Unemployed, Myanmar’s Elephants Grow Antsy, and Heavier


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Myanmar’s Unemployed Elephants

Myanmar’s newly democratic government has banned the export of raw timber, to help fight deforestation. But that has idled thousands of the elephants that toil in the logging industry.


By JONAH M. KESSEL on Publish Date January 30, 2016.


Photo by Adam Dean for The New York Times.

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WA KALU PU, Myanmar — Dragging giant tree trunks up and down the steep hillsides of sweltering jungles is a tough job. But there is something worse, say owners of Myanmar’s logging elephants: having no job at all.

Shrinking forests and a law enacted three years ago that prohibits the export of raw timber have saddled Myanmar with an elephant unemployment crisis. Hundreds of elephants have been thrown out of work, and many are not handling it well.

“They become angry a lot more easily,” U Chit Sein, 64, whose eight logging elephants now work only a few days a month. “There is no work, so they are getting fat. And all the males want to do is have sex all the time.”

Elephants hold an almost mystical place in Myanmar, home to the world’s largest captive elephant population. For hundreds of years, they helped extract precious teak and hardwoods from jungles that even modern machinery still cannot penetrate.

Now the future of the 5,500 or so wrinkled pachyderms in captivity is a major preoccupation for the government officials who oversee them.

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Fall in Logging Leaves Myanmar’s Elephants Jobless

CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times


“Unemployment is really hard to handle,” said U Saw Tha Pyae, whose six elephants have been jobless for the past two years. “There is no logging because there are no more trees.”

Myanmar’s leading elephant expert, Daw Khyne U Mar, estimates that there are now 2,500 jobless elephants, many of them here in the jungles of eastern Myanmar, about two and a half hours from the Thai border. That number would put the elephant unemployment rate at around 40 percent, compared with about 4 percent for Myanmar’s people.

“Most of these elephants don’t know what to do,” Ms. Khyne U Mar said. “The owners have a great burden. It’s expensive to keep them.”

Adult elephants, which each weigh about 10,000 pounds, eat 400 pounds of food a day and, other than circuses and logging, have limited job opportunities.

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Logging is arduous. But elephant experts say hard work is one reason Myanmar’s elephants have remained relatively healthy. A 2008 study calculated that Myanmar’s logging elephants, which have a strict regimen of work and play, live twice as long as elephants kept in European zoos, a median age of 42 years compared with 19 for zoo animals.

Some logging elephants live much longer. “You see working elephants living into their 50s and 60s quite regularly,” said Joshua Plotnik, an elephant behavior specialist based in Thailand. “It all comes down to nutrition and proper care.”

Elephants have been known to display a sense of purpose in their work, experts say, and the loss of a job can be demoralizing.

“I don’t want to anthropomorphize,” said John Edward Roberts, the director of elephants and conservation activities at an elephant rescue center, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand. “But if you take away that part of their life that has entertained them or stretched them mentally and physically — it’s difficult.”

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A Thay Lay washed his elephant Hsar Hlay, 38, who is without work, after a foraging one night this month in the jungle near Wa Kalu Pu.

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Adam Dean for The New York Times

For most people in Myanmar, things are looking up. The economy is growing rapidly and citizens are enjoying newfound freedoms after years of brutal dictatorship. But the dawn of democracy here has meant a reversal of fortune for elephants. In decades past, when Myanmar’s population suffered under dictatorship, life was arguably much less harsh for elephants.

The military governments adhered to a strict labor code for elephants drawn up in British colonial times: eight-hour work days and five-day weeks, retirement at 55, mandatory maternity leave, summer vacations and good medical care. There are still elephant maternity camps and retirement communities run by the government. In a country where the most basic social protections were absent during the years of dictatorship, elephant labor laws were largely respected, partly because an overworked elephant is a very dangerous animal, say those who handle them.

Each logging elephant has its own record book, with medical and work history managed by Myanma Timber Enterprise, a government company often referred to by its initials.

“The M.T.E. elephants that I’ve seen are really healthy compared with elephants I’ve seen in other countries,” said Dr. Susan Mikota, the director of veterinary programs and research at Elephant Care International, a charity based in the United States and devoted to elephant welfare. “They are on a natural diet, they are allowed to forage. They have good muscular skeletal body condition. They get good exercise.”

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Mahouts rode their elephants back to their camp in the jungle near Wa Kalu Pu.

Credit
Adam Dean for The New York Times

Georgia Mason, a co-author of the 2008 study, said that obesity seemed to be a major factor in the lower life expectancy of zoo elephants. A subsequent study showed that elephant babies born in zoos were 15 percent heavier than those born in logging camps, she said.

With the number of jobless elephants likely to increase as forests shrink and the logging industry wanes, the government is exploring the possibility of releasing some of the elephants into the wild.

Simon Hedges, the elephant coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society, an animal protection organization based in the United States, said this was an “exciting opportunity.” But he and others cautioned that concerns needed to be addressed about captive elephants spreading diseases to wild populations and raiding villages for food.

“Some of the more radical organizations believe that you can let all of the captive elephants go in the wild — that’s easier said than done,” said Mr. Hedges, who last year in Myanmar took part in a meeting, hosted by the Burmese government, on the future of elephants. “Elephants are big, dangerous, scary animals. It’s hard to keep them away from crops.”

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Elephant owners regularly release their animals into the jungles to forage and are often forced to indemnify villagers when crops are devoured.

“There is not much space left in the jungles for them,” said Mr. Chit Sein, the elephant owner.

Forest cover in Myanmar has decreased by 42 percent since 1990, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

As they await a solution, elephant owners are coping with joblessness in various ways.

Some have sold their charges to businessmen in Thailand, where they will be deployed in the Thai tourism industry, including in elephant shows and jungle treks. Exporting elephants to Thailand is technically illegal without official permission but elephant owners say it appears to be happening with greater frequency.

But other owners say they cannot bear the thought of selling their elephants.

“I don’t know what I will do with my elephants,” said Mr. Saw Tha Pyae, who like many elephant owners inherited the beasts from his parents. “But I will never sell them, never! I love them so much!”



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