- Thousands of captive Myanmar elephants left redundant by a government clampdown on logging are being thrown a lifeline
- A new programme will relocate animals from areas prone to elephant-human conflict to safety elsewhere in the country
Not long ago, elephants hauling logs through the jungles of Myanmar – home to the largest captive population of Asian elephants – for the country’s thriving timber trade were a common sight.
However, in 2014 the government imposed a ban on the export of raw timber, allowing only high-end finished timber products to be sold abroad. Almost overnight, the nearly 3,000 elephants employed by government-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise, and their mahouts, were made redundant.
With no funds made available to care for the animals, many were forced to work for unethical tourism operators, put through cruel training to perform, or simply released into the wild.
“If nothing is done to provide financial support for these elephants, the government-owned elephants will be put back to work logging elsewhere, be cruelly trained for performance and live a life of begging, or released into the wild to fend for themselves,” says Dane Waters, The Elephant Project founder and president.
Surviving life in the wild is tough for domesticated elephants. Hunting of elephants is rife, with poachers targeting them for their tusks and skin which, when ground into a powder, is a key ingredient in traditional medicine. Many have also died at the hands of villagers after wreaking havoc in rural communities and tearing up farmland.
Now, however, hope is in sight after a historic agreement was signed in March between The Elephant Project and the Myanmar government to relocate elephants from areas where they can come into conflict with humans. This is the first time such an agreement has been signed in Myanmar.
“We have to take action now,” says Waters. “Extensive deforestation in Myanmar has led to elephants’ natural habitat being destroyed. Elephants then desperately search for food in villages, leading to deadly human-elephant conflicts.”
Under the agreement, the forest department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and The Elephant Project will seek out those that need moving and find areas to which they can be safely relocated.
The project will start by relocating 10 to 15 animals to designated safe zones, but The Elephant Project has ambitious plans to provide sanctuary for many more of the country’s captive elephants. A total of 5,520 live in captivity, almost double the 3,000 elephants estimated to live in the wild in Myanmar.
“Our sanctuary plan is different to any that has ever been built before,” says Waters. “It will be the largest ever constructed and our hope is that it will be home to 2,000 to 3,000 elephants.”
To finance the project, a series of investment opportunities will be created to offer ethical elephant experiences and eco-friendly stays close to the sanctuary. Waters stresses it will be created sensitively, with the elephants’ welfare the priority.
“We will offer elephant conservation and eco-tourism in an amazingly beautiful country, while investment is going into protecting elephants,” he says.
Responsible elephant sanctuaries are increasingly becoming a solution to the problems of captive elephants. Often the animals are overworked and kept in poor conditions. Baby elephants are torn from their mothers and forced to endure “crushing”, or the breaking of their spirit – a form of torture – to tame them for performances, jungle treks and other tourist activities.
“Our plan is to create a secure place where elephants live in peace by fostering an environment through innovative corporate, government and non-profit partnerships, where protecting elephants and ensuring their protection produces prosperity for the people,” says Waters. “This solution will prove that ensuring the safety and security of an elephant is more valuable to governments and communities than a dead one.”
Elephant tourism: the fight in Asia against unethical operators steps up
Across Asia, sanctuaries are cropping up, with the money tourists pay to enjoy ethical experiences used to fund the welfare of rescued animals and their mahouts.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, Elephant Nature Park is home to 86 rescued elephants; MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary in Laos was named one of Southeast Asia’s most ethical camps by World Animal Protection, an NGO; and The Elephant Valley Project operates innovative projects in Mondulkiri, Cambodia, and Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Waters has plans to set up sanctuaries across Southeast Asia, with his eyes set next on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Between 2017 and 2018, 13 refugees were killed by stampeding elephants whose migration trail was blocked by a camp built to house Rohingya refugees fleeing military repression in Myanmar.
“Human-elephant conflicts are on the rise and represent a growing threat to elephants,” says Waters. “This project is our first in the region and we are planning on working in other countries. It takes time to reach these agreements with host governments, but I’m optimistic.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Captive elephants given second chance in Myanmar sanctuary plan