The Burmese village where marauding elephants chase locals into the trees


Jennifer Rigby, The Telegraph

Date Published


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In a rural village in southern Burma, rampaging elephants have forced villagers to move to the trees to avoid being trampled.

The villagers of Taik Kyi, about 70km from Yangon, built the tree houses when the elephants began to move into town over a decade ago.

Now, with deforestation forcing ever more of the beasts into the area, the locals scramble nimbly up ladders into the makeshift structures whenever they visit. The children sleep in the trees every night.

U Sein Than, a local farmer, says it is about protection. “The elephants run into the houses when they are looking for food. If you go near to them, they will chase you. Even if you run in a zig-zag, the elephants will always stamp on you,” he said.

The villagers say 40 people have died in the area as a result of the elephants in the last eight years. Two nearby villages have been abandoned because of the problem, and the elephants are bad for business, too.

“If three elephants come, they will destroy two acres of rice paddy,” said U Sein Than, 50. “My farming business is like a lottery. If I cultivate 100 per cent of the rice, I will only get 30 per cent of it because of the elephants.”

The elephants visit nearly every day, he said.

“I am scared. It doesn’t matter if the crops are destroyed, but if I am gone, I am the head of the household, so my whole family would be gone,” he said.

U Sein Than is not alone in his struggle. In recent years conflict between elephants and humans has become more common in Burma, also known as Myanmar, as rampant deforestation has spread across the country as a result of logging, infrastructure development and clearance for crops, leaving the elephants homeless.

Last year, the UN said Burma has the third worst rate of deforestation in the world, losing an area of forest around the size of Brunei every year.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s new government has pledged to tackle the issue, and imposed a year-long logging ban this summer.

But in Taik Kyi, the villagers fear the ban could have the unintended side-effect of worsening their plight.

Myanmar actually has more working, domesticated elephants than wild – around 5,000 captive to 2,000 wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

At least 2,500 elephants are official employees of Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE), the country’s logging firm, and many more probably work in the country’s huge illegal logging industry.

And now many of the giant beasts, weighing up to 5 tonnes – or around two and a half average cars – are unemployed, and restless.

Dr Christy Williams, Myanmar director of the WWF, said: “The ban is very much needed, but just keeping these elephants, and their mahouts [human keepers], inactive is not going to work. How are 2,500 elephants going to be fed if they are not working?”

It’s a question the industry has not answered yet, although some elephants are still working in logging camps dragging cut logs, while others have been drafted into squads to protect crops.

The Burmese government is working with experts like the WWF on a longer-term solution, and conservationists are excited by the potential of releasing some of the captive elephants back into the wild – but for villagers like U Sein Than, that will have to be carefully managed to prevent more clashes.

“I want the government to help the elephants, I want them to find them somewhere to live,” he said. “I just don’t want the elephants to come here anymore.”