Status of Myanmar's Elephants

Historical estimates of wild elephant populations in Myanmar have been extremely variable. Between the 1930s and the 1990s, 3,000 to 10,000 wild elephants have been proposed. Taking positive action to protect the elephants is difficult without an idea of the distribution, current numbers, and rate of decline of the wild populations.

In June 2004, the Smithsonian convened a broad group of elephant experts in Myanmar to review current knowledge concerning the status of the country's wild elephants. The ultimate aim was to generate expert information on conservation issues dealing with wild elephants. Participants included representatives from the Ministry of Forestry, Forest Department, Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division, park wardens, government and private elephant owners, university professors, and non-government organizations (NGOs).

An initial symposium of presentations was followed by workshop sessions designed to generate as much input as possible from elephant experts. The participants were separated into groups based on their experience in geographical regions and assigned participatory mapping exercises. One significant conclusion from the workshop is that as few as 1,130 to 1,850 wild elephants may remain in Myanmar. This number is considerably lower than many recent estimates and suggests the wild elephant population could be in serious decline.

Some further results of the workshop are summarized below:

A. Location and status of remaining elephant populations in Myanmar

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The location and status of remaining elephant populations is displayed in the map at right. Different working groups compiled the elephant information in different ways, some of which we had not anticipated. For example, in the Rakhine [southeast] and Bago [central] Mountain Regions, experts delineated estimated ranges for elephant populations, while in northern Myanmar this information was a combination of the estimated size of elephant populations in townships combined with polygons for a few well-known elephant populations. Much of this difference may be explained by differences in accessibility of the regions and detail in knowledge. The forests of Northern Myanmar are much less accessible and there are fewer people.

The experts identified no large elephant populations (> 150 individuals). Medium-size elephant populations exist in the Rakhine Mountain Range and in several townships and parts of Sagaing and Mandalay Divisions (see the third figure for a map of administrative divisions).

B. Threats to wild Asian elephant populations in Myanmar

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The locations and types of threats to wild elephant populations are displayed in the map to the right. The most severe threats to wild populations in Myanmar seem to originate from habitat loss and people-elephant conflict that follows soon after elephant habitat has been converted for agricultural uses. Habitat loss and people-elephant conflict also seem to be concentrated in three areas: 1) the Bago Mountain Range, 2) the northern edge of Myanmar's Central Dry Zone [dry zone characterized by tan area], and 3) an area in central Kachin State in the far north.

Other threats, including poaching and live capture for working elephants, are not prominent on the map. However, discussion during the workshop demonstrated that several experts fear that the remaining wild elephant population cannot sustain past and current levels of elephant removals for captivity. Some suggested that these live captures were major reasons for the overall decline in wild elephants.

C. Trans-boundary elephant populations in Myanmar

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Most of the remaining large elephant populations are in Myanmar's forested hill regions stretching along the country's borders with Bangladesh, India, China, and Thailand. Where there is sufficient habitat on both sides of this border, the populations are likely to be contiguous and their long-term conservation and management needs to be addressed on both sides.

Burmese elephant experts were able to identify several trans-boundary elephant populations that may need to be considered in regional conservation planning. These were located within the Kachin State to China; Sagaing Division to India; Rakhine State to Bangladesh; and the Kayah State and Mon State/Tanintharyi Division to Thailand.