Elephant Welfare - Myanmar (Burma)

Government policy in Myanmar promoting the welfare and management of more than 2,700 working elephants is being influenced by fieldwork conducted by University of Sheffield researchers.

“Because all the elephants are owned by the government, and because officials take such a keen interest in what is a very important economic resource for the country, our research findings are having a bigger impact – they go in right to the top,” said lead researcher Hannah Mumby of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences.

She continues “We meet regularly with the Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Forestry and also the Livestock Minister and we give advice on what could become policy. The kinds of things we discuss, and the kinds of things the Ministry is making changes on, include training practices for calves when they are removed from their mother. We noticed a big mortality spike during what had been an intensive training period so a softer, longer training period could improve calf survival”.

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Hannah’s research into the fertility patterns of females and its relationship to work loads could also have implications for policy. “We all know the birth rate is too low for it to be sustainable – although it is much, much better than in any western zoo – and we can see that females aren’t reproducing when they are also working very hard.

“It seems like it would be a better policy to allow the females a longer rest period in which they can get pregnant, have a healthy pregnancy and deliver calves. This looks to be better in the long-run for the economy and the demography of the elephant population,” Hannah said. But the obvious short-term cost is that these elephants will be taken out of the workforce – and elephants are pregnant for 22 months, she added.

“The current strategy of taking elephants out of the wild population to supplement the state owned population is totally counter-productive since it damages the wild population and leads to high levels of stress and mortality on those creatures that are captured and trained to become working elephants. There is a much more sustainable solution and that is the one we will be advocating.

“If the number of conceptions in the rest period were possible across the year, the annual calving rate could be increased by 25 per cent, meaning 18 more baby elephants a year. There are over 2,700 timber elephants and efforts to make the population sustainable could create a genetically diverse pool of Asian elephants and offer some hope for the survival of this endangered species,” Hannah added.

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