A reminder of impending extinction
May 30 2019 02:22 AM
THREATENED: Myanmar has one of the world’s largest populations of wild Asian elephants, which have long been threatened by ivory poachers, who earn a living by slaughtering mature male elephants and selling their precious tusks.

Jacob/ Goldberg

From the main entrance of the Yangon Zoological Garden, a winding path leads visitors past a restless litter of caged bear cubs and a huddled flock of fluffy vultures before ending in a shady courtyard with a squat, nondescript building at its far end.
In a half-lit room on the building’s ground floor, ivory artefacts line the walls, and the skeleton of a long-dead elephant towers above a group of young visitors. On the floor lies a lifelike plastic sculpture of an elephant, its grey skin flayed to reveal bloody muscle underneath.
Since its opening in March, Myanmar’s Elephant Museum has been the latest effort by the government and conservation groups to confront the public with the reality of the country’s dwindling wild elephant population.
Myanmar has one of the world’s largest populations of wild Asian elephants, with an estimated 1,400 roaming the country’s forests and another 5,000 in captivity. These populations have long been threatened by ivory poachers, who earn a living by slaughtering mature male elephants and selling their precious tusks.
The logging and agriculture industries also pose a grave threat: The destruction of forests, the wild elephants’ habitat, places the animals in territorial conflict with human communities, often with deadly results. “The elephant habitat in Myanmar, as in many other parts of Asia, has become fragmented, thus leaving elephants hiding in small forest patches next to the villages,” says Christy Williams, Country Director for the Conservation Organisation WWF-Myanmar, which provided funding for the opening of the museum.
“Losing the habitats can drive elephants to migrate to places where they have never been before, as they need to find food,” he says. “Another reason [for conflict] might be poachers. Being followed by a poacher, elephants might run out of the forest in search of safer habitats.”
The threat to Myanmar’s elephants has become existential in recent years, with rising demand for other elephant parts, primarily skin. Both within Myanmar and in China, dried elephant skin is sold by the square inch as an ingredient in traditional medicines and it is also hardened and polished into blood-red beads and sold as jewellery.
News reports from around Myanmar regularly feature photos of the pink remains of elephants that have had their skin harvested by poachers. The museum’s skinned elephant sculpture forces visitors to confront this gruesome reality.
“As the demand for elephant skin rose rapidly in 2017 and 2018, Myanmar elephants have faced huge threats as poachers started targeting whole families, including female elephants and calves, which before had been safe, as they don’t have tusks,” says WWF-Myanmar communications officer Ye Min Thwin.
“In 2017, the killing rate was as high as one elephant per week, which could lead to Myanmar’s wild elephants becoming extinct in a matter of years.”
As poaching has accelerated, Myanmar authorities have largely fought the billion-dollar industry through law enforcement. Last year, the government enacted a new biodiversity and conservation law that punishes buyers and sellers of protected wildlife products with 10 years in prison. Ye Min Thwin says this gives Myanmar “one of the strongest penalties for wildlife trade in the region.”
But disrupting the illegal wildlife trade also requires a cultural shift. According to the museum’s curators, there would be far fewer elephant products on the market if buying and selling them were less socially acceptable.
“Raising public awareness is one important part of a larger strategy to tackle the illegal trade of elephant parts,” says Ye Min Thwin. “Awareness among rural communities supports the work of the government’s elephant protection staff. Awareness among shop owners reduces the outlets selling the products, and awareness in the general public helps people to make informed decisions as to the products they buy and to understand the need to ban the trade and to protect elephants – their national treasures.”
The opening of the museum follows a series of small victories for Myanmar’s wildlife conservation movement in recent years. Last year, the grassroots conservation group Voices for Momos partnered with several celebrity performers in organizing the country’s first wildlife music festival in Yangon, and a few months later, the sale of illegally slain wildlife products was banned throughout the city and the surrounding area.
According to WWF-Myanmar, there has been no poaching in two key elephant poaching hotspots in the last year. As public consensus around the need to fight poaching slowly builds, the Elephant Museum offers a ray of hope for the future.
“The museum can help visitors see how our ancestors lived together with these magnificent creatures and how important the elephants are ecologically and culturally,” says Ye Min Thwin.
“They can see how today’s elephants are struggling for their survival and what conservation efforts we have been making to save these animals, and they can play their part in that protection by not buying elephant or other wildlife parts and spreading that message.” – DPA

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