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This commentary was prompted by a recent article in the Nikkei Asian Review commenting on the ASEAN Economic Community Reality, which created a question in my mind as to the future of elephants in many of these countries in light of their economic development. First of all, the author would like to acknowledge Ele Aid for their vast contribution to an understanding of the elephant population and potential for their survival in Southeast Asia.


Below is a ranking of certain ASEAN countries by their GDP and GDP per capita.


There are several observations relative to the wealth of these countries and their respective elephant populations. Of the five historically elephant oriented countries in Southeast Asia, the recent war torn countries of Vietnam and Cambodia have seen their elephant populations shrink almost to the point of oblivion. Despite the war years, Laos has some 2,000 elephants with roughly half of them in the wild. Whereas, Thailand is the wealthiest country in the grouping with the second largest elephant population totaling some 8,000, it is a long way from where it used to be. Thailand entered the 20th Century with 300,000 elephants in the wild and 100,000 domesticated ones.

Myanmar on the other hand still maintains over four times the elephant range of Thailand and a total elephant population of some 10,000. However, we know that Myanmar has virtually been asleep during the past 100 years or so and has suffered from a strident military regime since World War II. However, in November Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won four-fifths of the contested seats in the lower house of Parliament which would enable her to chose the next President. This event has been heralded as a turning point in the future economic development of the country offering the potential to move upward from the second poorest country in the grouping and improve the lives of their people.

However, as the author has seen in the past forty-seven years in neighboring Thailand, rapid economic development usually creates a collision course with the elephant population. In the sixties, the author would often see elephants in the wild on the Thai/Burma border. Today, one drives the highway through the Khao Yai National Park to see them there though they often encounter unforeseen consequences as seen in the video below.

click on picture above to see video
click on picture above to see video

Accordingly, the overwhelming challenge in previously economically dormant Myanmar is to responsibly maintain the elephant range and create a healthy, sustainable lifestyle for the captive elephants. In that regard, the Veterinarian Training team (see November 20, 2015 Blog) recently completed a training program in Myanmar.

It is only fair to say that some of the economic development in Thailand has been directed to maintaining their domesticated elephant population, which is deeply rooted in the country's history.  A number of years ago, many mahouts took their elephants to the streets of major cities to entertain tourists and sell them bananas and sugar cane for feed.  It was a terrible existence and became the principal focus of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant (GTAEF) Foundation.  Over forty elephants and their mahout owner families were relocated to a natural habitat in the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar join.  At any one time, the GTAEF and their donors, including The Elephant Story, supported thirty or so elephant families at an annual cost of over $12,000 per elephant. 
 
Recently, the Thai Government enacted an annual subsidy of $3,800, which is paid to the mahout owners on a monthly basis to assist in sustaining their elephants.  The subsidy enabled many of the mahout owners to return to their native villages, most notably Moo Baan Chang, Ban Ta Klang, where they had houses, could grow rice paddy, and be among their extended families and friends.  The level of subsidy may not seem that great but we should recognize it is more than three times the GDP per capita of Myanmar today.  Accordingly, there can be a supportive aspect of economic growth.  

We all recognize this economic development challenge exists everywhere but today may be the first day in Myanmar. If the development is done properly, the largest areas of elephant habitat coupled with large concentrations of Asian elephants can provide real hope that elephants can continue to thrive there.
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