In The Footprints of Giants: Tracking Elephants in Myanmar
Updated: Jul 26, 2020
Earlier this year I began working at the Conservation Ecology Centre within the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. A large part of my work relates to the ecology and conservation of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in the wild. Asian elephants are threatened by habitat loss and poaching throughout their geographical range. As human populations expand and forests are cleared for agriculture and plantations such as oil palm and rubber, this inevitably brings elephants into conflict with humans. Farmers and villagers suffer from crop raiding, property destruction and sometimes there are human casualties. In the long run however, the elephants lose out due to habitat loss, shooting, poisoning and collisions with vehicles. Their populations are in decline as access to critical habitat is restricted and corridors for movement across landscapes are impinged upon by human development.
Poaching is also a major problem for Asian elephants as they are killed not only for ivory but also their skins, tails, trunks and other body parts which are sold as ingredients in Chinese medicine. Along the Thai border there have been reports of poachers taking baby elephants to be sold into the entertainment industry or into ‘sanctuaries’ for the lucrative tourist market.
Myanmar has the second largest wild population of Asian elephants of any country in the world. As Myanmar continues to develop rapidly and opens up to global trade and travel this is a crucial time to gather information on the ecology of elephants and their interactions with human populations. With 60% of the country still covered by forest, we hope that our research can help guide government policy that will find a balance between the needs of the human population and future survival of the wild elephant population.
We are using GPS tracking technology to investigate the basic movement ecology of elephants in Myanmar. By identifying their home range size, habitat requirements, corridors of movement and potential bottlenecks in the landscape we hope to provide essential information on the movements of elephants and find ways to mitigate human elephant conflict in future. Until recently, our efforts have been focused on the agricultural areas around Bago, not far from Yangon (see map).
In March of this year we travelled an area called Lenya in the southern Tanintharyi region of Myanmar. The trip was a collaboration between the Smithsonian, WWF, Fauna and Flora International and the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE, Myanmar’s forestry department) to fit GPS collars on elephants.
We focused our efforts on a large oil palm plantation and the surrounding villages where elephants have been moving between the forest edge and plantation as well as coming close to the villagers’ homes. We targeted large solitary males in musth (ready for mating) who are likely to travel widely and potentially more likely to get into conflict with people. We attempted to spread our efforts around the area to ensure that we were collaring elephants from different social groups.
The process of catching elephants in dense forest is hard work. It is surprisingly easy to find yourself right on top of an elephant without knowing it was there. Alternatively, you can hear the cracking of branches and rumblings of elephants and spend hours sweating it out in the jungle only to feel like you are no closer than when you started. The team from MTE include wildlife veterinarians and mahouts who act as our expert elephant trackers. After gathering information from local people and plantation managers, the team of trackers head off on the trail of an elephant following footprints, vegetation damage and fresh dung. The rest of us do our best to keep up but the trackers move swiftly through the dense vegetation. Being a bit taller than the average Burmese person I often find myself bashing through vines and branches as my companions duck and weave through the jungle in an effort to make me look like a lumbering idiot. Carrying 10kgs of camera gear didn’t make life any easier either and may not have been the best idea, but I did it all so you can see the pretty pictures. Another major challenge for me was to bypass all the wonderful fungi in the forest while we kept moving along. I managed to sneak one of them in here but so many more remain lamentably unidentified.
At some point, sometimes within minutes sometimes hours later, a shout goes up from the tracking team to let us know the elephant has been darted. We race to get there before the medication starts to wear off. When it is safe to approach we fit the collar and take basic measurements as quickly as possible. Sometimes the elephant falls in an easy position but sometimes we need to dig under and around the neck to fit the collar safely. After collaring and posing for a few quick photos, the vet administers the antidote to the immobilization drugs and we back off to a safe distance while the mahouts hang out a bit closer.
Once again a shout goes up to tell us the elephant is awake and we hightail it in the opposite direction. As difficult as it is to run at speed through dense undergrowth and bamboo thickets, it is much preferable to being close to a large confused bull elephant who may not be happy to see you. Given my shaky grasp of Burmese, more than once I found myself running through the jungle, wading through streams and clambering over tree roots while trying to politely enquire if we were running away from or towards an elephant. It may be hard to tell from the photos but rest assured all the elephants were healthy and happy and went on their way with their nifty new necklaces, whistling “Nelly the Elephant” quietly to themselves.
Every morning before heading out the team would make small offerings at a little shrine at the monastery where the monks had kindly provided accommodation. It seemed to work because we caught an elephant every day we were there. After all the hard work the team would return to village and play cards for a few hours to relax after the day’s exertions. I never thought I would find myself gambling over cards in a Buddhist monastery after chasing an elephant around the jungle all day but that is all part of this strange profession I suppose. The 5000 Kyat notes have a white elephant printed on them so the card game was referred to as ‘capturing white elephants’. Once again my non-existent Burmese skills lead me to lose possession of a whole herd of white elephants but I put it down to ‘relationship building’ to console myself.
In the end we collared four elephants on this trip. One large female who had a calf and is likely to be a leader of a social group and three solitary males who were all in musth. The final elephant was a big male with a single tusk who was collared on St Patrick’s Day and was christened Patrick in a nod to my home country. I am usually quite averse to giving tagged animals cutesy names but this one was particularly hard to get to and I was feeling homesick so I made an exception.
These elephants have already started moving widely throughout the local forests and the information we gather from the GPS tracking will help us learn about their habitat requirements, hotspots for conflict and to develop crop-raiding mitigation measures in conjunction with the plantation manager. With time, a lot of engagement with the community and a little luck we hope to identify and protect key areas for the movement of elephants as well as protecting the livelihoods and well-being of the villagers and plantation workers.