Now more than ever Myanmar needs engagement rather than isolation. Isolation would encourage a drift towards economic partners that do not prioritize human rights and environmental protection.
Why a trip incorporating both domesticated and wild elephant?
Beyond the fact that they are astonishing creatures every bit as smart as humans on an intuitional level, they are mammals in dire need of creative solutions to their plight.
Today there are over 5,000 domesticated timber elephants in Myanmar. They come from generations
of timber elephants first domesticated in early British colonial times. Today at least half of these timber elephants are unemployed. Why? The original old growth teak forests of the country have been overcut. In the last three years, the government has smartly curtailed logging as a response. While this is good for the forests, it has thrown thousands of elephants and their mahouts into partial or full unemployment. Each mahout must support his family. To do so many have left or are considering leaving their elephants to seek employment in the cities. This leaves the elephant neglected which renders them susceptible to poachers or smugglers that sell them
into slave labour. Abandoned elephants go feral leading to human elephant conflict. Such conflict nearly always ends in death for the elephant. Today the poaching of elephants has reached a critical stage with (during 2016- 2017) at least two wild or domestic elephants a week dying. Poaching is driven by demand for ivory, elephant skin, blood beads and elephant skin.
Isn’t interacting with elephants a contentious issue?
For good reason there is less riding of elephants as part of tourist attractions in many parts of Asia. The impetus for this arose with reports of cruel and inhumane treatment
of elephants in poorly run circus and ‘wildlife theme parks’ in Cambodia and Thailand; those situations. It was an abomination of a very ancient human elephant working relationship in SE Asia. We do not support or encourage the riding of elephants in any destination.
Walking with Elephants?
Many reading this may have had some experience with elephant tourism. We ask that you clear your mind of those experiences as this will be something entirely different. Elephant assisted journeys, carefully done, are a partial solution to the huge issue of unemployed elephants faced by Myanmar Timber Enterprise - the entity that controls all timber elephants in Myanmar. This kind of conscious tourism is a viable and critical source of income for the mahouts and elephants. With these elephants working with us, this is the only source of income they have. At all times vets are with us and as you will see, meticulous care is given to the elephants in our care.
Critically, this type of tourism also demonstrates to the government of Myanmar and local people, that tourism focused on wildlife and traditional culture can be both sustainable and lucrative source of income where it is needed most - at the village level.
We do not ride the elephants, but the mahouts do. Riding is not necessary and even though these timber elephants could easily handle a single person and a mahout, it is
just not necessary and we are interested in maximizing the welfare of the elephant. Each participant gets ‘their’ elephant for the duration of the trip so that one actually gets to know the elephant in an intimate way. The idea is to journey slowly through the landscape with elephants experiencing farmland, villages, deep forest, wildlife and number of different ethnic communities - as well as the elephant itself. Pace is critical here-we move at the pace of our elephants - often just walking alongside them listening to the comforting sound of their massive foot- pads moving over forest floor. The idea is to take our time. Our journeys seek to authentically replicate an ancient mode of travel undertaken by local elephant caravans since early pre-modern times.
While walking one learns how teak is logged on hillsides, how the symbiotic relationship between elephant and mahout enables them to jointly deal with challenges
such as facing tigers and other wildlife, how they ford rivers or negotiate a steep hillside. You learn what wild shrubs elephants eat, how they individually fit into group hierarchies. You learn the history of logging in Myanmar
in the actual locations where it occurred and the current state of the forests. These walks in essence are active classrooms. Further details on such topics are covered in evening lectures. Mornings begin like every day in care of an elephant-with an elephant bath. You can opt to watch or partake in this much-loved morning ritual that creates
a strong bond of trust between elephant and mahout. After breakfast commence walking alongside our elephant deep into old growth forest replete with hoolock gibbons, several species of hornbill and ungulates such as barking deer. Sleep in tented comfort next to an adjacent brook to the sounds of owls and other nocturnals.
Your participation will help save wild elephants.
We (Myanmar forestry Dept, Smithsonian Institution
and Aung Myo Chit's local NGO called Grow Back for Posterity) urgently need more interventions to save Myanmar’s wild elephants. An ongoing need are the
funds to radio collar wild elephants so that we can better understand their migratory patterns and follow them in times of high risk from poachers such as during monsoon.
Where does the collaring take place?
The collaring will be done through collaborative effort of Smithsonian Myanmar, Myanmar Forestry Dept and Grow Back for Posterity. The estimated cost of collaring an elephant and monitoring it for a year can be as high as $9K-15K. But the money is well worth it. A tax deductible portion of the cost of this trip will be donated (through US based 501 c3 Inner Asia Conservation, founded by Jon Miceler while at Yale School of Forestry nearly 18 years ago). Your contribution will provide you with yearlong updates on the condition of the elephant we collar.
Today in Myanmar as few as 3000 wild elephants exist-down from perhaps 10,000 a decade ago. They follow ancient migration patterns covering large swaths of the country-including the Ayerwaddy Division and in several areas along the Chindwin river which sit adjacent to Tamanthi. Today much of their habitat is threated by conversion to agriculture. And, like their domesticated brethren, they are greatly threatened by poachers.
The exact location of these elephants is kept confidential to protect them from poachers. These and similar herds are those we will be attempting to see while on our trip. Your guides know where they are because some of the herd is radio collared. The majority of collard elephants in Myanmar (all collared by our guide Aung Myo Chit ) have been collared in southern Myanmar because that is where the highest rates of poaching have occurred.
This expedition also supports the Ayerwaddy Dolphins. What threats do they face?
The Ayerwaddy dolphins face alarming challenges. At last census only 72 Irrawaddy dolphins remained in the river, and just 23 of these are in the protected conservation zone. Just over 100 individual Burmese fishermen know how to cooperate with the dolphins in a unique fishing partnership. Increased boat traffic, along with logging, gold panning and the use of electric shocks in fishing all threaten the Irrawaddy dolphins and their ecosystem. A sobering reality.
If fortune favours guests will be lucky enough to encounter the dolphins. Once encountered we will follow discreetly behind the narrow canoes to witness this fascinating cooperation between the dolphin and fisherman. A tantalising flick of the dolphin’s fin “follow me”. Side fluke signals “ready” and then a final “tap tap” of the dolphins tail, and the fisherman throw their net. As the fisherman draws in the catch, the dolphins nibble at the fish poking out of the net. So incredibly magical is this rare experience, Aung Myo Chit is determined to sustain this symbiotic relationship by showing it to visitors who in term can be ambassadors to champion the cause for conserving this remarkable species.