Conservation news

Myanmar ponders what to do with its out-of-work elephants

Image by Jennie Crawley/Myanmar Timber Elephant Project

  • As the Myanmar government moves to rein in deforestation, thousands of captive elephants trained to haul logs in Myanmar may lose the care and protection they received when working.
  • A government body that owns more than 2,900 captive elephants has turned to ecotourism to raise funds to care for the elephants, but it’s not enough.
  • Releasing the elephants into the wild presents its own difficulties, including increased risks of human-wildlife conflict and poaching.
  • Private owners, strapped for cash, may be forced to kill their elephant and sell its parts, or sell it alive to another country.

Captured in the wild in 1973, in the country then known as Burma, Thaung Sein Win has been ridden by various mahouts over the years, dragging thousands of freshly felled teak logs out of the forests. A 4,100-kilogram (4.5-ton) Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), he has lived through the rise of the Republic of Myanmar, the explosion of the logging industry, the fragmentation of Myanmar’s forests, and the poaching of his wild counterparts.

Now, as he enjoys a lavish retirement with a caretaker and veterinary check-ups, he’s living through a new era for Myanmar’s elephants: the looming end of logging work.

“This is a huge animal welfare crisis coming down the road,” says Peter Leimgruber, head of the Conservation Ecology Center at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Throughout the country, more than 2,000 privately owned elephants face an uncertain future following the decline of the logging industry. “It’s like a steam train coming down and no one’s going to stop it,” he says.

Thaung Sein Win is one of the lucky elephants because he is owned and cared for by an arm of the national government: the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE), which owns more than 2,900 captive elephants. Several thousand more elephants, privately owned, used to receive contract work with the MTE, dragging logs from the muddy forests, but are now jobless and thus vulnerable to poachers and traders.

Elephants have been used as timber-haulers in the region for centuries. “The monsoon rains are so intense,” says Jacob Shell, a geographer and author of Giants of the Monsoon Forest, that the soil becomes “goopy, sticky mud.” Elephants are well suited to moving around in these conditions, Shell says.

Elephants haul logs from the Salween River in southern Myanmar circa 1900. Image by Mike Steele/Flickr.

Elephants also allow the Myanmar Selection System to function. This timber-harvesting method ensures each section of forest has 30 years to regrow before loggers are allowed to return. The system is good for the elephants too, says Khyne U Mar, who was head of the MTE Veterinary Division in the late 1990s, because it offers income to the mahouts who care for the elephants.

“They’ve been kept by humans for thousands of years,” says Jennie Crawley, a researcher with the Myanmar Timber Elephant Project, an international collaboration focusing on improving the lives of the MTE elephants.

Calf mortality has been a major hindrance to conservation efforts; about 25% of the MTE’s captive elephants die before age 6, according to Crawley’s recent paper in Scientific Reports. She and her co-authors determined that the riskiest age for young elephants in Myanmar is 4 years old, when their odds of death jump by more than 50%. That’s the same age that mahouts begin taming the elephants, which suggests that the stress of taming is a common cause of death, especially for calves with underlying health problems.

Although risky for young elephants, taming is necessary to keep mahouts safe while working around the powerful animals, Crawley says in her research. Ensuring that the taming process minimizes stress and is only applied to healthy calves could help reduce mortality.

While researchers are working to improve the survival rates of Myanmar’s working elephants, available work is declining across the country as the government tries to conserve the remaining teak forests.

Myanmar has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates, according to a 2005 U.N. assessment. In 2015, just 43% of the country was forested, down from 51% in 2000, according to a 2017 report. The decline of ethnic conflict within Myanmar has also opened up new areas to deforestation, a 2016 study says.

A forest in Myanmar. Image by Stéphane DAMOUR/Flickr.

The government responded in 2016 by temporarily banning logging across the country and placing a 10-year ban on logging in the Bago Yoma region of central Myanmar. But what has been helpful for Myanmar’s forests has created new challenges for the country’s elephants.

The situation has only worsened since the 2016 logging bans. With a 50% reduction in timber harvesting, the MTE has stopped contracting with private elephant owners, according to a recent government report.

“Most of the elephants are jobless,” says Zaw Min Oo, an MTE veterinarian and researcher. “Not only the MTE but also the private elephants.” If those elephants aren’t working, their owners aren’t earning income, Oo says, which means there’s less money for elephant health care — especially for privately owned elephants that don’t receive government funding.

“We are worried about the private elephants,” Oo says. While the MTE has about 50 veterinarians taking care of its elephants, owners of private elephants often don’t want to call veterinarians at all. To address this, the MTE has begun a mobile veterinary program. “We are trying to cover the [veterinary] costs of all captive elephants — even the private ones,” Oo says. “We are trying to invite every private owner to call us.”

MTE elephants are at risk too, says Khyne U Mar, the organization’s former chief veterinarian. The MTE still pays the caretakers, even when the elephants aren’t working. Annually, this amounts to about 9 billion kyat (about $6.6 million), Mar says, and “they are struggling to meet this expense.” To offset some of these costs, the MTE has turned to eco-tourism, she says.

Tourism or release into the wild are potential solutions for elephants that no longer haul logged trees, but some are at risk of being poached or sold to traders. Image by Jennie Crawley/Myanmar Timber Elephant Project.

At 22 MTE-run camps, tourists can pay roughly 3,000 kyat (about $2) to ride, feed, and observe elephants. Although elephant tourism in places like Laos and Thailand can be abusive, the MTE elephants are in a much better situation, says Gilles Maurer, an ecologist and co-founder of ElefantAsia, a non-profit Asian elephant conservation group. “The question,” he says, “is not really a question of tourism against timber. It’s really the way [tourism is] done,” and the MTE takes good care of its elephants, Maurer says.

“Myanmar is not like Thailand,” says Oo, the MTE veterinarian. “We don’t want this situation [of animal abuse] in Myanmar.”

While it’s easy for outsiders to say how Myanmar should handle its elephants, the MTE is actually doing a good job, says the Smithsonian’s Leimgruber. “When you consider how few financial resources they have” at the MTE, he says, “it’s actually quite incredible what they’re doing.”

But tourism in Myanmar, and throughout Southeast Asia, isn’t a big enough industry to employ many elephants. MTE has only about 250 elephants working in tourism, less than 10% of the elephants it owns.

An alternative would be to release unemployed elephants into the wild. But successful releases are difficult, says Christie Sampson, an ecologist at the University of Calgary who has studied human-elephant interaction in Myanmar with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where Leimgruber is a colleague.

“The prime forest,” Sampson says, “is not their preferred habitat.” Instead, elephants prefer to live near cropland. This raises the potential for human-elephant conflict, she says, which can put both the locals and the elephants in danger. When she was in Myanmar in 2015, Sampson says, “there were elephants in the area so the kids couldn’t go to school because it wasn’t safe for them to travel.”

An elephant displays its strength at an “Elephant Presentation” at the Singapore Zoo. Image by Martinnus Budiarto/Flickr.

Poaching is also a serious issue for rewilded elephants. From 2015 to 2017, while Sampson was studying the movements of Myanmar’s wild elephants, seven of the 19 elephants she was tracking were poached. “We knew that people were poaching for skin,” she says, so poaching isn’t just affecting tusked elephants.

It’s difficult to know how widespread poaching is, Leimgruber says, but it does seem to happen wherever there’s conflict between humans and elephants. The facts are grim: From 2015 to 2017, researchers from the Smithsonian found 40 poached elephant carcasses across south-central Myanmar.

Despite the challenges, the MTE is moving forward with a small rewilding project. Since 2018, they’ve been working on releasing 12 elephants back into the wild. The release doesn’t happen overnight; it is a gradual process of keeping the elephants away from people and their crops.

Temporary electric fences can help keep elephants away from humans, Sampson says, “but the elephants are really smart and end up figuring out how to knock over the fence.” Many areas can’t be fenced at all, which is why they aren’t always effective at keeping elephants away from villages. Ultimately, when it comes to the several thousand captive elephants in Myanmar, “there’s no way that all of these elephants could be re-introduced to the wild,” Leimgruber says.

For now, most researchers agree that the MTE elephants aren’t in immediate peril. Even as logging work decreases, the mahouts of government-owned elephants will continue to get paid, meaning the animals will be taken care of, Khyne U Mar says. Private elephants, on the other hand, are not so lucky.

“Suppose I am a private owner — I do not have money,” Mar says. “The elephant cannot work, so what am I supposed to do?” For private owners facing this dilemma, the options include killing the elephant and selling its parts, or selling the elephant — alive — to another country. In the past, buyers in Thailand — planning to use the elephants as tourist attractions — have made up a majority of the live-trade demand, according to a 2008 report, but neighboring China is a potential market as well.

Thaung Sein Win, the retired elephant. Image by Carly Lynsdale/Myanmar Timber Elephant Project.

With government-funded care, Thaung Sein Win enjoys retirement with other old MTE elephants, according to Jennie Crawley, who has helped care for the aged elephant.

For now, the caretakers “still care for them in the same way — collecting them each day and bathing them and keeping an eye on their health,” Crawley says in an email. “But yes, it is very likely that there needs to be a big change to the working lives of younger MTE elephants, like his children, in what sort of work they do or life they live, although it’s very hard to say what that life will look like.”

Citation:

Crawley, J. A. H., Lahdenperä, M., Oo, Z. M., Htut, W., Nandar, H., & Lummaa, V. (2020). Taming age mortality in semi-captive Asian elephants. Scientific Reports, 10(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-020-58590-7

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the journal in which Jennie Crawley’s paper was published as Nature

Banner: Elephants under care in Myanmar. Image by Jennie Crawley/Myanmar Timber Elephant Project. 

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