Fate of Myanmar’s CDM Elephants Hangs in Balance 

By The Irrawaddy 14 February 2023

When government workers across the country quit their jobs as part of the anti-coup civil disobedience movement (CDM), a herd of elephants joined them.

Since the coup in February 2021, the 37 elephants and their handlers from Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park – Myanmar’s oldest and largest national park – in Sagaing Region have been on strike.

A CDM elephant handler said that when the mahouts decided to join the CDM, they couldn’t leave behind creatures they had cared for and worked with since their birth.

Handlers in the park coax a baby elephant to drink milk.

“We elephant handlers can’t just walk away from our jobs like other CDM staff. We can’t cut our bonds with the elephants or abandon them in bad times. If we left, they would become wild and … that would be inhumane of us,” the handler told a local citizen information network.

The handlers and their families chose to stay with the elephants in their forest sanctuary, which is controlled by armed resistance groups, instead of returning to their hometowns after leaving government housing. And that’s how the animals they care for became CDM elephants. The strike by staff and elephants meant the park had to close five months after the coup, in June 2021.

Before the coup, the elephants hauled logs in the park or provided rides for visitors. Now, the CDM elephants help locals and resistance groups transport goods and carry wood to rebuild houses burned down by junta soldiers.

An elephant is given a bath by CDM handlers.

A resistance member of the local People’s Defense Force-Kyauk Lone Gyi who has visited the mahouts several times said the affectionate bond between the CDM staff and their elephants is like that between parents and children.

However, the group is facing hardships after almost two years without salaries. Some have sought casual work on local farms, but the pay is not enough to fulfill even the basic needs of their families and elephants.

“I would say they are in greater difficulty than other CDM strikers. If they were alone, they wouldn’t need to worry about their survival. But they have to provide for the needs of their beloved elephants too,” the resistance fighter said.

According to local resistance groups, the community consists of 37 elephants including five young calves, and around 100 people including 33 mahouts and their family members.

At the end of last year, one elephant died due to poor health and a lack of medicines.

“At the time, the mahouts cried and all the elephants grieved too, making a loud sorrowful sound together,” the resistance fighter said.

A CDM elephant handler with a young calf from the park. / supplied

The resistance group donated funds and food contributed by locals for the care of the CDM elephants. However, the CDM elephants’ food, supplement and healthcare needs are soaring.

The civilian National Unity Government’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation said it is providing some help via domestic and overseas public donations for the elephants. But support is still limited and patchy, especially at times when donations to the CDM decrease.

The ministry recently launched “Elephants in Revolution”, a fundraising activity to ease the daily struggles of the animals and their handlers. The fundraiser is selling lucky draw tickets at 15,000 kyats each.

The ministry said that in the future it will also conduct elephant conservation activities.

“We need a lot of help from the public who want to support the CDM or help conserve the elephants,” the ministry said.