YANGON - For centuries, elephants have had a rich and proud history in Myanmar. Throughout the country’s past, the animals have been used for everything, including transportation, agriculture, construction and even warfare.
For the military government that ruled the country for several decades until it ceded partial control to civilian government in 2016, the white elephant in particular was regarded as a symbol of power and prestige.
But its survival is under threat. There are about 2,000 wild elephants left in Myanmar today, plus an estimated 5,000 that are captive. But conservationists warn that the loss of their habitat, increased conflict with humans, and the illegal trafficking of elephants and their parts could result in the extinction of the Asian Elephant in Myanmar.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation published the Myanmar Elephant Conservation Plan (MECAP). The plan, produced in collaboration with several prominent wildlife groups, aims to guide policies on the survival of elephants in Myanmar for the next 100 years and beyond.
“The Government of Myanmar decided to commission a review of the status, distribution and threats to elephants,” Anthony Lynam, a senior advisor for the Wildlife Conservation Society told VOA by email. “It is a visionary plan that will need bold action on the part of the government and supporting agencies for it to succeed. The MECAP is a plan that requires action on the part of multiple stakeholders for it to work. The challenge is to see how the Government can coordinate the plan to see this happen,” he said.
MECAP includes a series of 10-year plans as well as an overall strategy for what elephant conservation in Myanmar should look like.
Skin in high demand
One of the biggest threats to the survival of elephants in Myanmar is the illegal killing of the animals, particularly for their skin. “It has been argued that poaching is a relatively minor threat to Asian Elephants because some males and all females lack tusks,” the report said. “However, the reality is that elephants are poached for a variety of other products (including meat and leather) in addition to ivory.”
Christy Williams, country director for the World Wildlife Fund in Myanmar, told VOA there had been a sudden increase in the number of elephants being killed for their skin in Myanmar in recent years.
“Elephants being targeted for their skin was something that happened occasionally, but then in 2016 or 2017 we started seeing that about one elephant was being killed every week,” he said.
Williams said when WWF researchers traveled to border towns in 2016, only a few markets were selling elephant skins. But when they returned about a year later, “about 80 percent [of shops] were selling elephant skin,” he said.
One of the major challenges to combating the illegal trade of elephant parts, said Williams, was a lack of capacity, including limited budgets and insufficient staff. Additionally, he said, many of the markets selling the products are in border areas that are not directly under the government’s control.
Recommendations included improving the capacity of rangers on the ground, as well as educating people that the trading of elephant products is illegal.
Another major challenge was the increase in conflicts between humans and elephants, particularly with the mammal's dwindling natural habitat, said Mark Grinley, project manager, Fauna & Flora International Myanmar.
“The natural habitat is being lost to the expansion of plantations, largescale agro industries and particularly palm oil,” Grinley told VOA.
The effects of the increased interaction between humans and elephants has included the loss of livelihoods for communities, as well as injuries and potential death both for humans and elephants.
Recommendations for dealing with the issue included establishing a national management plan, supporting or creating local capacity and establishing early warning systems so that people know when elephants are nearby.
As Myanmar undergoes development, the issue is unlikely to disappear, said Grinley.
“As the forest habitat is shrinking, I’m afraid these problems are going to be more common,” he said.