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Parade of wild elephants spotted in central Burma

Burmese state-run media posted a picture showing three of the six elephants among the parade signted in central Burma this month. (PHOTO:MOI)

A parade of six wild elephants was spotted in the Mount Popa region of central Burma on Sunday morning. The herd has been seen making its way across the flatland area in recent weeks.

Sightings have been relayed from Meikhtila in Mandalay Division on 21 August, and Natmauk in Magwe Division the week prior. On the evening of 22 August, the elephants were spotted near the village of Letpanbya in Kyaukpadaung, Mandalay, and the following morning were headed in the direction of Popa, according to eyewitnesses.

“The elephants have left Letpanbya and headed in a direction towards Mount Popa. They came yesterday and left this morning,” said the local police chief.

The parade of six elephants appeared to include two calves, according to Ye Khaung, a Kyaukpadaung branch member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group.

“They arrived in the village of Kaba-te in Kyaukpadaung via the border with Taungtha and Mahlaing townships – the herd includes four adult elephants and two small ones and they are headed in the direction of villages to the east of Popa,” he said.

Elephant sightings can carry superstitious weight in Burma where white, or albino, pachyderms in particular are said to be harbingers of political or social change. The arrival of elephants in villages can also be cause for concern, often causing property damage through rampaging and trampling as they forage for food.

As this recent parade of six has toured the greater-Mount Popa area, state-run media has run reports of villagers attempting to shoo the great beasts away from homes and farms.

The arid area between Meikhtila and Natmauk is not known as a traditional stronghold for wild elephants in Burma, a country that historically has been considered as home to several prime elephant habitats.

The Pegu mountain range to the east of the central plains is considered a more natural environment for some of Burma’s estimated population of 2,000 wild elephants. A 2004 study figured that between 200-240 wild elephants live in the Bago Yoma, as the Pegu mountains are locally known.

However Pegu Division and its mountain range has been significantly impacted by deforestation, affecting wild elephant populations. As many as 20 million acres of forest has been lost across Burma since 1990.

Burma’s overall wild elephant population has tumbled to around 20 percent of its estimated strength of 100 years ago when 10,000 elephants were thought to roam the Southeast Asian nation. The drop in numbers comes despite the fact that wild elephants are protected by law in Burma, where killing or capturing an elephant is prohibited.

The demand for ivory, particularly from neighbouring China fuels on-going concern over the underground trade in elephant parts from Burma. The capturing and “breaking” of wild elephants for participation in the tourist trade also remains a concern for conservationists.