PATHEIN, Myanmar -- "So, do you want to buy an elephant?" Soe Naing is laughing, but not entirely joking. He owns one of the 2,000-plus elephants facing redundancy since the Myanmar government last year clamped down on the logging industry, in which thousands of elephants have toiled for generations.
From Taungoo in Bago region, a few hours' drive north of Yangon, Soe Naing is one of around 30 participants in a week-long workshop in the Ayeyarwady region delta focused on training elephants through positive reinforcement techniques. It is a system new to the country, which practitioners hope will help end the more brutal practices that have traditionally been used to tame elephants in Asia.
It is a critical time for elephants in Myanmar. The country is home to 40% of the world's captive population, with over 5,600 government and privately owned elephants registered with authorities. Large scale unemployment in the ranks of the privately owned contingent, over 1,000 of which are currently of working age, poses serious welfare and environmental concerns.
It is not cheap to maintain these large creatures -- certainly not in Bago, which has been largely depleted of the forests that once provided free foraging. When wages for the oozies, or elephant handlers, and other costs are taken into account, the impost can amount to several hundred dollars a month, Soe Naing says. In a low income country such as Myanmar, this serious drain on owner finances is prompting fears that it will fuel a rise in illegal trafficking of unwanted elephants into neighboring Thailand and China, where demand for animals in zoos, circuses and the tourism industry is high.
Some observers have even suggested that elephant owners might simply release their animals back into the wild, a possibility that experts say could create various problems, including the risk of exposure to poaching -- with body parts such as skin and ivory making their way to markets in lawless border towns near China and Thailand.
Soe Naing scoffs at the prospect of releasing his animals. His elephants are worth around $30,000 each. "I'm not going to throw them away," he said. "But I am afraid for the future."
Even if it were likely, scientists say issues including the lack of suitable habitats and concerns over interaction with local wild elephants are further barriers to elephant release initiatives.
Like other owners at the workshop, along with the government, Soe Naing is hoping a solution will come from the tourist industry, which is growing fast in a country that only recently opened up to the outside world after decades of isolation under harsh military rule.
Teak to tourism
By the late 19th century, Myanmar under British colonial rule was at the center of the world's teak trade. At its peak, over 400,000 tons was being extracted annually -- as much as 80% using elephant labor -- before the timber was sent down the mighty Ayeyarwady River and transported across the empire for use in shipbuilding, construction and furniture.
Myanmar still contains large expanses of tropical hardwood forests, but they are shrinking fast due to large scale logging, both sanctioned and illegal.
By 2014, under the government of President Thein Sein, official restrictions on logging meant authorities no longer required private owners to boost the numbers of state-owned elephants working in forest territory, which is still largely inaccessible to machinery.
Last year, even government-owned elephants were out of action after the imposition of a nationwide ban on commercial timber extraction.
That ban was lifted in most areas in April, but timber extraction is just one tenth of what it was five years ago according to Khyne U Mar, chief scientist and project coordinator with the Myanmar Elephant Research Project from the University of Sheffield and former chief elephant veterinarian with Myanma Timber Enterprise, the government body responsible for forest management and supervision of state-owned elephants.
"MTE has enough elephants of its own for the amount of logging there is now, but a lot of them -- the ones under 18 and over 50 -- cannot be used in logging, so they need to find something to do with them," she said.
For the private owners, whose elephants are no longer needed for logging purposes, the situation is reaching crisis point, Khyne U Mar and other experts say.
Private owners as well as MTE bosses are seeking new ways to fund their animals' upkeep through what is being billed as "elephant ecotourism," with the recent opening of state and privately owned visitor camps across the country which charge visitors to see and ride the elephants.
In principle, the idea will not only fund upkeep but also provide an opportunity to educate the public about conservation issues and allow elephants to continue to play their role in the ecosystem when they are free in the forests at night.
But in a nation where understanding of international animal welfare standards is limited -- while awareness among foreign visitors of responsible tourism is on the rise -- concerns about conditions in elephant visitor camps are running high.
At two out of three camps visited by the Nikkei Asian Review, elephants were seen tethered by short chains sometimes less than a meter long, without access to sufficient shade and water.
While an elephant handler at one MTE camp, speaking anonymously, said labor conditions for him and his elephant were less arduous than in logging camps, he also said they are sometimes expected to provide rides for visitors over 12 hours a day, around double recommended welfare limits.
A number of people involved in Myanmar's nascent elephant tourism industry said in interviews they had traveled to neighboring Thailand, where logging was banned in 1989 but there are almost 3,500 captive elephants, for tips on how to set up their businesses. But regional experts warn that, with a few notable exceptions, most Thai elephant camps serve as poor examples.
John Roberts, director of elephants and conservation activities at Anantara elephant camp in Thailand's Chiang Rai district said: "You could take some of the models in Thailand and design the opposite. What Myanmar has now [that Thailand has lost] is the concept that elephants should be in the forest and not in towns."
Roberts acknowledges that even among those in the region who are recognized as operating well-managed elephant tourism projects with high welfare standards, opinions vary on whether such centers should offer tourist rides.
On one matter, experts agree. If Myanmar wants to build an international tourism industry around elephants, it is going to have to deal with a powerful international animal rights lobby which has used disturbing videos of young elephants suffering brutal treatment to campaign against the use of elephants in captivity. Addressing welfare concerns will be essential to success.
Treats not trauma
Mexico is not the first country that might spring to mind when thinking of elephants, but Mexican vets Gerardo Martinez, elephant supervisor at Africam Safari Park, and Rodrigo Salas, animal welfare director at the ANP Yumka animal park, have their audience of Myanmar elephant workers spellbound as they demonstrate their "target training" techniques.
The method was developed by Martinez to allow vets to work safely with any dangerous animals while avoiding potential harmful restraining methods or anesthetics. He said his techniques can be used for training any animal.
Historians believe humans have used captive elephants for labor in Asia for at least 4,000 years, and Myanmar oozies are legendary in elephant circles for their skills. But the process of breaking and training elephants is traditionally a violent one, in which the powerful creatures are beaten into mental and physical submission.
"At the beginning it is difficult," said Martinez, who has also worked in Thailand, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian elephant camps. We're from a different country and we're here teaching something new to these guys who know very well how to handle elephants, so we have to be very effective. But then they see it is not very difficult at all -- and that it is easy, safer and fun."
With endless patience and a large bucket of sugarcane for reward purposes, Martinez uses his voice and gentle tapping with a tape-wrapped stick -- or "target" -- to encourage the elephant to lift its legs, present its side, open its mouth and enact various other moves that will allow it to receive veterinary care. Each time it performs the desired move, Salas rewards the elephant with its snack of choice, while Martinez praises it.
Within just a few minutes the elephant has understood the principle, and while it finds some moves easier than others --- according to Salas, animals, like people, can be "right or left handed" -- appears willing to do what is asked.
Aung Kyaw Phyo, 30, an oozie and elephant owner who spent almost 30 hours on the road from his home in the northern state of Kachin to get to the training, said he was impressed.
Like others at the workshop he said he didn't want to hurt his elephant during training, he just didn't realize there was an alternative.
"I thought this method was easier than the traditional way," he said. "I will be using it on my elephant when I get back."
The elephant also seems happy. The next morning it is lifting its foot for inspection even before the training begins, while the vicious-looking hooked metal implement known as a chun -- which oozies traditionally use to direct and sometimes punish their elephant -- has been abandoned on a tree stump by the animal's regular handler.
Hope for the future
For the vets, welfare-centered training methods are about healthcare, not profitable tourism or logging businesses, and for the Myanmar Elephant Research Project's Khyne U Mar, has long term benefits for the future of Myanmar's captive elephant population.
"We know from science [that traditional methods] cause mental, physiological and psychological stress," she said adding it had additional consequences for the fertility and lifespan of elephants, and even the health of babies born to stressed mothers.
"My interest is more in science, not how much you can profit. Through these developments in science, we know that the time has arrived to do something for elephants in both MTE and the private sector."
With widespread recognition that tourism may be the only realistically viable way of funding the upkeep of much of the captive population, the message that welfare matters appears now to be reaching key decision-makers.
"Even at [the national] level, the minister recently issued an instruction that elephant orientated ecotourism should be encouraged not just for development, but for education, so that it can be sustainable," said Dr. Moe Lwin, deputy general manager of MTE for Ayeyarwady region.
Whether such animal welfare initiatives will ever be widely enforced remains to be seen. Yet if the response of those at the workshop is any guide, welfare-friendly training methods are likely to be welcomed by many in Myanmar's elephant community.