Saving the gentle giants (Myanmar)


By Zon Pann Pwint, Myanmar Times

Date Published

The Global Elephant March will be held in Yangon on October 3 – a day before World Animal Day – to raise awareness for the importance of treating the highly intelligent, emotionally sentient beings with the love and respect they deserve.

The primary initiative in Myanmar is to reduce the use of goads – which are sharp sticks or prods – during training and chains for restraining elephants.
Above all, the need to wipe out an age-old practice of “breaking the spirit” is paramount. This is a practice that is started on baby elephants at four years of age. The calf is separated from the protection of its family, its legs bound by thick rope and confined in a small enclosure where it is tortured and left hungry for days. The practice aims to weaken it into submission so it is meek and obedient to its masters for the rest of its life.
“We can’t change the long-standing practice in one day, one month or one year. But love and respect for the elephants can play a part in changing the way people train them,” said Sangduen Chailert, founder of Save The Elephant Foundation, at a press conference held on September 5 at Sule Shangri-La hotel to announce the Global Elephant March event.
Sangduen Chailert, known as Lert, founder of the Thai non-profit organisation dedicated to the care of Thailand’s captive elephant population, has made frequent visits to Bago Yoma, a mountain range in south-central Myanmar over the past 17 years.
She considers one of her trips to be completely unforgettable.
Lert saw a baby elephant suffering gruesome tortures during its training. Its freedom was taken away and its spirit was broken. Her team arduously documented the tragedy on video. She showed the video at a press conference when she was asked about the situation of elephants in the country by a local journalist.
The baby elephant’s scream of pain moved guests to tears.
“I would never forget that loud cry of pain,” Lert said.
Lert said that Myanmar is a country where many Asian elephants live. The Global Elephant March in Yangon will highlight the untold misery of elephants in the country today, what they are facing, how they are suffering and how they are treated in ways most people don’t even know about.
Throughout history, elephants were valued as royal treasures that kings would ride when they went around the town. Later, elephants became widely employed in timber enterprises and in the tourism industry. The value of elephants has steadily declined as they are now exploited in circus shows and other demoralising acts.
“The march for elephants will develop the public’s knowledge about elephants’ nature and inspire them to value the elephants and to protect them,” she said.
Born in Chiang Mai, Lert’s strong connection with elephants began at a very young age. Her grandfather was a traditional healer. He received a baby elephant in return for saving a man’s life. Lert spent endless hours with the calf until finally the baby elephant won her heart. She has since devoted her life to caring for Asian elephants.
Lert founded the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai where dozens of rescued elephants live in sanctuary. She and other elephant-loving volunteers protect and rehabilitate the sanctuary’s residents – some of them suffer mental issues left by the ill-treatment the intelligent animals were forced to endure.
In Lert’s Elephant Nature Park, she and the other volunteers treat the elephants with kindness, love and respect. Even an angry and uncontrollable elephant in her sanctuary becomes calm when Lert treats him with constant patience and empathy.
They strictly prohibit the visitors to ride on the elephants, and fight against exploiting the elephants for begging.
Mahouts – elephant riders – from Myanmar are receiving training in caring for the elephants without using goads or iron chains and learning how to treat the elephants with respect and love at the sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
“When I told them not to use goads or chains, they asked me that how they could possibly handle a wild elephant without them. It takes a great deal of time to build trust and understanding between mahouts and elephants. It requires a great deal of patience, hard work and love. It is worthwhile,” Lert said.
If a mahout uses chains to restrict an elephant’s freedom and uses goads to guide them, his elephant can give him trouble at anytime. On the other hand, when he doesn’t hold a goad or any instrument in his hand, the elephant will know it.
“Elephants are highly intelligent animals. They keep people who treat them with kindness in their hearts and they won’t forget the people who have mistreated them,” Lert said.
“I believe love is a tool to make them gentle and tame. They will treat you as you treat them,” she said.
Her arrival to launch Global Elephant March coincided with the tragedy of a man who was killed by an elephant near Nat Mauk, a town in Magwe region.
Last month, six elephants – four adults and two calves – were found roaming near Nat Mauk without harming people or damaging residents’ fields. According to a photographer who visited the scene and attended the press conference, the residents chased after them and took pictures of them as they roamed. The flashes from the cameras frightened the elephants and they panicked, killing one man in the crowd.
Now, the six elephants have been herded safely into the jungle where they came from.
“About 17 years ago when I started to make frequent visits to the Bago mountain range, it was very beautiful. The roads were very narrow. I drove as far as the road conditions allowed. Then I biked along narrow lanes, and walked to the jungle where I saw a rich diversity of animals and birds,” Lert said. “Year by year residents extended their territory into the wild forest. Every single time I returned to the Bago mountain range, more and more forest had been burnt.”
Once her car stopped near the burnt forest and when she returned to her car, she saw a monkey and a python taking refuge inside it.
“Trees were cut down and the forest was burnt. It is becoming more and more difficult for animals to live in the jungle. Therefore, they escape into people-inhabited regions and conflicts between human and animal begin,” Lert said.
Lert invites Myanmar citizens to participate in the Global Elephant March. Through the event, people can inform the government and local organisations about the importance of protection of the Asian elephants and their usefulness.
“I have been to Myanmar several times. I saw statues of elephants at the pagodas. If we can’t protect the elephants and can’t keep them in their natural habitat, future generations will only see the elephants at the pagodas as statues,” she said.
Ma Sabei Lwin, a French tour guide and Myanmar elephant ambassador, said the event is their first step to protect Asian elephants – which are in danger of extinction because of human actions – and to develop an awareness of their nature and usefulness.
“Generally, people are afraid of elephants so they take precautions to protect themselves when they deal with elephants. They use torture, goads and chains to handle them, hurting the elephants,” said Ma Sabei Lwin.
“When I spent time in the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, I saw volunteers being very kind to the elephants. There was no torture or hunger. I want elephants in Myanmar to receive the same kind of treatment,” she said.
The detailed activities and venue for the Global Elephant March will be announced. If you want to join the march, contact [email protected].