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Three Days Under the Gaze of a Burmese Giraffe

By John Roberts
20 April 2014 01:11:00

Remember the old days?  

Not the old, old days when George Orwell scribbled down his feelings of regret in shooting an elephant, nor the old days when Elephant Bill let his elephants go and lead people over the mountains into India to escape the advancing Japanese army, not even the old days when, once you landed in Yangon (renamed to give you an idea that these are recent old days) your mobile phone didn’t work and you were having a laugh if you thought you wanted internet.

But the old days when we used to go to elephant conferences, spend a week in airconditioned rooms learning about elephants and I, partially to help me remember what I learned, would write down synopses of what was said?

Nowadays, wrestling the Conservation Activities of an entire company, it is rare that I can concentrate purely on eles for even just one day - and that’s a good thing.

So when the invitation came through for the Rufford Grantee’s Conference on Environmental Awareness & Conservation I was in two minds whether I could justify it - of course, the chance to go to Myanmar again swayed me one way, but can I afford the time to spend a week in a foreign country just discussing elephant problems?

Several things swayed me, not least that it turns out it was not just an elephant conference, several speakers were working in Marine Biology fields in Thailand, places where my Conservation Activities hat for Anantara is often worn, of course that two papers we’d had a hand in were being presented as well as some scientists who have worked here on other papers and even one young lady who came as a Veterinary Intern way back (in the old days) and blames us for getting her into elephants in the first place helped push me closer to the airline office.

But the most important reason that had me looking up the new Visa on Arrival regulations was this: Myanmar’s a very important place nowadays for elephant planners for three reasons:

1, Logging has been the primary source of income for their 4,000 odd captive elephants since time immemorial BUT recently, in a bid to slow deforestation and to keep as much money in country as possible, the Government implemented a ban on the export of uncut timber - any timber to be sold overseas must first be processed which will, undoubtedly, drive the processing industry but also may see timber merchants sourcing elsewhere.

2, Unofficially officials are bandying about a target of reducing logging by as much as 40% over the next few years.

Even coupled with the creation of ‘elephant protected forests’ both these measures will see a lot of elephants out of work creating a situation similar to the one that had Thailand moving her elephants onto the streets or into illegal logging in 1989 - more importantly from our perspective (though of course we’ll try to help Myanmar’s elephant people not repeat the mistakes of Thai elephant people) can you think of anywhere in the area that shares a long porous border with Myanmar, where an elephant is worth a stupid amount of money or where money can be earned in (often) mind numbing tourist duties away from natural forest?

Of course you can! Thailand.  I think there’s a very good chance that we’ll start to see (even more) Burmese elephants sneaking across the border, picking up a registration and working, bought and sold, as Thai elephants.

The third reason is the reason I think I was invited - after all I’m neither a Rufford Grantee nor an elephant scientist - there’s a strip of land on the Myanmar/Thai border that, being governed still by non-Governmental forces, is inaccessible to officials from either country.  It is this area that we assume (for who can know) that most of Thailand’s illegally imported elephants come from and where (we note) wild capture is still going on.

But the chance to meet & chat with Myanmar Authorities about their intentions and hear their realistic (in ways that I think would have got them a long prison sentence if discussed out loud, particularly with foreigners, even a year ago) thoughts on what other forces will come into play made this a trip that had to be made.

I can’t tell you what came of these little meetings-on-the-side because, well, if I go around telling you what’s said in semi-secret meetings with Government officials then I won’t be invited to any more semi-secret meetings with Government officials and, I’m not saying you’re not important but I can choose to influence you or I can choose to influence them and, at this stage in the game, they have more clout.

So, what I’ll do instead is let you know some of the (elephant) things I learned from listening to eminent to pre-eminent elephant scientists from around the Asian Elephant range states.

Well not everything I learned because then I’d have to go on forever just to cover the lectures and, of course, there was plenty of great food and not a little Myanmar beer after hours when we got down to the nitty gritty, made or reaffirmed friendships, argued a bit, shared and stole ideas, planned a trip or two.

I’ll stick to just four of the talks that were presented from the podium at the Yangon Zoo under (slightly off-putting) gaze of a stuffed Giraffe: 

  • Ummmm, just looking through Dr. Josh’s talk on his work (performed here, with our elephants), can’t tell you his exciting results as they haven’t been published yet - so sorry, you’ll have to wait for this!  He did talk about the Conservation Curriculum for Thai Schools that we sponsored the pilot for last year and are helping with the roll out to 20 more schools this year. 
  • Hannah Mumby of the University of Sheffield (who was part of the team who oversaw our Elephant Dung Stress Hormone project last year) reminded us that Myanmar Timber Elephants - at least those owned by the Myanmar Timber Enterprises - are still involved in logging as they have been for generations, the old conditions are still stuck to:
    • They work a 5 day week for at least 160 days a year - off seasons are spent either relaxing in rest camps or out in the wild.
    • At night they are left free in the forest to forage.
    • Mothers are guaranteed at least one year of rest following a birth.
    • Reproduction happens but is not human managed - they choose their own mates, often from wild bulls.
    • Wild caught elephants do not breed well in captivity.
    • At this stage this approach to reproduction is not giving them a sustainable population and there is a moratorium on wild capture (which would have been the traditional method of restocking).

My note: It seems there is some pressure to re-start wild capture but, from my perspective, given that we feel logging is on the way out and there are worries that many elephants may become redundant would it not be better to allow the population to gently decline?  All of that said, and despite logging being hard and dangerous work even for a skilled elephant, the enforced rest times and good jungle evenings lead me to believe that Myanmar Timber Enterprises elephants still have life a lot better than many Thai tourism elephants.

  • Dr Khyne U Mar presented her Myanmar Elephant Studbook Project, I believe I spoken about it before in these pages; as well as ensuring rest periods in natural forests the Myanmar Timber Industry also kept extensive ‘log books’ on each elephant from birth or date of capture giving statisticians unique insight into the life span of this particular group of over 9,000 elephants recorded down the years - the number crunching is far from finished but even now it can tell us:
    • Elephants captured by ‘melashikar’ (the lasso method favoured by our mahout communities from Surin but also used in Myanmar from time to time) tended to be selected at 8 years of age.
    • Immobilisation (a ‘modern’ method using a tranquilliser) tended to capture 9 year olds.
    • Stockade (the preferred method in the mountains of Northern India, Nepal and Burma) tended to select 13 year old elephants.
    • The highest numbers of elephants captured in recent times in Burma was in the 1980’s, there is now a moratorium.
    • Elephants captured from the wild have shorter lives than those born in captivity with the worst capture method being the relatively modern ‘immobilisation’.
    • A known constraint on these data is that, despite (or because of) the moratorium on wild elephant capture a lot of private capture is going on (more or less illegally) by less well trained and prepared organisations - some using pit falls - and mortality (the chance of dying) during capture is reportedly very high.

My note: (I know we can’t talk of coincidence when dealing with a statistics paper but….) It doesn’t seem a coincidence that much of the private capture reported is going on on the Thai/Myanmar border and, given that, as logging is being reduced I think we’re allowed to wonder why the private companies need more eles?

From the above talks I have emboldened two facts, these can directly relate to the Thai elephant industry at the moment and for conservation - given the huge prices paid for elephants in Thailand at the moment and the speed with which elephants are being bred to provide more babies I think it is very important that we help mahouts understand the down sides of purchasing a wild caught elephant - yes, she may be cheaper but she will not live as long and is unlikely to give you young.

I believe this can make a compelling argument against practices that encourage wild capture in today’s world where, unfortunately, everything is driven by the almighty baht and appealing to people's better nature or making ephemeral arguments about sustainability or conservation just won't cut it in the heat of a screamed debate.

To spend money on a wild caught elephant is not a good investment.

 …and, having gone on too long, I’ll leave you with two quotes about musth, the male elephant’s hormonal change that can lead to extreme violence and, in the wild, leads to much breeding (an extremely violent elephant can frighten even large, dominant males) provided for us by Prof. Dr. Raman Sukamar - taken from ancient Indian literature and given to illustrate that people have been pondering elephant questions for a very long time:

  “Excitement, swiftness, odour, love passion, complete fluorescence of the body, wrath, prowess & fearlessness; these are declared to be the eight excellences of musth” - The Matangalila of Nilakantha, 1,000 yr BP

…and, talking of bull elephants with different tusk styles:

“the bhadder ruts in Libra and Scorpio, the mand in spring, the mirg in Capricorn and Sagittarius, the mir in any season” - Ain-i-Akbari of A’bul Fazl, 16th Century A.D.

Dr Khyne & the Giraffe

...our host, Dr Khyne U Mar, some prominent Thai elephant thinkers and the (now) famous giraffe...

Giving Josh a hard time....

...Dr Saw Mon Theit, an 87 year old Myanmar Conservationist, asking Dr Josh about our Education work in Thai schools...

The work never stops for Dr Josh

...while others take time out for some bird watching, Dr Josh works on some e-mails...

Peanuts for elephants 

...at a dinner we sponsored Dr Bjarne, who sits on the board of The Asian Elephant Foundation (our friends Elephant Parade's charitable arm) & Ravi Corea from the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society discuss tactics (I think the peanuts represented bits of forest and the menu farmland - it's how we like our conservation done!).

...then onto the Strand.

...then onto The Strand where tiger, elephant, primate and frog people with projects spanning five Asian countries get even more passionate about conservation while I lose (repeatedly) at pool.

Hannah TV Star

...& the whole thing is on Burmese TV, Hannah Mumby talking about her beautiful graphs.

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