Hundreds of unemployed elephants in Burma, laid off from the once-booming timber trade, have emerged as potential saviours of the animal population.
One of the largest surviving wild elephant populations in Asia is being pushed to the brink as hunters feed demand for their hides in neighbouring China. Dozens of carcasses, stripped of their skins, have been found by villagers in recent months.
Campaigners have warned that hunters are increasingly targeting mothers and their calves, which will accelerate the slide in elephant numbers. In many cases, the poachers have used poisoned arrows to bring down their quarry, causing a slow, painful death.
The World Wide Fund for Nature, which is helping Burma’s government to tackle the crisis, has said that the elephants have been almost wiped out in some areas, with just over 1,000 left in the wild.
Among the solutions being discussed is a proposal to release captive elephants, laid off after a slump in the timber trade, back into the wild. Burma has the world’s largest captive elephant population, at about 5,000, and the animals hold an almost mystical place in national folklore. For hundreds of years, the animals have toiled in the jungle, dragging valuable hardwoods from the dense forest. Under rules set down by the British, government-owned elephants are guaranteed support and even a pensionable age.
Elephants respond to long periods of unemployment no better than humans. Owners have complained that their animals grow depressed and aggressive, putting on weight. Adult elephants eat about 200 kilos of food a day and are expensive to keep.
Campaigners have spotted an opportunity. Three thousand of the captive elephants are state-owned. Many of the 2,000 privately held animals are kept in poor conditions, however, and it is these that activists are targeting. “There are parts where wild elephants have all but disappeared. We are looking at whether we can reintroduce captive elephants into depopulated areas,” said Christy Williams, director for the WWF in Burma. A key party of the plan would involve increased ranger patrols to protect surviving animals.
At markets near the Chinese border, elephant hide is traded at almost £100 a kilo. Vendors claim that when burnt to ash and mixed with coconut oil, the paste can cure eczema, while ground up elephant teeth can smooth and whiten skin. Criminal gangs in Burma run the poaching trade, handsomely paid by powerful kingpins in China.