The present government has banned timber extraction for a period of one year for the whole country and for 10 years for Bago Yoma hills in central Myanmar, effective from the 2016-17 fiscal year.
As a result of this ban, elephant camps under the management of Myanma Timber Enterprise will be turned into elephant-based tourism centres to provide a source of income for 2500 mahouts, or elephant handlers, and work for more than 3000 elephants.
Now everyone can visit these elephant camps without getting prior permission from the department, said U Tin Kyaw Moe, deputy manager of Myanma Timber Enterprise’s extraction department.
“The elephant camps existed since before the timber extraction ban by the government. So now we use those elephants for tourism, to fit the changing political situation,” said U Tin Kyaw Moe, who is responsible for Hmaw Yaw Gyi elephant camp.
The Hmaw Yaw Gyi elephant camp and village is located at 105 miles 4 furlongs beside the Yangon-Mandalay highway road in east Bago Yoma hills and was set up in 1998.
There are 14 elephants less than 18 years old, five retired elephants and four elephants under 4 years old in the 2.38-acre land.
Three logging camps were opened as elephant-based tourism camps for foreign and domestic tourists during the World Elephant Day in 2016, said U Tin Kyaw Moe.
Myanma Timber Enterprise runs 15 elephant camps throughout the whole country.
“We are holding activities such as re-planting trees during the rainy season and then will also train the elephants for entertainment, like in Thailand,” said U Tin Kyaw Moe.
An entrance fee of K1000 and elephant-riding fee of K5000 is charged for locals, while foreign tourists are charged K20,000 for entrance fees and elephant riding at the Hmaw Yaw Gyi elephant camp. They have already received more than 1500 local visitors and 22 foreign tourists, he said.
There are a total of 3008 elephants owned by the Myanma Timber Enterprise, out of which 466 elephants are under 4 years old, 757 elephants are between 4 and 17 years old, 1200 elephants are between 18 and 55 years old and 585 are retired elephants.
Each of the elephants above 4 years old needs a mahout to train for working together with people, which is why there are more than 2500 mahouts.
Myanmar had more than 20,000 wild elephants in 1970 but the number of wild elephants have since decreased due to elephant poaching by hunters, said U Tin Kyaw Moe.
“The problem of elephant hunters is still threatening us today and we estimated more than 20 wild elephants were killed by hunters last year.
“Department-owned elephants have increased to more than 3000 from 2000. We also roughly know that private-owned elephants number about 2000 in the whole Myanmar,” he said.
The dwindling number of wild elephants was not only caused by elephant hunters, but also due to decreasing pasture for elephants, said Daw Tin Win Maw who contributes fund for the Green Hill retired elephants conservation camp in Kalaw.
“An elephant needs 20 square kilometres of forestry areas for pasture, so many wild elephants have died due to deforestation. However, Myanmar still has the second highest number of Asian elephants after India, among the Southeast Asian countries, which is why we need to protect them and take serious action against elephants traffickers,” said Daw Tin Win Maw.
While the 10-year timber extraction ban would help restore the forests, Daw Tin Win Maw urged authorities to ensure that elephants in the camps would be properly managed and cared for.
The veterinary sector is very important in elephant conservation especially for retired elephants but Myanmar currently has only about 40 veterinaries, she said.
“The numbers of veterinaries are not compatible with the ratio of elephant numbers, which is why one vet is not able to stay-in full time in each camp. They are running around the camps nationwide all the time. One vet is taking responsibility for 100 elephants,” said Daw Tin Win Maw.
The government needs to encourage more people to enter veterinary science to ensure the conservation of Myanmar’s treasured elephants, said Dr Zaw Min Oo, a vet and manager from Myanma Timber Enterprise.
“Some elephant camps are located in the forest and very far from cities, so the vets have to stay for more than 20 days in a month, and move from camp to camp with poor accommodation facilities.
“So the younger generations are not interested in veterinary jobs. Also we have no benefits, proper positions and incentives,” he said.
The travel sector have welcomed the move to turn elephant camps to tourist attractions, saying it would provide a new experience for travellers and give job opportunities for mahouts.
But many urged authorities to ensure that the health of the elephants are properly cared for to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry.
“Elephant camps now need to rely on tourism because timber extraction is banned. Now is the time for the elephants to rest in the forests,” said Daw Sandi Wine, managing director of Sunday Plus travel and tours.
“But they haven’t much of a break as most people are riding the elephants. I saw the little elephant in Hmaw Yaw Gyi elephant camp hurt his foot when he working on stony road again and again,” she said.
Dr Zaw Min Oo agreed, saying that authorities need to enforce regulations that were in place to protect the elephants.
“The elephants are not allowed to carry anybody weighing more than 150 lb and there is a limitation to the number of miles they can work, and this is set by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise.
“They also have to replace the elephant with another elephant after each ride, so it can rest; otherwise, it will be very dangerous for the elephant’s health if they are allowed to give rides every day,” he said.