Myanmar's elephants on red alert

Every summer the monsoon falls on the small house like a punishment. Under an ashen sky, the roof trembles, hit by the rain, while muddy water rises, threatening to go through the wooden floor. But Myint Wai doesn't mind the storm. He waits inside the house, with his axe by his side looking at the forest that neighbors his land.

When, in the late 1980s, the 65-year-old soldier moved to Baw Ni village in the Bago Hills – a 9,500 square-kilometer forest north of Yangon –he thought he was going to have a peaceful retirement, far from wars and rifles. He wanted to raise goats and cut bamboo. At the time, he did not know that the jungle had a sad secret.

It was while walking on a forest path 10 years ago that he discovered it: A rotten pachyderm carcass; its tusks missing.

"It broke my heart," Myint Wai recalls. "According to the Buddha's teaching, no creature, man or animal, deserves to suffer like that. Elephants have tears, you know. They cry like us."

Myint Wai
Myint Wai is a former soldier. He saw poachers killing elephants near his village and says he wants the slaughter to stop / Credit: Guillaume Pajot

Over the following months he came across a second dead elephant, then a third and a fourth; the tally rose to almost 20 in just a few years. Each time the giants of the Burmese forest had been mutilated; their tusks and skin cut. Sometimes only their bones were left.

Elephant hide in Myanmar
A piece of elephant hide for sale in a shop in Mong La, Myanmar / Credit: Guillaume Pajot

What the former soldier witnessed is the brutal extinction of Myanmar's wild elephants. They are poached for their ivory tusks and their skin. These products are then taken to China, which shares a 2,000-kilometer-long border with Myanmar, to be sold to consumers hungry for rare animal parts. Some people believe elephant parts have medicinal properties. Others make jewelry with them or keep tusks as trophies.

That appetite has pushed Burmese elephants to the brink of extinction. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were around 10,000 wild elephants in Myanmar, according to estimates gathered by the Smithsonian Institute. That number fell to 6,000 in the 1970s. Today, there are less than 2,000, most of them located in the Bago hills, in the southwest of the Irrawaddy River Delta, in Chin State and in the Arakan Mountains. In 2017, a deadly year in Myanmar, one elephant was killed every week.

Since 1975 the Asian elephant has benefitted from the highest level of protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, a treaty ratified by both China and Myanmar. That means the Asian elephant cannot be traded, but in practice, this is far from the case and poachers operate within organized networks.

Rangers patrolling a national park in Myanmar
Rangers on patrol in Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park. They fight illegal loggers and poachers in an effort to protect the handful of wild elephants still roaming in the park / Credit: Guillaume Pajot

Guillaume Pajot investigated the importance of the Asian elephant to forest ecosystems and the ripple effects its disappearance could have in the absence of conservation measures. Classified as "threatened" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, only around 40,000 Asian elephants remain in 13 countries, according to CITES, but conservation efforts have largely focused on their cousins in Africa, which are larger and ten times more numerous.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Earth Journalism Network's Biodiversity Media Initiative. This is a summary of a piece that originally appeared in French on GEO on 7 Oct. 2019. You can read the full story in French here.

Banner image: Mahouts on top of their elephants in Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park, Myanmar / Credit: Guillaume Pajot

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