UK study highlights threat to elephants

October 11, 2002

One of Burma's leading veterinary scientists has quit her homeland to reveal the plight of the country's beleaguered elephant workforce to the world.

Khyne Mar moved to the UK to analyse half a century of data detailing the lives of thousands of animals.

The first results of her work at the Institute of Zoology, University College London, which were revealed at an international symposium in Berlin last week, show that Burma's elephants are being worked into an early grave by the state-owned timber industry.

Ms Mar has concluded that the conditions in which the animals are kept and the demands being made on them are unsustainable and could put the entire population in jeopardy.

Ms Mar, a PhD student at UCL, led the veterinary division of Burma's ministry of forestry before moving to the UK. Over seven years, she compiled a database of the life histories of three generations of Asian elephants used by the state-owned timber enterprise.

The animals are used to extract mature trees, including teak, from the country's vast forests because mechanisation is beyond Burma's means and the machines would be severely tested by the monsoon climate and would cause widespread environmental damage. Some 2,800-3,000 captive-born and captured wild elephants are used.

Ms Mar noted that in the 1950s and 1960s, Burmese elephants lived into their 70s and 80s. Now few survive to their 60th year.

In addition, the calving rate has fallen. The workforce once produced 100 to 120 calves a year. In 1998, this was down to 50.

"The elephants in my country are working very hard, have work-related stress and a much reduced life span," Ms Mar said.

She said other challenges facing the animals included poor nutrition and the trauma of being "broken" to prepare them for a lifetime of labour.

The wild population of perhaps 5,000 elephants is being drawn on to replace dead animals.

Ms Mar said the state had to provide dietary supplements, more rest and better nursing care for the elephants and higher wages for those looking after the animals if the workforce was to remain viable.

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