Global New Light Of Myanmar

Myanmar’s elephants need help (In commemoration of the World Elephant Day)

Photo: WCS Myanmar
Photo: WCS Myanmar

The World Elephant Day is an international event which falls on 12 August of every year. The day was created by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Sims and Thailand’s Elephant Reintroduction Foundation and first celebrated on 12 August 2012. Since then, the World Elephant Day has been annually celebrated in many countries. Also in Myanmar, the annual event is held in some places, like zoos and elephant camps on the day, raising awareness to the public to conserve and protect elephants from the numerous threats they face. The escalation of poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and mistreatment in captivity are just some of the threats to both African and Asian elephants. The slogan of World Elephant Day for the year 2018 is “Bringing the world together to help elephants.”
There are two main types of elephants, namely, African elephant and Asian elephant, although it is estimated that there were once more than 350 species of elephants in the world. The African elephant is the larger of the two species left in the world. They have extremely large ears and both males and females grow tusks. The Asian elephant has a huge body but the ears are smaller than the other. Males develop tusks but females do not.
Both African and Asian elephants are listed as threatened species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, African elephants are listed as Vulnerable (VU), meaning they face a high risk of endangerment in the medium term. Asian elephants are classed as Endangered (EN), meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the near future. Currently, the total population of African elephants is estimated to be about 400,000, and that of Asian elephants is estimated around 40,000. Population of both species are declining as they are at risk due to the high demand of their body parts. Their low birth rate is also a factor in the decreasing population.
Around 40,000 wild Asian elephants live scattered across thirteen countries in Asia. An insight of recognized three subspecies of Asian elephants show, (a) the Sri Lankan elephant occurs in Sri Lanka, (b) the Indian elephant occurs in mainland of Asia: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Malay Peninsula, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, and, (c) the Sumatran elephant occurs in Sumatra. Therefore, elephants found in Myanmar are the Indian subspecies of Asian elephants.
In Myanmar, elephants have had a long, rich and proud history. For thousands of years, they have been used for transportation, construction, agriculture and war. The white elephant in particular has long been regarded as a symbol of power and royal status. The elephant has been a revered animal and national treasure of Myanmar for centuries. Currently, among the estimated total population of 7,000 elephants in Myanmar, around 5,000 are in captivity and only about 1,400-2,000 elephants are left in the wild, although there were about 10,000 wild elephants in 1997. Although we have considered the number of 1,400-2,000 in the wild areas of Myanmar, the number might be lower as wild elephants are fast declining. There is a danger of Myanmar’s wild elephant population disappearing within a few years. Some Asian elephants, especially those in Myanmar, are under the threat of extinction due to humans. The main threats to the survival of Myanmar’s wild elephants are poaching, encroaching on their habitats and mistreatment in captivity.
Poaching is one of the biggest threats to the survival of Myanmar’s wild elephants; they are killed not only for their ivory but also for their body parts, such as skin, teeth, bones and hair, as well as meat and genitalia, which are used in traditional medicine. When some researchers went around the jungles, they found dead elephants, some rotten, some skinned, and some body parts, such as ears, tails, legs removed. How horrible indeed! Nowadays, most of the wild elephants are poached for their skin. The elephants found dead in the jungle did not even have tusks. Unlike African elephants, only 25 to 30 percent of male Asian elephants have tusks/ivories (percentage varies by region) and no females have them. Unlike poaching for ivory, the skin trade makes all elephants valuable to poachers. Females and even calves have been targeted. Actually, hunting or poaching females and calves is quickly driving a species towards extinction.
Elephant skin becomes a highly desired product like ivory in China. Chinese traditional medicos use pachyderm to formulate Chinese medicine. Many Chinese still believe that the elephant skin can cure skin fungi and infections, as well as intestinal diseases. Moreover, the skin is turned into fashion accessories. It is made into beads, bracelets or necklaces, due to certain properties that would benefit the skin of the wearer. Other parts of the body, such as teeth, bones and hair, meat and genitalia are also used to make traditional medicine. These reasons make elephant skin and other body parts become a high demand in China, creating the biggest market for the elephant products. The increasing demand from China for elephant parts has led to the killing of more wild elephants of Myanmar. Besides, an emerging online market for elephant skin in China is also threatening the survival of Myanmar’s wild elephants.
Actually, elephant poaching, getting its skin and meat and sending them to market as swift as possible is not a small task. However, poachers do it well because they have been organized and are well-funded to get elephant products. Some say that poachers may pay thousands of US dollars just for gaining information on the whereabouts of an elephant. The price of elephant skin products varies with market location and specific product type. Elephant skin pieces usually run from about US$100 to about $300 per kilogram, according to market prices. Elephant skin powder has a higher price, and bead prices are based on a combination of the size, color, clarity and design of the final products where applicable. Due to high prices and high demand, at least one elephant is killed by hunters in Myanmar every week according to the WWF-Myanmar. Conservation groups are warning that the species could soon disappear from the wild.
Habitat loss is also one of the biggest threats to the survival of Myanmar’s wild elephants. The fragmentation of habitat also creates isolation to wild elephants and allows poachers to catch them easily. In accordance with the growing human population, people expand into elephant territories forcing the pachyderms into smaller and smaller spaces. By this way, elephants’ natural habitats disappear, they lose their natural surroundings and often get killed. Elephants are one of the first species to suffer the consequences of habitat loss, because they require much larger areas of natural habitat than many other mammals. Moreover, deforestation is also a factor in the habitat loss faced by wild elephants. The loss of habitat leads to increasing conflicts between humans and elephants.
In many rural communities in Myanmar, human-elephant conflicts have been increasing. When wild elephants face habitat loss, they would enter villages, raid crops, destroy houses and injure or kill people. Looking for water, elephants could walk through paddy fields and other crop plantations, which could destroy the livelihoods of a lot of people. They occasionally raid small houses if there is food stored inside. Besides, they would kill people. If wild elephants enter villages, even tame elephants could join these wild ones. Especially, such conflicts often occur in the villages of Ayeyarwady delta region (for example, in some village areas of Nga Pu Taw Township) and Bago Yoma hills. Many people and elephants are killed annually as a result of such conflicts. Researchers say they have often found dead elephants in places that have a lot of conflicts.
Mistreatment in captivity includes one of the main threats to the survival of Myanmar’s wild elephants. Captivity can be a serious threat to elephants, and Asian elephants are often illegally captured in the wild and trafficked into the lucrative tourism industry. In Myanmar, the capture of wild elephants from the wild is to supply the tourist trade in Thailand. Myanmar’s elephants are caught illegally and smuggled alive to be used in the tourist industry of Thailand while they are facing the problem of habitat loss. Researchers for elephant conservation said that it is estimated that between 50 and 100 wild elephants are smuggled from Myanmar to Thailand every year.
In addition to wild elephants, working/logging elephants are also at risk from multiple threats. The main problems are skin sores caused by harnesses, as well as infectious diseases. Infectious viral diseases are a major issue, since they are difficult to treat, particularly in young elephants.
There is another case yet that working elephants have to face. Although these pachyderms have economic value, in a bid to curb deforestation, the government implemented a nation-wide ban for the 2016-2017 financial year. Thus, both working elephants and mahouts became jobless, creating a financial crisis for their owners. A mature elephant can consume as much as 300 pounds of food each day. Some owners are unable to adopt elephants without a steady flow of income from their elephants. So they need to sell their elephants to others. Other jobless elephants are sent to elephant camps or sanctuaries. Actually, it is heartbreaking to elephants because they have strong attachment to their owners.
For these reasons mentioned above, Myanmar elephants, a resource of the country, are walking towards the list of Critically Endangered (CR) species, meaning they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future, leading to Extinct in the Wild (EW). Captive individuals survive, but there is no free-living, natural population, making them Extinct (EX), meaning no remaining individuals of the species has survived. All of us must protect our elephants from extinction!
Myanmar governmental associations, including the Forestry Department, some elephant conservation groups or associations, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Fauna & Flora International (FFI), and some NGOs are working to protect, conserve and save Myanmar’s elephants and trying to arrest elephant poachers and smugglers. However, it will not be enough. Public participation is also necessary for our elephants’ survival. Myanmar’s elephants actually need the help of the public. Only if all Myanmar people participate in the protection and conservation of the elephants, will Myanmar’s pachyderms be free from the danger of extinction.

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