How Americans Like You Have Helped Make This Project Possible
Projects such as this one would not be possible without the funding generated from proceeds of sales of the “Save Vanishing Species Semi-Postal 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 33 different countries. Since 2011, purchases of stamps have generated more than $6.5 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. He’s followed by two more working elephants and a team of forest rangers in green uniforms. This elephant-ranger partnership forms an Elephant Patrol Unit and they’ll 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 use modern GPS units to track their progress, record patrol data, and log illegal activities they encounter on patrol. They might even encounter and apprehend a poacher.
Myanmar is one of 13 range countries where wild Asian elephants remain, and is considered to have the largest remaining available elephant habitat across the range. Myanmar is home to both captive/tame and wild Asian elephants. Historically, captive elephants worked in the timber trade, but due to a logging moratorium in the country these logging elephants now have 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 under the Protection of Wildlife and Protected Areas Law, passed in 1994, which criminalizes injuring or killing elephants. Violators can be prosecuted and sentenced for up to seven years in prison.
Why these Elephants are Threatened
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 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.
Elephants Protecting Elephants (with a Little Help from their Ranger Friends)
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. Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) is both a GIS-based software and a patrol protocol, used by forest rangers and park managers to systematically collect, manage, analyze, and report on data collected on law enforcement forest patrols. With SMART patrols, park managers are able to deploy rangers strategically and manage their patrol efforts and resources– targeting areas in the landscape that are hotspots for poaching or other illegal activities. SMART has improved rangers’ ability to detect and monitor elephant populations in the RYER. In RYER, ranger teams have detected and destroyed approximately 25 illegal poaching camps, and have used these data to inform future patrols.
In addition to identifying crucial areas for ranger patrol efforts, the program has helped establish law enforcement mechanisms for elephants in the form of Elephant Protection Units (EPU). EPUs protect the wild elephants of RYER by intensively patrolling their habitat using SMART protocols. During 10 to 20-day long patrols, EPUs monitor wild elephants and other wildlife, intercept poachers, and destroy snares or wildlife traps they encounter. During this project’s most recent phase, several additional logging elephants were transferred to RYER to create additional EPU 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. Upgrades to ranger patrol stations including solar panels, communications equipment, and a small canoe for accessing remote areas are also funded through this project.
The successes of the EPUs using SMART patrol methods benefit not only elephants, but also protect all of the other wildlife in RYER, such as gaur (also known as Indian bison), banteng (a species of wild cattle), Asiatic jackals, and Asiatic bears. As data continue to be gathered through SMART patrols, the efficiency of the EPUs will increase as they adaptively manage their patrol efforts – focusing on hotspots where illegal activities are concentrated. Ultimately, the data will enable comparisons between patrol teams, and across sectors, time scales, and even countries, and will further improve their efficacy.
The work in RYER is far from done – the EPUs and SMART system 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 objectives and successes of the EPUs can continue only with the support of the Myanmar Forest Department, Wildlife Conservation Society, and other important partners. Continued operations and enhancements will not be possible without support from external funding sources such as those provided by tiger stamps. Thanks to those stamps, now Myanmar’s elephants can get by with a little help from their friends.