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A Chance to Avoid a Disaster in Slow-Motion

By John Roberts
11 July 2017 00:24:00

Myanmar’s an exciting place: so exciting that when it was called Burma and the British thought they owned it Rudyard Kipling stopped there long enough to refill his pipe and was able to turn out enough prose from that one visit that people thought him the expert.  George Orwell spent more time there, regretted shooting an elephant, turned the experience into one of the best essays on late imperialism you’ll read and somehow managed to predict the country’s future; something about ’84 & ’88.

Myanmar’s an exciting place because they have so many elephants in captivity and haven’t yet made Thailand’s mistakes (they’ve made a few of their own, mind you, just not as many as Thailand) so those of us who worry about more than just the elephants under our direct control feel we have a chance to help the something over 6,000 held over there.

Myanmar’s an exciting place because it is the link between South Asia and South East Asia and, thanks to the stuff that Orwell foresaw, it still hasn’t destroyed all of its elephant territory yet so it, as a country, has a chance to follow South Asia’s example or - somewhat ironically for folks that have studied the history of these things - Yunnan, China’s rather than follow that of South East Asia - where wild elephants are largely confined to protected areas that are too small to hold them.

Myanmar’s an exciting place because, in places, wild elephants still can come down to visit beautiful beaches.  

I was recently in Chaung Tha the ‘closest’ beach to Yangon and favourite weekending spot for the growing middle class of that city, the drive there is six hours minimum and there’s no civilian airport, but the drive - having now done it four times - is beautiful, a landscape that can now afford rice harvesting machinery but still thinks shade is important for villages and homesteads, for people who, yes, make an income from growing rice but still get most of what they need from a kitchen garden or a pond or river rather than from 7-11 and drop the plastic wrapper into the river.

A population that still protects the local habitats possibly largely because they know they still rely on them.  

On that drive you cross the Pathein river and shortly leave the rice paddies behind, you enter what the Myanmar folks call a yoma, which may also mean mountain range but here means a once-forested hilly area.  In the case of Myanmar where I have seen it and Laos the ‘once forested’ could also mean ‘recently forested’ or ‘deforested recently enough that other cultivation hasn’t taken root’ and, sad though this is for trees and all the things (including us by the way) that depend on the things they provide - natural habitat, fruits and nuts, shade, water regulation and, you know, oxygen - it is not so bad for elephants.

As we see in Kui Buri and the great grassland parks of the terai: Asian elephants, given a choice, are not great thick-forest animals, they like grassland swamps best but, least ‘round here, all of that is under rice so the next best thing they like is verdant ‘secondary growth’ the thick bamboo-and-other-grasses mix with young, palatable trees found on the forest edge and, traditionally, in recovering slash-and-burn agriculture - from the days where there was room to move the village every two or three years.

Now, it turns out, thanks to the previous Government’s love of logs (money) almost the whole yoma is a vast ex-slash and burn plot.  Bad for biodiversity but, for the heroes of this story - elephants, something like heaven.

Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there.

Much like the rest of the rice growing world the days where, if the land was flat it would be cultivated, if it was hilly it might be left to small scale, hill dweller farming seem to be over.  Nowadays recently forested (or even, as around us in the Golden Triangle, long time deforested - unfortunately emptied of all mammals including elephants) bamboo clad hill tracts are seen as habitat for industrial crops; cassava, rubber, pineapples, palm oil all can be grown on marginal soil (for the soil all washes away the first rain after the bamboo is burned and cleared) with cheap labour if the land can be cheaply secured (borrowed/stolen).

So the elephants, having survived their grasslands being converted decades or centuries ago, have survived their forest hiding places being taken but having been provided an unexpected bonus of bamboo are under further pressure.  Large businesses and entrepreneurs are moving into the hills and putting up fences, planting crops and generally disturbing the status quo.

At the moment it is quite patchwork and the elephants ought to be able to move around but strange things are happening. 

I was visiting an elephant camp on the sea-side of this yoma, 20 winding minutes from the beach, to help put on the latest edition of our Target Training Positive Reinforcement Workshops for mahouts and managers from across Myanmar - some from other yomas and some from frozen mountains in the far North.

Training Trunkwash through Positive Reinforcement Target Training

Our hosts, Chaung Tha Elephant Camp & Resort, free their captive elephants out into the secondary growth at night, each morning they find a two year old wild elephant - with no herd of her own - hanging out with their eles.  Each day she retreats into the bamboo, spends it apparently alone, and then meets up with her friends each night.

2 year old wild ele living with captives at night

There are wild herds still around and the owner, our host for this Positive Workshop, Ye Myint, hopes they’ll meet up and the young ‘un will get to go fully wild again.

In another yoma, the Bago yoma, along the main highway between Yangon & the capital Nay Pyi Taw, arguably the only main highway in the country, baby elephants are being found with herds of cattle, walking into human settlements - abandoned (hopefully for the alternative is far worse) by their herds and seeking shelter from any other mammal - four that we know of so far, looked after skillfully by the Government vets but, in a land that doesn't want more captive elephants, perplexing for all.

MTE Calves Being Looked After By MTE Vets

We got permission to go (literally) off the map, as I said, Myanmar’s an exciting place, there are entirely normal towns and villages that google doesn’t know exists.  In their secondary growth scrub an old lady had recently been killed by a bull elephant, not unusual in some elephant territories but this village hasn’t seen elephants in 60 years and is 10km at least from the nearest habitual elephant range.

Of the Map, Meeting Human Elephant Conflict Victims

Nature is truly out of balance.

Most worrying still (and the unthinkable alternative referred to above) elephant corpses have begun turning up, horrifically skinned, floating in rivers, found by hunters-of-other-stuff and reported.  Elephant skin beads and skin touted as an anti-acne cure have begun turning up at local tourist attractions and at the ‘Vegas of the East’, literally lawless, Meng La on the Chinese border just up the road from us.

Anti-Poaching Sign from Myanmar Gov.t

But Myanmar is an exciting place, there are great people in the country working to help, putting together international teams of people who have seen this before - perhaps even failed to prevent it - to share experiences and ideas.  I have been proud to have been a part of the Myanmar Elephant Conservation Action Plan, an effort to ministerial level to help, we’ve already shared ideas how captive elephants can be helped (indeed, with our partners in the Positive Reinforcement Workshops jumping the gun and investing time, money and effort in making things happen).

For wild eles there are solutions too, elephants and people can live together in low densities - parts of India and China show this, Sri Lanka in higher densities still (though casualties from both sides rack up where the balance is lost).  

In the yoma I saw perhaps learn the elephants’ habits and don’t allocate plantation land in corridors that elephants use, if allocating land for tourism purposes ensure and enforce that the company builds in an elephant friendly manner - elephants passing safely through a tourism property can be organised (I’d love to do it - hint, hint boss!) there are camps across Africa that have eles and even more dangerous mammals walking through the garden, or fenced out of small areas but allowed the wider space, and can be a great draw.

Map of the Yoma, land use

Myanmar is an exciting place and I get the feeling we have a choice between doing great things if we can act now, or we can watch a disaster in slow motion and remind ourselves how wild elephants disappeared from landscapes such as the one I live in.

As much as I’ve always wondered how that did happen, I’m working towards the former choice for Myanmar.

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