The Union of Myanmar, which comprises a total land area of 676 533 sq km situates between 9°53′ and 28°25’N latitude and 92°10′ and 101°10’E longitude. Myanmar is bordering Bangladesh and India in the West and China, Thailand and Laos in the East. It is rimmed by mountain ranges in the north, east and west forming a giant horseshoe. Enclosed within the mountain barriers are the flat lands of Ayeyarwaddy, Chindwin and Sittaung River valleys with an extensive network of feeder streams, where most of the country’s agricultural land and population are concentrated.
Approximately 75 percent of the country lies within the tropics and the remainder lies in the subtropical and temperate zones. The annual rainfall is 900 mm in the dry zone and over 5,000 mm in the coastal region and other parts of the country. The average temperature is below 10°C in the hilly region and over 40°C at the central dry zone in the middle of Myanmar. The great variation in rainfall, temperature, soil and topography result with various forest types, such as evergreen, semi-evergreen and mixed deciduous forests. Bamboo which is a preferred food of elephants is abundant in these forests.
The elephant is not only of great cultural and historical significance in Myanmar, but also of major economic importance in the country’s timber industry. Elephant skidding plays a vital role in the timber operations of Myanmar for the foreseeable future, particularly in the many mountainous and swamp areas of Myanmar’s forests.
Elephants are legally protected in Myanmar by the Elephant Preservation Act (1879) and Amended Act II of 1883. The killing and capture of wild elephants without license are prohibited. Myanmar is home to almost 10,000 elephants; from the white elephants in Naypyidaw to their wild counterparts roaming Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park; elephants play an important role in the rich history and culture of Myanmar.
For example, if you are lucky enough to be born on a Wednesday, your Myanmar horoscope sign is the elephant? It’s the bull tusker if you were born in the morning and the mysterious, tuskless female if you were born in the afternoon.
White elephants are a powerful national symbol in Myanmar. They represent divinely sanctified rule and are highly prized by many, who believe the country will be more peaceful and prosperous in the presence of these special creatures. Currently there are eight white elephants in Naypyidaw and Yangon, including two very vivacious and playful calves born from two White elephant mothers, one born as a white elephant, and another born as an ordinary black calf, a pure example of recessive characteristics of white (albinism) genes carried by white mothers.
Myanmar is one of the few countries in the world to continue to use elephants in the logging industry. This work allows elephants to live in their natural forest habitat, freely interact with wild populations and to bond with their mahouts, known as “sin oozies” or elephant headriders. In a mahout family, becoming a mahout means knowledge transfer from father to son. Some mahout families have worked with elephants for generations and their traditional knowledge, for example of herbs from the forest to treat wounds, is vital to caring for elephants.
Using elephants rather than machines to remove trees allows the removal of selected logs without damaging the rest of the forest. Elephants have the strength to drag or push heavy logs. They combine this power with remarkable delicacy and sure-footedness as they pad quietly through the forest in the steep terrain of Upper Myanmar. Elephant-assisted logging is a form of ecologically responsible and sustainable forest management, allowing for the preservation of the forests and the valuable biodiversity within them.
A multi-disciplinary research group based at the University of Sheffield has been studying the Myanmar timber elephants since 2012. Their research aims to determine factors affecting health, fertility and mortality rates in the captive population and devising strategies to improve them.
One of the founding scientists of this research group is Khyne U Mar, a Myanmar-born veterinarian with more than 20 years of working experience with timber elephants. She says “I very am proud to study elephants in my native country. Elephants have a long history of interaction with humans in this country and I want to see elephants and humans coexisting peacefully long into the future.” Elephants may appear to be very strong to us, weighing up to 5 tonnes and standing up to 3.2 metres tall, however, they are vulnerable to infectious diseases, illnesses and injuries. Dr Khyne U Mar continues, “My research into elephant diseases including parasites and tuberculosis will improve their health. One of my key aims is to ensure that elephant care is of the best possible standard.”
Whilst the number of Asian elephants in the world is dwindling, Myanmar is focused on maintaining population numbers and promoting its elephant conservation. Dr Khyne U Mar says, “The low rates of survival and reproduction necessitate capture of wild elephants to maintain the working population. The health of the captive population is therefore tightly linked to the endangered wild population. Maintaining a sustainable population of logging elephants is a primary aim of my research. I am establishing a nursing camp to ensure that healthy calves are born and that they survive the difficult first few months of life”.
-Hunnah Mummby And Khyne U Mar
With research, conservation and protection, the future could be bright for Myanmar’s giant forest dwellers. For more information about Dr Khyne U Mar’s work and the Myanmar Timber Elephant Project see Twitter @MyanmarElephant and the website http://myanmartimber-elephant.group.shef.ac.uk.