The thirst for illegal ivory is killing Myanmar’s Asian elephants, conservation experts say.
Over the past 20 years, the population of these rare creatures has declined by nearly 2000, the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry’s top anti-trafficking official said last week. Just 2500 to 3000 Asian elephants are thought to survive in the wild in Myanmar, down from 6000 in 1960-1970 and 4639 in 1991, according to the government and other conservation specialist estimates.
“The main reason is the declining population of male elephants,” said U Win Naing Thaw, director of the department’s Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division.
There are two elephant species in the world, Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta Africana). Myanmar possesses the largest population of elephants in Southeast Asia, and the second place in Asia as a whole after India.
The picture is likely to get worse because of illegal ivory poaching, human encroachment on natural habitats, and hunting for medicinal or other purposes.
“Male elephants are the main target because only they have tusks – females don’t,” said U Nay Myo Shwe, project officer of the Friends of Wildlife Association.
He said the ivory trade in Myanmar had become popular in recent years as hunters organised in gangs to kill elephants, remove their ivory and take other body parts, such as molars, bones and hide.
“Depending on the market, they can get K6 to K10 million for 15 viss of ivory (1 viss is equal to 1.6 kilograms or 3.6 pounds),” said U Nay Myo Shwe, a retired nature and wildlife conservation officer.
“When I served as a range officer in the wildlife department, I learned that some live Asian elephants had been smuggled from Myanmar over the past decade, mostly to Thailand for the tourism industry. It’s very difficult to act against the smugglers because they are well-organised, and the contraband they deal in is valuable,” he added.
Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division said they have been unable to stop the trade in ivory, though they have taken action against people who killed elephants illegally. Eighteen elephants were killed in 2011 to 2013, mostly for their ivory.
On January 28, a 15-year-old elephant was killed in Bago Region, and its ivory and molars removed. The forestry department arrested one suspect, but two others escaped.
Asian elephants are listed as “completely protected” under the 1994 Protection of Wild Animals, Wild Plants and Conservation of Natural Areas Law, as well as enjoying international protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Myanmar is a member of CITES, which prohibits commercial trade in live specimens, their parts or derivatives. However, ivory can be found on sale in retail outlets in Yangon, Mandalay, Tachileik, Myawaddy and Muse, and is openly sold, often to buyers from China and Thailand.
A dealer selling ivory products in Bogyoke Market said he did not know about the law governing the ivory trade, and has never received any warning from the government. “Ivory items are very popular with the Japanese,” he said.
Mr Chris Shepherd, a senior program officer with TRAFFIC, a global network committed to delivering innovative and practical conservation solutions, spoke of a serious lack of law enforcement and a blatant disregard for international conventions and national laws in Myanmar and neighbouring states.
TRAFFIC and the World Wildlife Foundation have called on authorities in Myanmar to work closely with enforcement officers in neighbouring Thailand and China to address the illegal trade in live elephants and ivory.
“Under the 1994 law, the penalty for smuggling can be seven years’ imprisonment,” said U Nay Myo Shwe.
However, the government insists the laws are enforced seriously. U Win Naing Thaw said the forestry department had in recent years recruited and trained more field rangers and staff in wildlife conservation, law enforcement, and monitoring techniques in cooperation with international and nongovernmental organisations in order to prevent trafficking more effectively.
He said they had opened files against persons convicted of killing, hunting or illegally possessing elephants or body parts. Moreover, in 2007, the government established a National Wildlife Law Enforcement Task Force comprising representatives from seven government departments to better combat the illegal market for wildlife and wild plants.
“We will investigate shops at airports and some markets. If they are selling ivory, we will take action against them,” said U Win Naing Thaw.
The ministry has declared protected areas for elephants at Shew U Daung Wildlife Sanctuary, Alaungdaw Katthapa National Park, Rakhine Yoma Elephant Range and Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. Another is being prepared at North Zarmari Wildlife Sanctuary, Bago Region.