THABAUNG TOWNSHIP, Irrawaddy Division — Upon waking in the middle of the night, George Nay Htoo grabs his flashlight and directs its illuminating beam onto a rice paddy below. Seeing no sign of intruders, he breathes a sigh of relief and lies down again, but as is often the case, restful sleep does not easily return for a mind on heightened alert.
For more than a month, he has kept up this night watch, sacrificing sleep to keep an eye on his ripening rice crop. But it is not food-strapped local residents or thieving rice traders that he is guarding against. The problem is much bigger than that.
“I face this kind of situation every year,” said George Nay Htoo, a farmer from the village of O-Bo in Irrawaddy Division’s Thabaung Township. “Last year, they ate almost everything, so I could collect only about 25 tins [525 kilograms] of rice from five acres of paddy. I had to try very hard to get that much.”
“They” are wild elephants, and they are increasingly encroaching on the lands—and threatening the livelihoods—of farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta, locals here say.
Some 100,000 acres of farmland in Irrawaddy Division’s Pathein, Thabaung and Nagpudaw townships were at risk of being destroyed by wild elephants during the latest paddy growing season, which winds down this month.
According to local farmers, intrusions by the pachyderms are getting worse with each passing year.
“Gradually, elephants have become more daring and we almost can’t scare and drive them out now,” said Saw Poe Lu, a farmer from the village of Kongyankon in Thabaung Township. “Once they have eaten paddy, they just want to continue having it in the future, so they will go for it by hook or by crook.”
To protect their crops, farmers have built lookouts near the rice paddies and many, like George Nay Htoo, sleep overnight in the posts, positioning themselves to scare off elephants that make forays onto their land once the sun sets.
However, farmers say elephants no longer fear their screams, nor the other means they have employed to try to drive them away, such as banging pots and pans, or hitting drums made from hollowed-out logs. The intruders, they say, leave the fields only after they have eaten their fill.
With laws in place to protect the elephants, the hapless farmers say they are at a loss for how to deal with the problem.
“We will be charged in accordance with the law if we kill them,” said Nay Lin Aung, another farmer from O-Bo. “We can neither drive them out nor kill them so, we have to sit and watch them as they eat the paddy that we are growing.”
Adding insult to injury, farmers here say their families are forced to clamber up into the look-out posts, raised 20-30 feet off the ground, after dusk, when darkness emboldens the elephants—tusk-wielding behemoths that are more than capable of goring a human.
“We have been sleeping in our lookout for more than a month because we dare not spend the nights in our hut on the ground,” said George Nay Htoo, who is a father of four. “My whole family has to go up when the darkness comes. We can’t easily climb up and down from our lookout, so we have to use bowls as a toilet. We also have to take along drinking water, clothes, blankets, mosquito nets, mosquito repellent, et cetera.”
During the second week of November, two wild elephants defied George Nay Htoo’s efforts to protect his rice paddies.
“We were in our lookout when they came. We tried to bang plates and other things, and shouted at them with the hope that they would leave. They didn’t. I used a catapult to shoot at them but it didn’t work either. They basically ate my paddy the whole night, starting at about 9pm and leaving after 5am the next morning. They were quite big, so four paddy plots were gone,” recalled George Nay Htoo.
Many farmers in Pathein, Thabaung and Nagpudaw townships have experienced similarly devastating incursions, and even rice that makes it to harvest is not always safe from the elephants, villagers claim.
“Once they come into a village, they look for barns,” Myint Kyi, a villager from the village of Chay Htauk Kwin in Pathein Township, told The Irrawaddy. “One day, an elephant came into my village and when he saw his target he just banged it with his head to open it. He wasn’t full after eating one sack of rice. … He went back to the jungle only after he felt satiated.”
According to Win Thein, a member of the Irrawaddy Division Assembly from Thabaung Township, overexploitation of forests in the region, and widespread deforestation, were contributing to the problem.
“Humans seize elephant’s food, the latter ravages the formers’ [crops],” said Win Thein, who represents the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the regional assembly.
Win Thein said he had asked the government’s Forestry Department to step in and assist the region’s farmers.
“Elephants enter paddy fields every day and farmers try as best they can to protect their crops, so it seems like the two sides are facing off for food,” said the regional lawmaker from Thabaung. “People can die from elephant attacks, so I asked the Forestry Department to protect them by driving out elephants from paddy fields before people’s lives become at risk. However, no action has been taken to safeguard the needs of citizens.”
Soe Myint, the minister for forestry and mining in Irrawaddy Division, however, told The Irrawaddy that there was only one team—made up of trained elephants—in the region that could drive away wild elephants and that his ministry had found it difficult to deal with the current problems.
“Matters related to elephants are under the care of the Myanma Timber Enterprise [MTE], so I already informed the MTE since I received the report about the wild beasts,” said Soe Myint. “There is only one team for driving away elephants in Irrawaddy Division, which comprises only four trained elephants, so we are in trouble dealing with this matter.”
Myint Aung, the head of an environmental conservation group based in Irrawaddy Division, said setting aside land devoted to the kind of plants preferred by elephants—such as banana trees and bamboo—would help to reduce the temptation for elephants to stray into areas inhabited by humans.
“We need to create pastures for wild elephants. If they have enough food, they won’t risk their lives and come to where humans are living,” he said, adding that stricter regulations to prevent illegal logging and systematic forestry conservation practices could also help to tackle the current problems.
Those suggestions may go some way toward resolving future conflict between elephants and locals, but for now hard numbers are a source of anxiety for George Nay Htoo, who has borrowed 100,000 kyats (US$100) for each acre of paddy planted.
Last year, he struggled to find the money to pay back a 500,000 kyats loan from the government after elephants decimated his crop, and as this season’s harvest approached in December, he told The Irrawaddy that he feared similar hardship was in the offing.
“I will try as much I can to drive them away,” George Nay Htoo said in a low voice. “If I can’t, I don’t know what else to do but let them eat my paddy.”