are much lower: estimates range between 1,000 up to 3,000.
Of those 5,000 captive elephants, 2,500 work in the logging industry for state-owned logging company, Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE).
Strong, clever elephants have worked in logging hand in trunk with their mahouts, the men who train, work with and look after them, for more than 100 years. Ideally, the MTE elephants work until they are 55 and are then pensioned off to nearby forest areas with their mahouts for their twilight years.
Things are a bit more complicated now. It’s been widely reported that the previous government’s export ban means there are already high numbers of unemployed elephants.
And there are no real answers yet about what the elephants are doing while the logging industry has temporarily downed tools for the ban. Elephants in the wild feed for nearly 18-20 hours a day, and as the WWF’s Dr. Williams says: “How are 2,500 elephants going to be fed if they are not working?”
But the real risk is what happens if the temporary ban becomes permanent. While MTE and the government can cope with a few retired elephants, or even a lot of temporarily unemployed elephants, 2,500 or more long-term out-of-work beasts is a different matter.
Luckily, that’s exactly what Hedges, the Myanmar government, and a number of other conservation charities, including the WWF, are working on.
By the beginning of next year, they hope to have completed the Myanmar Elephant Conservation Action Plan (MECAP), a 10-year strategy for how to save Myanmar’s elephants.
The strategy includes an in-depth look at protecting wild elephants and their habitat, combating the trade in elephants and elephant parts, and preventing human and elephant conflict, but also focuses on what can be done with the vast numbers of elephants currently headed towards the elephant-equivalent of the dole queue if the logging ban takes hold.
“There are options – some animal rights organisations are keen on retirement homes, areas of forest set aside for elephants to be released into and looked after. Or there’s eco-tourism, or law enforcement,” says Hedges.
In fact, MTE is already running eight elephant response teams helping to tackle human/elephant conflict by driving the wild creatures away from human habitations. There’s a good eco-tourism example too, in a sector with a lot of bad examples. Myanmar’s much-lauded Green Hill Valley eco-tourism camp in Shan State currently houses four retired elephants and one baby.
But what really excites conservationists is the chance to send them back into the wild.
“If Myanmar gets its act together, and does a properly managed reintroduction into the wild with captive stock, it’s possible that we can re-wild a large part of Myanmar’s forests,” says the WWF’s Williams.
The reason this could be possible in Myanmar goes back to the elephants’ working conditions. MTE elephants are released back into the forest each night after their work is finished, unlike working elephants in, for example, Indonesia.
“Unlike elsewhere, lots of captive elephants here have spent their lives in the forest, with the freedom to interact with wild elephants, interbreed, eat a wild elephant diet. So challenges which come up elsewhere, like introducing disease, don’t come up,” says Hedges.
A million elephants
There are still issues: the elephants may be too reliant on, or too comfortable with, humans, leading to a higher risk of human/elephant conflict. A bigger problem in Myanmar is a lack of resources to manage huge experimental programs like this.
“Whatever happens, it will require significant help from international groups, to identify the areas, to fund the plan,” admits Williams. But, he says, the stakes could not be higher.
“The action plan needs the government to implement it – if we don’t do that, we might end up going the Laos route in Myanmar,” he says.
“The historic name of Laos is Lane Xang, meaning land of a million elephants – but now there are barely hundreds left. To prevent that from happening here we have to take this seriously.”