A Talk on the Wild Side.
A baby Asian elephant at an Elephant Protection Unit camp, after enjoying an afternoon bath in the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Range, Myanmar. Photo by Cory Brown/USFWS
Projects such as this one would not be possible without the funding generated from proceeds of sales of the “Save Vanishing Species Stamp,” also known as the “Tiger Stamp.” Through programs administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tiger Stamps have helped fund projects that benefit tigers, sea turtles, great apes, rhinos and elephants in 35 countries. Since 2011, purchases of stamps have generated more than $4.7 million in funding for international conservation projects. Learn more and purchase Tiger Stamps from the U.S. Postal Service. Thank you for your support!
An enormous male Asian elephant with tusks, known as a tusker, breaks through the dense foliage. His mahout, a well-trained elephant handler, guides him deeper into the tropical forest – they’re looking for signs of poacher camps, snares and evidence of illegal logging. They’re followed by two more working elephants and a team of forest rangers in green uniforms. This elephant-ranger partnership, an Elephant Protection Unit, will spend the next 15 days patrolling deep into the forest of the Rakhine Yoma Elephant Range (RYER) in the western part of Myanmar. The rangers and mahouts will sleep in hammocks, cook over an open fire and collect drinking water from streams. But they’ll use modern GPS units to track their progress, record patrol data and log illegal activities they encounter on patrol. They’ll also monitor wild elephants and other wildlife, intercept poachers, and destroy snares or wildlife traps they encounter.
Myanmar is one of 13 range countries where wild Asian elephants remain and is considered to have the largest remaining available Asian elephant habitat. Myanmar is home to both captive/tame and wild Asian elephants. Historically, captive elephants worked in the timber trade, but a logging moratorium in the country has left these logging elephants with less work. A few of these former logging elephants are now working toward conservation in the RYER. All of Myanmar’s elephants, captive or wild, are protected, and injuring or killing elephants can result in up to seven years in prison.
Mahouts, park staff and patrol rangers stand in front of a patrol elephant in RYER, Myanmar. Photo by Cory Brown/USFWS
Wild Asian elephant populations are in decline across their range due to a variety of human-related causes, including habitat loss and fragmentation, conflict with people, and poaching. In Myanmar, there appears to be a recent uptick in poaching – and in a new twist, poached elephants are being targeted for their skin as well as their tusks. While elephant tusks are prized for their ivory, elephant skin is mistakenly believed to carry medicinal value and is used to make jewelry. The elephant skin trade is particularly alarming because elephants of all ages and genders are targeted indiscriminately whereas ivory poaching targets only male tuskers. Between 2010 and 2014, 62 poached elephant carcasses were found. In 2017 alone, 25 individuals were found killed and skinned.
Since 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has helped fund elephant conservation projects in Myanmar’s Rakhine Yoma landscape in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society. One of these projects has provided a GIS-based software that allows forest rangers and park managers to collect, manage, analyze and report on data collected on law enforcement forest patrols. The software lets park managers target areas in the landscape that are hotspots for poaching or other illegal activities.
It’s working! In RYER, ranger teams have detected and destroyed approximately 25 illegal poaching camps, and have used these data to inform future patrols.
The project has also helped set up the Elephant Protection Units to protect the wild elephants of RYER using the captive elephants. During this project’s most recent phase, several additional logging elephants were transferred to RYER to create additional patrol teams. This project provides employment to displaced mahouts and their tame working elephants, and allows them to contribute to the protection and conservation of their wild cousins.
The project also funds upgrades to ranger stations, including solar panels, communications equipment and a small canoe for accessing remote areas. Photo by Cory Brown/USFWS
The successes of the patrols benefit not only elephants, but also all of the other wildlife in RYER, such as gaur (Indian bison), banteng (a species of wild cattle), Asiatic jackals and Asiatic bears. As patrols gather more data, they’ll be better able to manage their patrol efforts – focusing on illegal-activity hotspots. Ultimately, the data will enable comparisons between patrol teams, and across sectors, time scales, even countries, and will further improve their efficacy.
The work in RYER is far from done – the patrols and software need constant support on the ground, including refresher training for rangers, veterinary care for the elephants, replacement of worn-out gear and equipment, rations for long patrols, and supplemental food for the patrol elephants. Conditions are harsh for the rangers, mahouts, and data analysts and their equipment. The forest is hot, humid and unforgiving. The successes of the patrols can continue only with the support of the Myanmar Forest Department, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Conservation Society and other important partners. Tiger Stamps help provide that support and let Myanmar’s elephants get by with a little help from their friends.