BAW NI, Pegu Division — From Mile 58 on the newly built Rangoon-Naypyidaw highway, Myint Wai walks about four miles into a jungle, through the Pegu mountain range.
He is returning to the site where he recently discovered skeletons of several dead elephants, and he talks along the way about the hunters who killed them, hoping to trade their skins and valuable tusks.
“More than 20 wild elephants were killed by hunters [this year],” he tells The Irrawaddy. “These hunters have been slaughtering wild elephants since 2010. I estimate that several dozens of elephants have been killed so far. And there are many places I can’t reach.”
Myint Wai, a local resident in Pegu Division, northeast of Rangoon, points to a homemade map of the mountain range, identifying sites where he found the dead carcasses most recently. Some sites are deep in the jungle, he says, adding that he walked for several days to get there.
One of the closest sites lies two hours from the highway, over a rough walking path and across small muddy streams filled with leeches. When Myint Wai reached the location, he gestured toward the skeletons and explained that a group of local hunters from Baw Ni village, in Pegu Division’s Daik-U Township, were responsible.
The skeletons of one elephant were hidden under bamboo brush. The animal was killed in April, Myint Wai says, and some of the rib bones were scattered along the stream. “The age of this elephant could have been between 50 and 60,” he says, gesturing toward a skull, pierced with two bullet holes.
Hunting wild elephants is illegal in Daik-U Township, but poachers often disobey, trading the skin and tusks illegally inside Burma and over the border to Thailand. The skin from one elephant can sell for about 10 million kyats (US$10,000) in illegal markets.
Last month three elephants ran into Baw Ni village late one night, trying to escape from hunters, who continued trying to shoot them in the village.
“This illegal trade has been going on for a long time. Nobody seems interested or aware, but it’s getting worse every year,” Myint Wai says, adding that he raised the issue with National League for Democracy (NLD) member Nyan Win when they met two weeks ago. “I can’t sit and let this happen any longer. I feel bad for these animals. So I decided to raise this issue by reporting this case to the local police. I also reported it to an MP, asking to raise the issue in Parliament.”
He says his journeys into the jungle are risky. “I have no gun, but they [the hunters] do. I was even threatened by some local people who were involved in this case. They said they knew who was talking to media about the elephant slaughters.”
Local people say there are different groups of elephant hunters who use a waterway at the Baw Ni dam to carry the skins by boats after killing the animals. One suspect—a man from Thaton Township in Mon State who is married to a woman in Baw Ni village—is wanted by the police after being accused of participating in the illegal trade.
More than 150 wild elephants live on the Pegu mountain range, locals say. More elephants lived in the area in the past, but they have struggled to survive amid the hunting as well as logging.
“There were 10 miles of flat land before reaching the mountain range of Pegu in the past,” said Han Zaw Win, an environmentalist in the area. “But much of the jungle was cut down. It’s hard for the elephants to survive.”
In January, residents and lawmakers from Irrawaddy Division’s Ngaputaw Township reported the deaths of five elephants within seven months by hunters.