CHAUNG SAUK VILLAGE, Bago Range – The residents of Chaung Sauk, a village in the foothills of the Bago Range, recalled the shock they felt last November when the giant carcass of a male elephant, stripped of its tusks and skin, was found bobbing in Sar Ngan stream, about one kilometer upstream from their village.
“The elephant’s body drifted in the creek near our village. We then reported it to village authorities and the police station,” said Kyaw Hlaing Win, the village tract administrator.
The area in northern Rangon region’s Okkan Township has long been a place where farmers reside in close proximity to elephants, who live in the nearby forested mountains and occasionally come down to forage on vegetation and crops in the foothills.
During the past year, the area has increasingly become a place for poachers to hunt elephants and villagers believe several elephants were killed, though only one carcass was found.
“Elephant poachers have been spotted near our village since February last year. They set up bamboo huts at the base of the Bago Yoma and first were searching for tortoise eggs,” said Kyaw Hlaing Win.
Police have attempted to arrest the poaching ring, but were only able to apprehend some local villagers – including the previous village administrator, who helped poachers move around the area.
“Those arrested were not the poachers, but just their helpers and guides in the forest,” Kyaw Hlaing Win said, adding that he suspected ringleaders slipped away because of collusion with local authorities.
“I don’t believe authorities didn’t know that poachers had entered the area with the help of the former village administrator,” he said.
Officer Than Naing from Okkan Township Police Station said authorities had arrested nine suspects and were looking for another 11 suspects, including two men accused of killing the elephant.
He said the nine men were facing criminal charges under Burma’s 1994 law on wildlife conservation and could be penalized with up to seven years in prison and a fine of 50,000 kyats (about US$40) for killing, hunting or wounding a protected animal.
Than Naing said despite his best efforts to keep the arrest operations secret, it was difficult to catch the suspects, especially the ringleaders.
“I never even informed my junior officer about this list ahead of the arrest,” he said. “But only four persons could be arrested on the first day of raid, the others were arrested later.”
A Rise in Poaching
The situation in Okkan Township is indicative of the growing threat to Burma’s wild elephant population and law enforcement authorities’ struggle to respond.
Poaching of the endangered, and officially protected, pachyderms has increased sharply in recent years in Burma, with 133 wild elephants killed between 2010 and 2016. Most occurred in recent years and in 2016 alone, 25 elephants were killed, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
“Male wild elephants have now become rare in Burma,” said Saw Htoo Thar Phoe, an elephant expert with WCS Burma.
Naing Zaw Tun, a deputy director of the ministry, said: “The main traffickers of elephant [parts] remain at large” and most arrests involve local villagers who join the illegal wildlife hunt and trade just to boost their meager incomes. He added that 22 suspects were arrested in nine elephant poaching cases last year.
Elephant poaching in Burma is on the rise amid a global trend of increasing demand in recent years for ivory and other products made from elephant parts, such as its skin, which is used in traditional medicine, conservation groups have warned.
Naing Zaw Tun said his ministry had submitted a bill to amend Burma’s 1994 law on wildlife conservation to bring it in line with international wildlife protection standards, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
In January, the ministry announced a Burma Elephant Conservation Action Plan, which was drafted with the help of international conservation organizations. It outlines 10-year priorities to safeguard the pachyderms, including engaging the public in the control of illegal poaching, trade and consumption of animal parts.
An estimated 2,000 elephants remain in the wild in Burma and a census of the population is reportedly underway. Some 6,000 timber elephants employed by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise face an uncertain future as the country tries to modernize and limit its timber trade.
Most demand for elephant parts comes from neighboring China and the notorious wildlife market in the rebel-held town of Mong La, northern Shan State, is an important conduit for the illegal cross-border trade. Wildlife trade to Thailand via Tachileik and Myawaddy is also an important destination for poached elephant parts.
Other threats include disappearing forest habitats due to illegal logging and expanding agribusinesses plantations, a problem that is clearly visible in Bago Range where huge swathes of forest have been granted to well-connected local companies. Amid the shrinking habitats, confrontations between wild elephants and farmers have also become more common, occasionally leading to deaths of animal and man.
‘Poachers Give Bribes to Police’
Saw Htoo Thar Phoe said the government should focus on preventing domestic poaching of elephants and other wildlife, though he added that ending poaching would be difficult as the trafficking is highly lucrative and corruption is endemic in Burma.
“Frankly speaking, poachers give bribes to the police to avoid arrest. Police should implement law enforcement more effectively,” he said, adding that police and border control authorities should cooperate with neighboring countries to tighten controls on illegal wildlife trade.
He said funding and staffing of the Forestry Department should also be increased and forest patrols improved, while measures and long-term projects should be drawn up with the help of international experts.
Government officials announced in June last year that they wanted to close the Mong La wildlife market, but the area is firmly under rebel control. China announced the implementation of an ivory ban in late 2017, a move welcomed by conservation experts.
Elizabeth John, a Southeast Asia spokesperson for international conservation group TRAFFIC, nonetheless warned that much of the trade in Burma is illegal to begin with and could go underground even if law enforcement and border controls were improved.
“Traffickers will take the path of least resistance and have shown themselves quick to adapt to increased enforcement in one country, by changing routes and methods,” she warned.
This article was first published on Myanmar Now.