The elephant vanishes

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Missing pachyderms found hard at work.

Lost and found: elephants are used in Myanmar in logging camps. Credit: © Punchstock

The wild elephants of Myanmar are disappearing at an alarming rate, say conservationists. But it's not due to habitat destruction or illness: the animals are being abducted by loggers and put to work dragging trees from the forest.

About a decade ago, conservationists estimated that there were up to 10,000 wild elephants roaming the forests of the country formerly known as Burma. But when they reassessed the situation recently, they found so few dung samples they couldn't make a valid estimate of the population. It seemed the elephants had simply vanished.

So the conservationists called a council of local authorities, forest rangers, elephant veterinarians, private elephant owners, and those studying the animals. It emerged that the missing animals had joined the herds of captive elephants in logging camps.

The result was presented by Peter Leimgruber, from the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park in Washington DC, at the Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Brasília, Brazil, this week.

Work camps

Elephants have been used as working animals in Myanmar for generations. Before the Second World War, up to 10,000 elephants worked in the country. When thousands were killed during the war, more elephants were captured to revitalize the logging industry.

Although the capture of wild elephants was banned in 1995, it is thought that people continue to round up animals that raid crops or otherwise bother humans. The group presenting in Brazil guesses that at present there are about 6,000 animals in human hands.

Leimgruber notes that the working animals are dissuaded from breeding in order to keep productivity levels up. So continual capture of wild animals is necessary to keep the work force stocked.

Trunk calls

The group hopes to do a thorough survey to see how many elephants are left in Myanmar. It is likely that fewer than 2,000 now roam the forests.

Leimgruber says releasing the captive elephants would not be a good idea. Once they have lost their fear of people, they are likely to raid human habitations for food. This would only encourage people to take the elephants back into captivity.

It may be that the elephants' usefulness in the logging camps is the best way to encourage locals to save the species, Leimgruber says. The animals do a good job, he adds, and cause relatively little pollution. "I'd rather have the forest logged by an elephant than by heavy machinery," he says.

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Marris, E. The elephant vanishes. Nature (2005) doi:10.1038/news050718-4

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