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Building a Wall for the Mexicans!

By John Roberts
22 November 2016 00:44:00

Finally, in the new world order, we can say it loud & proud - we’ve been building walls for years AND we’ve been building them for Mexicans and guess who has paid for them?  Well we have actually, but we’ve had Mexican support for the work in terms of time, skills and expertise - so we did kind of make them pay.

I’m talking, of course, about our longest running project (apart from the basic 'get eles off streets' mandate), our greatest chance to change the lives for the greatest number of elephants, our chance to change the world - our Target Training Positive Reinforcement Workshops.

The Mexicans in question have been several but all revolving around Dr Gerardo Martinez (this time backed up by Dr Rodrigo Salas - who was just plain Rodrigo when he first came to volunteer but who is still donating his time even after his DVM and high powered new job).

The latest installment of our project, the one I was lucky enough to go along on, was our second in Myanmar - last year Gerardo & Rodrigo donated their Christmases to go and live in the jungle to teach some 40 elephant camp managers the benefits of Target Training Positive Reinforcement, as much as I’d have loved to join I don’t get to travel at Christmas, there’s some stuff back home needs doing.

Myanmar is important (to this project) for three reasons:

1, It is home to the largest population of captive elephants in the world, some 6,000 in Gov.t hands alone.

2, They were mostly employed in the logging industry until a 2 year moratorium on logging came in and now they have no source of income and (mostly) no forest to put them back into (hence the logging moratorium).

3, It is the haunt of Dr Khyne U Mar and her amazing team of organisers: Khin, Mumu & Thuzar - so we can get stuff done.

While number three gives us cause for hope numbers one & two should give us cause for worry.

Worry because we’ve seen this situation before and there are many who’ll argue that it didn’t end well - I’d argue it ain’t over yet but at least we have a path that we must not follow.

I’m talking, of course, about Thailand’s elephants who went down this route in 1989.  A route that saw them starving, then begging on the street until ‘kindly’ tourism businesses took them over & gave them some direction.  Tourism dropped & they ended on the streets again until today’s very efficient forms of tourism showed a way that makes sense for business but ain’t much good for elephants - hopefully WE show a way that it is good for eles AND good for business, but we’ve never been accused of efficiency!

So part of our mission over there is to help ensure that, five or ten years from now, Myanmar elephants don’t find themselves in a place where they never see forest and are faced with a choice of working 10 - 12 hours a day or finding themselves front-leg hobbled on a short chain 24hrs a day.  

Luckily everyone I met involved with eles in Myanmar could not conceive of an ele without a forest - but I wasn’t in Thailand in 1989, I suspect the same sentiment prevailed here in those days too and then it only took one businessman to start the rot.  The urgency in Myanmar is that while they can’t currently conceive of it their neighbours have already shown it possible and, should a businessman appear before rules are put in place, Thailand has provided a blue print for lucrative but abusive elephant tourism.

Our programme has now held workshops in four countries with 166 participants from eight range states trained by us, countless more by those original 166 (notably in Myanmar and from the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre).  It has ensured scientific Positive Reinforcement is part of the initial training and daily lives of thousands of elephants.

If you ask me why we are currently focussing on Myanmar?  Well, that, folks is where there is the clearest need, where we can make the biggest difference.

That said, I get the feeling our colleagues in Ban Ta Klang, ground zero for Thai elephants, maybe nearly ready for some of the Mexican treatment too. 

Not much makes me happier when I see a fifty something year old traditional elephant guy getting his first passport to climb on a plane to come & learn this new-old technique.  Myanmar Mahouts can travel too - as long as they pick up good (not bad) habits.

We visited several nascent tourist camps in the forest...

...at this one the elephants come in to give rides four hours a day and spend 20 hours free in the forest...

...you can't have a strategic programme without strategy meetings, you can't have strategy meetings without...

...through wild elephant territory we found signs warning against poaching, including the newly re-emerged market for elephant skin that is threatening both wild and out-of-work captive elephants...

...we visited Government logging camps where the work had finished but people weren't sure where the mahout wage and any additional fodder for the elephants and vet care would come from...

...at another nascent tourism/trekking camp - also in the forest - Dr Khyne gives advice on elephant welfare...

...& Dr Gerardo gives a lecture on Target Training Positive Reinforcement...

...we got to meet the white elephants in Yangon & discuss the new enclosure plans for them to roam free...

...at another elephant village they had similar worries about income, fodder & vet care, were looking to embrace tourism as the only answer...

...they laid on a buffet for their elephants in our honour...

...positive reinforcement can start very young - for mahouts, indeed, we think it has too (not that Leo's a mahout, but good that he can demonstrate!)

...Dr Khyne introduced our very own Dr Nissa and Pattara's Dr Thip to the Myanmar Elephant Log Book system...

...Target, Target, Good! Testing the wall!...

...each workshop has started with theory, in Myanmar we also have media interest...

...I had to leave before they started the practical sessions but Dr Khyne assured us all would be under control!

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