Myanmar elephant killings raise fears of extinction

Photo: WWF / Christy Williams
Photo: WWF / Christy Williams

At least 30 elephants have been reported killed in Myanmar this year, according to a joint report by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) released on August 12, in honor of World Elephant Day.

This year’s death toll exceeds numbers reported in previous years, raising concerns among wildlife conservation professionals about the survival of Myanmar’s wild elephant population.

“This year, 30 elephants have been killed by hunters. Over six weeks, five elephants were killed. It is a bit higher than the average annual number of elephant deaths,” said Aung Myo Chit, the coordinator of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Myanmar.

Myanmar’s wild elephant population is thought to have almost halved over the past decade to between 2,000 and 3,000, though some estimates put the number far lower.

Some elephants are killed in wars waged against humans over land and resources. According to government figures, since 2010, at least 35 people and 95 elephants have died this way.

Even more elephants, however, are targeted by hunters, who use poisoned arrows or rifles to kill the animals so they can sell their body parts. Elephant poaching is thought to have increased tenfold in recent years.

“The illegal trade in elephant skin is rampant,” said Mark Grindley, the Taninthayi programme manager for FFI. “People are using skin as jewelry and medicine. There is an illegal trade in elephant skin and parts of other wild animals at famous destinations like Yangon and Kyaiktiyio Pagoda.”

Elephant skin can sell for up to K5,000 (US$3.65) per square inch.

“Poachers kill female and baby elephants for their skin,” said FFI Taninthayi field coordinator Nay Myo Shwe. “Myanmar’s elephants face extinction if it continues.”

Fortunately, wildlife organizations have stepped up to address the poaching crisis. WWF announced on August 10 that it had raised $263,211 from 3,000 supporters to fund an emergency action plan to train rangers to fight wildlife crime.

“Training rangers is the first step on our journey to win this battle against poachers,” said Christy Williams, country director of WWF Myanmar. “Rangers are on the conservation frontlines, protecting the world’s natural and cultural treasures.  With their commitment and the help of our supporters, there is hope for Asian elephants.”

The donations funded an eight-day training on law enforcement methods, intelligence gathering and crime scene management for 45 Myanmar rangers. They were also given lessons on the value of biodiversity.

The rangers are expected to begin patrolling next month.

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