NAYPYIDAW — Elephant poaching in Burma has risen tenfold since 2012 because authorities do not have adequate information to track down poaching rings, according to conservation officials.
During 2010 to 2012, about three elephants were poached per year. But from 2013 onward, the number of elephants killed jumped to 25-30 per year on average, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation said.
It is the lack of information on poachers and an illegal elephant market in a “neighboring country” that are to blame, said U Win Naing Thaw, who is the director of the ministry’s Environmental and Wildlife Conservation Section.
“In recent years, poaching has increased, and it is vital that we get more information to prevent poaching. We need the people who go into the forests daily [for their livelihoods] to inform us about elephant poachers, and then we will be able to stop them immediately,” U Win Naing Thaw told reporters in Naypyidaw on Monday during a workshop to draft Burma’s elephant conservation plan.
Most elephant poaching takes place in Pathein and Ngapudaw Townships in Irrawaddy Division, which is a major habitat for wild elephants. The Forestry Department and Forestry Police are responsible for stopping poaching in these areas, the ministry said.
“But locals are afraid of elephant poachers,” said U Tin Soe, head of Ngapudaw Township Forestry Department. “They are afraid that their lives will be threatened if they give us information.”
“Therefore, fewer and fewer people inform us about poachers,” he said. “Only when we guarantee that they won’t be harmed will they consider supplying us information.”
In December, authorities stopped an armed poaching ring in Ngapudaw, thanks to a tip from a local resident.
“A local person informed us that he saw several people with guns,” said U Tin Soe. “So we tracked them down, and at the end of 2016, we arrested that poaching ring.”
The Environmental and Wildlife Conservation Section estimates there may be large elephant populations in heavily forested areas in Kachin State, and Sagaing, Mandalay, Magwe, Pegu, Rangoon, and Tenasserim divisions.
There are two major reasons why wild elephants are killed. One is conflict between humans and elephants for food and living space—such as when hungry elephants consume farm crops. But these cases are rare, said U Win Naing Thaw.
Poaching is the larger reason for the declining elephant population.
“We have investigated how poachers peel off the hide of the elephants, remove the tusks and parts, freeze them, and smuggle them to a neighboring country,” said U Win Naing Thaw.
These days, poachers rarely use guns, he added. Instead, they hunt elephants with poisoned arrows. They will shoot the elephant with an arrow, follow the animal, and wait for it to die. Then they peel off the hide, remove the tusks, and leave the scene immediately.
“Our staff is too small for us to watch forests throughout the day,” said U Win Naing Thaw. “So we need people who go into the forests to keep us informed about what they see. We need information, and it is quite difficult to get it.”
The major route for wildlife smuggling is along the Mandalay-Lashio-Muse road. Smugglers also cross the border at Tachilek in Shan State, at Myawaddy in Karen State, at the Three Pagodas Pass, and at the Dawei-Htikhi checkpoint in Tenasserim Division, according to the Forestry Department.
As elephant poaching in Africa has come under greater international scrutiny, and as agencies like Interpol have launched anti-poaching operations there, the market for illegal elephant parts has shifted to Asia. Today Burma bears the consequences of changing market trends, the Forestry Department said.
“Since our country is close to a country where there is trade in illegal elephants, our demand has increased,” said U Win Naing Thaw. “So poachers now hunt elephants for their tusks and for their hides, which they peel off, dry, and smuggle away.”
The Forestry Department recently deployed a GPS-based wildlife tracking system in the Pegu Mountain Range and in Tenasserim and Irrawaddy divisions to keep track of elephants which are vulnerable to poaching.
“We shoot the wild elephants with tranquilizer guns so that we can attach tracking collars to them. By monitoring the movements of elephants, we can determine the area of their habitat and their seasonal migration. We can even inform the local people about the seasons when elephants may come close to their villages,” said U Win Naing Thaw.
A three-day workshop to discuss the conservation of Asian elephant species began on Monday in Naypyidaw. With assistance from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Burma’s Forestry Department will develop a 10-year working plan to protect wild elephants from increased poaching. The department will then submit its proposed plan to the Union government for approval.