Case files and laminated photos of poachers spill out of captain Than Naing’s folder. As the chief of police in Okekan township, one of Myanmar’s recent poaching hotspots, he is trying to track down the men who have killed at least three elephants in the area over the past year. So far, he has arrested 11 people suspected of having assisted the poachers. Meanwhile the poachers themselves remain at large.
“These are the two men who we believe killed one of the elephants,” he says, pointing to two photos. “They are still on the run.”
Reported cases of killed elephants in Myanmar have increased dramatically since 2010, with a total of 112 wild elephant deaths, most of them in the past few years. In 2015 alone, 36 wild elephants were killed, according to official figures from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The figures for 2016 are feared to be even worse.
Neighbouring China is the main destination for elephant products. Despite the ivory ban imposed by the Chinese government earlier this year, ivory is still the most valuable part of the elephant. But worryingly conservationists are now seeing a growing demand for other parts of the animal; trunks, feet, even the penis, to be used in traditional medicine. The hide or skin, which is believed to be a remedy for eczema, is particularly in demand.
Most elephants are killed in Pathein and Ngapudaw townships in Irrawaddy division – which is a major habitat for wild elephants – but recent killings have also been reported on both sides of the Bago mountain range in central Myanmar, as well as in Mandalay division.
In November, villagers in Okekan township discovered an elephant that had been skinned and mutilated, and alerted the authorities.
“It was found on the outskirts of Chaung Sauk village, drifting in a creek,” says Kyaw Hlaing Win, the village tract administrator, who believes there are a lot more elephants killed than what is reported. “We’ve had at least nine or 10 elephants killed in the past few years here.”
The hunters shoot elephants with arrows dipped in poison, and then follow the animal around as it meets its slow and agonising death, before skinning it and hacking off the saleable parts.