Management and welfare of working elephants at Indawgyi Lake

In the Indawgyi Lake Biosphere Reserve we will be taking care of the management of working elephants from 2020. The project is financially supported by the Welttierschutzgesellschaftand implemented on site in cooperation with the Myanmar organisation Grow back for Posterity(GBP). The project activities serve the short-term improvement of the living conditions of many private elephants in the biosphere reserve.  

The number of elephants kept there is estimated at between 120-150. All elephants kept in the project area are owned by private individuals from the region, none belong to the state forest enterprises. The animals are cared for by so-called Mahouts (elephant trainers), who are employed or paid by the respective elephant owner. Elephant and Mahout are rented out together for work. Some elephants are not permanently on the spot, but also temporarily in use in other regions. 

In November 2017, Chances for NatureandFFI Myanmar, together with the Academy for the Protection of  Zoo Animal and Wildlife, carried out a first free health check in order to obtain an up-to-date overview of the situation and, above all, the health status of the animals. Our project was very well received by the elephant owners and had a very positive response. Furthermore, the elephant owners expressed their wish for a repetition of this activity, as well as their wish for further training and knowledge transfer for local veterinarians.

Of the 34 animals examined and treated in the preliminary study, 20 were under 30 years old, of which 7 were not older than 5 years. Both the exact total number and the number of permanently resident animals are uncertain. Many of the animals are involved in the illegal logging of the primary forest of the nature reserve. This is to be prevented by a registration of all elephants.

The training of a working elephant is lengthy and, from today’s point of view, quite brutal. The animals are exposed to massive violence until the will of the elephant is broken and it bends to the Mahout or Oozie (translated from Burmese – “head rider”). This process begins at the age of approx. 4-5 years. The animals are fixed with the help of ropes and chains and made submissive with blows, deprivation of food and water. The Burmese way to break in elephants and make them submissive is based on a millennia-old tradition. However, new findings in the handling and training of elephants enable a much gentler and more animal-friendly way of keeping them, which we would like to implement there together with the elephant owners.

In the pilot project carried out in 2017 by Chances for Nature e.V. in the UNESCO biosphere reserve Indawgyi Lake, the veterinarians were also able to confirm numerous health problems related to work and husbandry. Veterinarians employed locally within the framework of the project are to take care of the health of the animals and the training of local veterinarians, elephant owners and mahouts.In the medium term, a modern species-appropriate husbandry, away from traditional and brutal husbandry and training methods, is to be established. For this a central contact point in the form of an elephant supply place will be created. In the long term, this could be developed into a permanent holding and information facility. Here old and sick animals could also be housed and cared for on a stationary basis, as well as educational work could be carried out and training offers implemented. In the next two years, the necessary preparatory work is to be carried out.