SOUTHERN SHAN STATE — Far out of earshot of the honking vehicles that whine their way down the teak tree-lined Golden Highway, deep in southern Shan State’s Green Hill Valley, the river is almost all I hear as it rushes past. That is until Ko Chit, the youngest of the bunch at the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp lifts his trunk out of the water and lets off a few loud toots.
“He’s happy,” smiles Pui—who takes care of the elephants at the camp across from Magwe village, Kalaw Township—before rattling off a seemingly unending stream of elephant facts, statistics and history. I turn back to the 4 ton bull and take advantage of his calm demeanor to get a close look at his aged and smooth tusks.
Ko Chit has a lot to be happy about. He’s been dubbed the luckiest elephant in Burma by Ba Kyaw Than, the camp’s veterinarian. Trappers hunting for a white elephant in northern Burma accidentally snagged Ko Chit instead, and, under Ba Kyaw Than’s supervision, relocated him to Green Hill Valley. Soon after arrival, one of the older female elephants adopted him as her own, and at a mere 5 years old, Ko Chit will never have to work a day of hard labor in his life.
Aside from Ko Chit, Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp’s other six elephants are all retired loggers. In 2011, Ba Kyaw Than’s niece Tin Win Maw and her husband Htun Htun Wynn opened this camp with animal ethics as their top priority. Having worked in the tourism industry for decades as tour guides, they had seen firsthand the physical, political and tourism changes that were shaping Burma. From the patio of their solar-powered, eco-friendly, community cooperative camp and re-plantation center, Htun Htun Wynn explains how, with the opening of the country, lots of different kinds of tourism will become available in the coming years. He believes that there’s lots of room for different sectors to grow and operate in a variety of different ways, but if the country is really going to benefit, then it is essential for the industry to adopt ethical and sustainable standards. The Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp hopes to show how adhering to these standards is possible in Burma, with the aim of ultimately influencing the tourism industry as a whole.
It’s an ideal that is welcome as Burma’s logging laws are currently evolving. Recent
cutbacks on the amount of logging permitted will leave an estimated 15-30 percent of elephants in Burma unemployed. It is assumed that NGOs and the private sector will move to fill the gap by creating elephant sanctuaries and other acceptable alternatives for these elephants. Nonetheless, these efforts are currently far smaller and more isolated than the illegal animal-trafficking industry. The trade is particularly active along the Thai-Burmese border, as highlighted by a recent report from wildlife campaign group TRAFFIC. Since many elephant camps in Thailand have not avoided criticism for their own ethics and the living standards of their animals, Htun Htun Wynn strongly believes there is a need for Burmese authorities to closely monitor the companies and organizations that will be starting up camps in the coming years.
“We won’t use elephants as entertainment. We will not do demos or have them play football or paint things…. We invite people to participate in giving care to the elephants. They can feed and bathe them, have a short ride on their back from the river, even hug and kiss them, but no circus things,” explains Pui.
Alongside hope of influencing future elephant tourism, the camp is taking a more direct approach to address environmental issues by asking each visitor to plant a tree. The camp has explained that the re-plantation is not for the purpose of a future harvest, but rather to establish a secondary forest. This is all very fitting, since in 1975 Ba Kyaw Than worked for the Myanmar Timber Enterprise, which in the past employed more than 20 elephants to heavily logs this exact area. The camp administration believes there’s no more appropriate place for re-foresting than the land they’re working on and that which they call home.
Teak and silver oak sprout in the center’s nursery, just down the stony path that leads to housing for mahouts. Since 2011, more than 6,000 trees have been replanted in the area. Htun Htun Wynn also talks about how the small village of Magwe has noticed. With 350 villagers living at the base of the camp’s entrance, the potential for local gains from the tourism industry was clear from the beginning, when the elephant camp donated a school to the village. Like the camp, the school has been growing, and Htun Htun Wynn hopes this will show how ethical practices can benefit not only the business side, but the community, too. He also hopes the ideas of conserving and protecting the environment will spread with a cultural exchange. When the villagers see foreigners drawn from across the world to plant a tree, it helps to emphasize the need to take care of the land, the community and the future of Burma. The ultimate hope is that businesses across all industries, fueled by a coming tourism boom, will see the same sustainable benefits both in terms of profits and nurturing the country.