ASIAN ELEPHANTS IN SOUTH AND SOUTHEAST ASIA

ASIAN ELEPHANTS IN MYANMAR


in Bhamo

In Myanmar there still may be several thousand elephants. The animals there are one of the biggest question marks in Asian elephants conservation. Estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000 animals.

Myanmar is the home of a unique group of mangrove elephants but they are face bow facing extinction as their ecosystem disappears. In 2006 AP reported: “Elephants who once roamed the mangrove swamps of Myanmar’s vast Ayeyarwaddy Delta are headed for extinction, with only two of their number still alive, a local newspaper said. The two survivors live in the delta’s Meinmahla island wildlife sanctuary about 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Yangon, the Flower News weekly newspaper said.

“These elephants are different from other wild elephants. Their toes are more delicate and they cannot survive in harsh terrain,” the paper said, quoting a forest ranger from the island sanctuary.A substantial number of wild elephants once roamed the mangrove swamps but the population fell to 27 by 1989, and to 14 by 1994. Ten of those 14 survivors were transferred to Ngaputaw, north of Meinmahla sanctuary in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, but all perished due to their change in habitat and an overall degradation of the mangroves, the report said.

Myanmar has the world's largest herd of working elephants. Most of these 6,000 animals are used primarily for lifting in the teak timber industry. Af of the 1990s half the working elephants in Myanmar were the property of Myanmar Timber Enterprise, a logging operation controlled by Lt. Gen. Chit Swe, the minister of forestry. The country's other 3,000 privately-owned elephants mainly do free-lance work under MTE contracts. [Source: James P. Sterba in the Wall Street Journal]

In the early 1990s the generals of Myanmar asked for the help of Michael J. Schmidt, an animal veterinarian and elephant sexuality expert, to help boost the reproductive rates of elephant in Myanmar. About 100 elephants are born in captivity every year, not enough to make up for the elephants that die or can no longer work. Capturing elephants is increasingly difficult and expensive. Artificial insemination may be the last hope.

See Separate Articles on Elephants in Indian and Elephants in India

White Elephants in Myanmar


The royal families of Myanmar used to keep white elephants but the custom has largely died out. In the early 2000s a big deal was made about the discovery of a “white elephant” in the Rakhine area of Myanmar. The elephant wasn’t completely white. Its skin was reddish brown when dry and pale orange when wet. It was named Thiri Pissay Gaza Yaza (“Glorious Elephant King”).

Thiri Pissay Gaza Yaza was given a home in a gilded teak pavilion with an artificial waterfall anointed with water with remnants of gold, silver and gem stones in it. Not long afterwards another “white elephant”---this one with pale gray skin---was found. The Burmese were overjoyed with their good fortune of finding two auspicious symbols in such a short period of time.

According to the government-controlled press the “white elephants have emerged spring times when kings and governments rule the nation in accord with 10 kingly virtues...Emergence of the white elephant is a good omen at this time when the state is endeavoring to build a peaceful, modern and develop nation.” And then added “It is assumed that the nation will be peaceful, prosper and be totally free from all the dangers because of the white elephant.”

Huge crowds came to see the animals. One man told the New York Times, “It’s a strange thing to see. I like to see how its changes color when they throw water on it. ..I look at it and in my mind I make a wish.”

Asian Elephants and Logging in Myanmar


in Bhamo

Elephants are still used in Burma to move teak logs. Drivers, called oozies, prepared their mounts with a pick-ax-like tool called a choon. If necessary the elephants can be transported from place to place in trucks or trailers pulled by trucks. Elephants used in illegal logging are sometimes brutally used.

Elephants are a good alternative to clear cutting because they can be used to select only the species of tree that are needed, they don't need roads and they can maneuver through all kind of terrain. Because elephants in Thailand may be out of work soon as the teak forests are depleted, I say transfer them to the Pacific northwest were they can used as alternative to the clear cutting used there.

Elephants are cheaper and most frailty than tractors and damaging forest roads. "Instead of hauling away heavy green logs with bulldozers and tractor skidders, which scar erosion-prone hillsides," wrote Sterba, Burma uses elephants to pull their lighter dried logs to rivers on which they float to staging areas for exporting processing." [Source: James P. Sterba in the Wall Street Journal]

Asian Elephants in Laos and Malaysia

There are between 200 and 500 wild elephants in Laos, mostly in the central and eastern parts of the country, and 1,000 to 1,300 domesticated elephants, used primarily in logging. Myanmar, Thailand and India have more Asian elephants but Laos has the most on a per capita basis (around 1 for every 4000 people).


Laos still calls itself the Land of a Million Elephants. The royal families in Laos as well as in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia used to keep white elephants but the custom has largely died out along with the power of the royal families. Elephants used to be on the Laos flag and were symbols of the Lao monarchy. The Communist removed them from the flag. The government held on to one royal white elephant until it died in the 1990s

Phapho is the elephant training region of Laos. Every family has one, they are sort of like the family car. As in Thailand elephants have traditionally been used to drag logs out of the forest.

Working elephants can be purchased for about the same price as new motorbike.

About 1,000 to 2,500 elephants live on Borneo. Near all so them are in the far norther part of the island in Sabah. It was long thought that these elephants were descendants of domesticated elephants that had escaped or been set free in the forest. But DNA indicates that are genetically different from other Asian elephants and had been on Borneo at least since the last Ice Age.

Asian elephants in Borneo are smaller than other Asian elephants and have larger ears and a more rounded body. They are very gentle creatures and known for not being aggressive around people.

Asian Elephants in Vietnam

In Vietnam, one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies after China, wild elephants numbered 81 in 2004, one estimate says. Vietnam’s elephant population has declined dramatically, falling from a maximum estimated population of 2,000 animals in 1980 to just 114 in 2000. The domesticated elephant population has similarly declined. In Dak Lak province, located in the Vietnamese Central Highlands near the Cambodian border, there were some 300 domesticated elephants in 1990; that number decreased to just 138 in 2000.

Wild elephants used to roam throughout much of southern and central Vietnam and domesticated ones were used in the lumber industry. In the Vietnam War the animals were sometimes pressed into service as porters and used to pack supplies. Elephants became bombing targets for U.S. planes. By the time the war ended the number of elephants in Vietnam had been dramatically reduced.

There have been many reports of elephant rampaging in villages in Vietnam, causing considerable damage. One conservationist told the New York Times, "It is sure sign that elephants are becoming confused, disoriented and desperate because of the logging and other human activity that's cutting into their ranges."

The destruction of habitat and poachers have brought the elephants of Vietnam to the brink of extinction. The Vietnamese agriculture ministry plans to set aside three regions for the protection of elephants, among them the Central Highlands, where elephants used to move supplies during the Vietnam War are now used in farming, tourism and festival parades.

Vietnam’s Last Elephant Hunter

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski wrote in the International Herald Tribune: Stardom can be defined in many ways. For Ama Kong it is a number, 298, the sum of wild elephants he has captured. Now 90, with failing eyesight but still with a healthy head of hair, Ama Kong is the Michael Jordan of elephant hunters. He is, by his accounts, the second most successful elephant hunter in the country (his late uncle, Ama Krong, holds the title, with 487 animals). Ama Kong has hobnobbed with royalty and government dignitaries. He proudly shows a nasty groin scar from a tusking---a badge of honor. [Source: Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, International Herald Tribune, December 23, 2005]

And Ama Kong has his own signature brand of medicinal wine, the Vietnamese equivalent of having a sneaker named after you. The gold lettering on the wine’s striking red box reads “Good for strengthening a man’s back and kidneys,” an Asian euphemism indicating that this is a powerful sex tonic.And Ama Kong is walking proof, having sired 21 children from four wives. The tonic might also explain his fine memory, since he is able to remember the names and birthdays of his spouses and offspring, including the youngest, a curious girl of seven named H’Bup Eban, who can’t resist clambering on to dad’s lap. But there are some things that even herbal tonics can’t fix---his upper teeth are bright, intact, and obviously false compared to the red rotting stumps of his lower teeth, destroyed by years of chewing betel.

Ama Kong is likely to be the last elephant hunter superstar, since the animals are protected by Vietnamese law, fewer young people learn the skills today, and most importantly, because there are far fewer elephants around to catch.

But how exactly do you capture a wild elephant? Moving slowly (when you’re 90 arthritis seeps in, even with the help of medicinal wine) Ama Kong demonstrates the procedure. First he blows on a trumpet made of buffalo horn to seek the support of the forest spirits. He then explains how he would go into the forest with several domesticated elephants (always an odd number of animals---odd numbers indicate male power; even numbers female) and look for a herd of wild pachyderms. The domestic elephants are Judas elephants, he explains, since they are able to mingle with the wild herd, even when mahouts sit atop their necks. The group tries to isolate a baby or juvenile (“easier to train than an adult” and a whole lot easier to catch). Using a kind of cowboy lasso technique, Ama Kong shows how he would catch the prey’s foot with a rattan loop attached to a long stick. The lasso was attached to a hundred meters of handmade leather rope made from water buffalo skin, and as the baby elephant ran it would get hopelessly entangled in the trees. The domesticated elephants would then take over and escort the kidnapped baby as far as possible from the wild herd. When the elephant hunters camped at night they lit fires and beat gongs to frighten away the wild animals which had come to rescue the crying infant.

Ama Kong has also captured eight rare white elephants, which he describes as being “like the French because they have yellow eyes and fair skin”. Because of the scarcity of white elephants and their importance in Buddhist cosmology, which in turn consolidates the power of kings, these animals brought him into contact with royalty from Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In 1996, at the age of 81, Ama Kong captured his last elephant. This was five years after his hunting ground was made into a national park and elephants were declared a protected species. “It’s a shame the government won’t let us hunt anymore,” he says. “I’m still strong enough to lead a group of hunters into the forest.”

Visiting Elephant Country in Vietnam

Jim Christy wrote in Walrus Magazine, “I had to go to Yok Don Park to see these animals for myself. From Saigon I flew to the beach town of Nha Trang, then took a small bus to Buon Ma Thuot, the largest city in the Central Highlands. I sat in the back on rice bags, as the bus climbed up serpentine roads for five hours from the coast, through green hills covered with banana trees and into the highlands, where the plateaus looked as though they’d been covered with a camel-hair coat. The next day, I rode the remaining fifty-five kilometres to the village of Ban Don on the back of a motorbike. [Source: Jim Christy, Walrus Magazine, April/May 2004]

The people in Ban Don belong to the Ede and Mnong tribes. There are no more than twenty houses in the village and most of the men are elephant handlers, their main work being the domestication of the wild animals that have been relocated in the park---at least the ones deemed tameable. Walking around the village you can hardly help bumping, literally, into elephants that, just months before, had roamed free. I saw Vietnamese tourists climbing up on a work elephant to have their photos taken. The ranger in charge of the herd of killer elephants was a tall, lean, fierce-looking man who spat when I mentioned the tourists. When I asked him to lead me to the wild elephants, he told me, through the translator, that he thought I was a crazy old guy, but he eventually agreed.

Next day the ranger begged off, claiming he had to stay in bed to nurse a cold, so I set out for the jungle alone. Two fishermen took me across the Ea Krong river in a dugout canoe, and then I started walking. My directions were cursory: follow the trail until it narrows and branches off, then keep to the one on the right. The farther I walked, the denser the jungle became, but despite the presence of wildlife, there was not the humid, insect-laden oppressiveness of the Amazon. The trees were not as tall, the understory not as dense. I could see the sky at all times, blue as a baby’s blanket.

About eight kilometres in I came across a clearing where the ranger had set up a tent and stored his gear. He’d fashioned an enclosure of bamboo stakes plaited with hardwood saplings. Beyond the enclosure, several metres away, stood a young elephant, a male about two-and-a-half metres tall at the head. A thick iron cuff encompassed one ankle, and a chain linked the cuff to an auger in the ground. Its eyes were slivers of orbs. When I moved to my right, the animal’s left eye moved to follow me. Otherwise, it was motionless, taking me in. I thought of the eyes of the tamed animals back in the village---eyes that were unclear, as if covered by some veil of defeat. I thought of the beasts at the Saigon zoo, swaying their trunks back and forth in despair, back and forth. I stepped back from the enclosure and was turning away when the animal let out a bellow that shook the trees.

After walking another four kilometres, I came to a second clearing and was about to start back when I saw a full-grown elephant about a quarter of a mile away in a patch of second-growth forest that had probably been defoliated by the Americans during the war. I knew this had to be one of the killers, otherwise it wouldn’t be here. I stood still, watching him, remembering what a mahout in the village had told me: We don’t want to share our terrain with that which we fear, with something other than ourselves that can “think” and is dangerous. I watched the elephant until the picture of him in his wild state, the picture of him the way he is supposed to be, was burned into my brain to stay. Then I went back.

Asian Elephants in Indonesia

Elephants live dense forest on Sumatra and Borneo (mostly in Malaysian Borneo). The Asiatic elephant is indigenous to Indonesia's Sumatra island but are rarely seen here nowadays outside of logging sites or nature preserves. Domesticated elephants are occasionally used in logging or circus acts but many are unemployed or underemployed. Ones in Aceh found work after the tsunami towing damaged cars, moving debris and the like.

Sumatra's Riau province is home to the largest elephant population in Indonesia but the animals are coming under threat as the forests that once covered the province are disappearing. In the 1990s and 2000s the paper and palm oil industries have cut down 60 percent of the elephant’s habitat. Now just 10 percent of the remaining forest is suitable for elephants. Since 1985, the province's elephant population has plummeted to 350 from 1,600. About 80 elephants live within Tesso Nilo National Park.

Pygmy elephants, unique to Borneo island, are a distinct subspecies of mainland Asian elephants. They are considered endangered, with about 2,000 left in Sabah state. Adult pygmies stand up to 2.5 metres tall, 30-60cm shorter than other Asian elephants. They are more rotund and have smaller faces with longer tails that reach almost to the ground. They are less aggressive than their Asian cousins.

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In Sumatra, rampaging elephants that have wandered out of parks and into populated areas have long been shot or poisoned by officials or vengeful property owners. At least once a month, wild herds from the park attack one of the nearby settlements, activists say. Since 2007, 13 elephants and several residents have been killed in Riau province alone.” "If given a choice, elephants would prefer never to see humans," elephant hander Syamsuardi told the Los Angeles Times. "But the problem is that humans continue to invade their territory. There's not enough jungle left." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2009]

“Syamsuardi has seen the results of their fury. Every few weeks, they rampage through settlements for food and out of anger or frustration. "The male pierces victims with its tusks and then throws them with its trunk. If they are still moving, he'll stomp them," he said. "Females mostly kick. Either way, it's a tragic way to die." They are also immensely powerful. An elephant can topple a pickup truck with one nudge of its forehead. In villages, the animals are referred to as datu, or mister, a term of respect given no other jungle creature. [Ibid]

Using Tame Elephants to Deal with Problem Elephants in Indonesia

Reporting from Tesso Nilo National Park, Indonesia, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The wild bull elephant stood menacingly in the clearing, trumpeting in annoyance and anger, its brain racing with a chemical that unleashes a throbbing and unceasing headache. It was the heart of mating season, and the bull was desperately seeking a mate. Was this really a good moment to be sitting on top of another elephant just a few hundred feet away? [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2009]

But Syamsuardi, a native of the wild Sumatran forest, had his strategy ready: He would pit his own elephant against the amorous stranger. The compact 37-year-old, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, manages the Flying Squad, a herd of tamed elephants that patrols the more than 200,000-acre park like jungle Guardian Angels. Syamsuardi's team is the local brainchild of the World Wildlife Fund, which borrowed the idea from India. The goal: persuade the intruders to simply get lost, to return to their sanctuary, where lethal run-ins with humans are far less likely.

In 2004, after a rash of animal rampages, Syamsuardi began his monumental task: shape a team of wild animals into an obedient police force. Then a World Wildlife Fund outreach worker, he knew little about elephants. So he began reading up on the animals and working with them in the field. Now he and his staff of eight handlers foster a bond with their elephant wards. For mahouts such Adrianto, 26, it means a soothing voice interspersed with strict commands.

The team first tries to scare aggressive herds by setting off carbide cannons to scare them away. At night, rangers use car lights and blasts of the horn. But if these measures don’t work confronations sometimes becomes necessary. Syamsuardi recalled the terror of knowing he'd be exposed to piercing tusks and the collisions of gigantic bodies. Caught in the middle, he would be crushed like an insect. "It's tense, but you must be calm and stay quiet," he said. "I have to be ready to think quickly because when the time comes, my elephants are waiting for my command."

The mahouts treat obedient animals to brownies. But there are sticks that come with such carrots. When Ria resists, Adrianto whacks her hard on the head with a small stick with a metal end that he uses for discipline. Tesso gets a stick shoved into his ear when he gets too frisky. Before a routine patrol, Syamsuardi showered affection on Ria, rubbing her cheek and neck. He has grown to love these big animals and fears for their future."They're incredibly loyal," he said. "When a mahout falls during a fight with a wild bull, the herd will surround him in protection."



Methods Used by Indonesian Elephant Patrols

Describing the effort to contain the hyped up bull, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Perched atop Rachman, the Flying Squad leader, he and the other mahouts, or handlers, positioned two males and two females side by side, never taking their eyes off the intruder. Then they moved slowly forward, a multi-ton battering ram, with each handler atop his elephant, awaiting the big bull's charge.

As the bull stomped in warning, the Flying Squad approached. The lineup, designed to confuse the invader so it can't tell which elephant is pack leader, came within a few feet. Finally, the bull lunged at Rachman. Tusks flashing, the two animals collided. Syamsuardi hung on as the other elephants closed in around the intruder, like a gang tackle on the football field. The fight lasted a tense and sweaty 35 minutes, during which the big animals swung their heads, bearing their tusks like swords, their bodies like battering rams. Finally, the bull moved off into the brush. "I was so satisfied. We didn't have to kill that bull," he said. "We just gave him a message: Go back to the forest with your own kind. You'll live longer that way."

Syamsuardi uses elephant face-offs as a last resort. And his methods have worked: So far, none of the mahouts have been hurt. With the Flying Squad, brute force isn't the only option. The team sometimes dispatches a female to mate with the aggressor, a tactic that has not only defused tension but also produced two offspring from the wild elephants: Tesso and Nella. If the mating option is used, the team finds a secure spot for the ritual, which can last a week. (The mahouts then get lost, to give the animals a little privacy.) If the team decides that it's better to make war, not love, fights between the Flying Squad and aggressors can last for hours.

Asian Elephants in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is home to its own subspecies of elephant. There are around 3,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka. This is down from around 12,000 elephants in he early 1900s. Their numbers have shrunk due to loss of habitat as a result of agriculture, population growth and deforestation. In the 1990s and early 2000s it was difficult to make an accurate count of elephants because the Tamil Tigers made some parks off limits.

The elephant population of Sri Lanka has dramatically been affected by the loss of habitat. Between 1975 and 1994 the number of elephants requiring help has jumped from none to 56. There are some herds that are trapped in small pockets of forest that don’t produce enough sustenance to maintain them. The pockets are surrounded by inhabited areas. that they venture and make nuisances of themselves.

There are around 300 working elephants in Sri Lanka. The are used in sport, work, village life, festivities. There is little need for them in logging or hauling. Most are used in temples and tourism. In the old days they were valued at $9,000 a piece, and earned $8 for a four-hour work day.

In Sri Lanka, large herds are rounded up like cattle on a cattle drive. In 1979 one herd of 150 wild elephants grouped in clusters over a 150 square mile area was herded 30 miles to Wilpattu National Park. "Night after night," wrote naturalist Lyn de Alwis, "our enthusiastic rangers and other trained employees---with thunderous firecrackers, brilliant flares, bonfires, and their own raucous hooting, howling, and caterwauling---persuaded recalcitrant elephants to abandon their familiar haunts for places unknown, and not to sneak back!...Because of its complexities, the relocation of those animals took full 12 months."

Asian Elephants and Sri Lankan Culture

Elephants have traditionally been regarded as sacred and associated with royalty in Sri Lanka. Considered the property of kings, they frequently pop time as symbols and icons and have been used to tamp down the foundations of Sri Lanka’s most sacred temples. According to an ancient Sri Lankan belief if you creep under the belly of an elephant it will keep you safe from the evil eye and bad planetary effects and drive away your fears. It used to be considered a serious crime to kill or harm an elephant.

Elephants play an important role in festivals. The highest honor for an elephant is to carry the carry caskets with sacred 34 relics, including Buddha’s tooth, from the Temple of the Tooth during a big August festival in Kandy. The tooth-carrying elephant must have several physical attributes that qualify it as a "Sathdantha" elephant. "Sathdantha" mean that when an elephant stands up seven points much touch the ground---the four legs, the trunk, tail and penis. The elephant must also stand 3.6 meters high, have a flat back and the tusks must be formed in the shape of a traditional winnow.

The last elephant that met all the "Sathdantha" was an animal named Raja. Since he died in July 1988, organizers of the pageant have had a difficult time finding a permanent replacement. The temple own 13 elephants, seven of which can lead the pageant. Raja was declared a national asset. When he died the government ordered a day of national morning. He is now kept in glass-encased chamber. Thousand worship the animal.

Elephant and Human Problems in Sri Lanka

Elephants in Sri Lanka frequently enter villages and farms ins search of food because their natural habitats are being destroyed by deforestation related to logging, agriculture and overpopulation. One solution to the problem was a month-long elephant roundup that drove a herd of 130 trouble-making pachyderms 20 kilometers to Yala wildlife sanctuary.

Between 1950 and 2008, at least 4,200 elephants are estimated to have been killed by people in Sri Lanka, according to the country's Department of Wildlife Conservation, a body of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. By one count 131 elephants were killed in 1998, compared to 155 in 1997.

Around 60 people are killed by elephants in Sri Lanka each year. A compensation of $1,000 is paid by the government to a family if their main income earner is killed by an elephant. This is double what it was in the early 2000s. If a non-breadwinner is killed the amount paid is $750. This is triple what it was in the early 2000s.

Most farmers use fireworks to drive off elephants. Some use muskets or shotguns. Injuries with these weapons are rarely immediately fatal but the wounds and the lead from the shot can cause infections that lead to a slow, painful death.

Some elephants have been badly injured and even lost large chunks of their feet and legs by stepping on mines plant during the Tamil Tiger conflict. Some get injured by falling into illegal mining pits that have been covered.

Marketing Elephant Dung Paper to Help Elephants in Sri Lanka

Hisashi Ueda, the founder of the Michi Corp., sells paper products---such colorful notepads and letter sets with animal decorations---made from elephant dung. "Don't worry. They don't smell," he told Kyodo News. Ueda runs the business with local partner Thusitha Ranasinghe to sell the fibrous paper products mainly in Japan. [Source: Mai Iida, Kyodo News, February 6, 2008]

Mai Iida of Kyodo News wrote: “A large amount of what elephants eat is left undigested due to their weak digestive systems. The leftover fibers are an ideal material for making paper products, Ueda said. The process is designed not only to profit from elephant waste but also to help humans and the endangered mammals coexist."Elephants and humans used to fight for territory, but the business model of the elephant dung paper helps make their coexistence easier," he said. "By making conditions favorable for elephants, we can get their dung."

The paper project won a World Challenge award in 2006 in a contest organized by BBC World and Newsweek magazine as a grassroots enterprise that "not only makes a profit, but also puts something back into the community." Ueda, a 36-year-old native of Gifu Prefecture, said he came up with the business idea by accident. He had always wanted to run a company but never imagined it would be one like this.

When Ueda visited India on business in the 1990s and took a side trip to Sri Lanka to attend a friend's wedding. He was shocked to see children playing among garbage dumped in the jungle. Ueda started collecting empty plastic bottles in Sri Lanka to sell for recycling. Although the business was not a success, it led Ueda to discover the paper made from elephant waste. He said he thought it was possible to make money from the paper and together with Ranasinghe refurbished a factory in Kegalle, Sri Lanka, to recycle elephant dung.

But he soon faced his first hurdle. Such exports were regarded as breaching the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which controls international trading of endangered species. After a year of negotiations, the paper eventually cleared Japanese customs as authorities determined the products did not pose a danger to the animals' survival. "The CITES is an international rule aimed at protecting endangered species, and the basic idea of our business is also the same. So I was confident from the beginning that the authorities would understand us and let the products into Japan," Ueda said.

The paper is handmade. First, sun-dried elephant dung is boiled for hours to kill bacteria. The remaining fibers are mixed with recycled paper to make the finished products. Ueda said what remains after the boiling are fibers that, instead of being foul smelling, in fact have a pleasant scent like a pasture. "Every product is unique," Ueda said, noting paper varies depending on the elephant's age and health. For instance, products made from the dung of older elephants are slightly rough because the animals have fewer teeth to chew leaves thoroughly.

Ueda's Michi Corp. sells a memo pad for ¥578 and a letter set for ¥693. He said he wants his business to be around for a long time, so he puts priority on improving product quality. "If it is for charity, people may buy our products for the sake of elephants or in a bid to fight poverty, but they may not buy again," he said. "If our products are truly good, they should buy them again and again."

Ueda also sells books printed on elephant dung paper that tell the story of how the paper is made, available in both English and Japanese. His business has started growing recently after a shaky start. The factory, which started with seven workers, now has more than 100."The more we sell, the better for elephants, people and the environment. So we kill two birds with one stone, or even three birds," Ueda said. "Through the business, I've learned that whatever you do, if it is for a good cause, people will support it," he said.

Asian Elephants in Nepal and Bangladesh

Only 50 wild elephant are left in Nepal, including the largest known Asian elephants---unusual animals with double humped domes on their head that are unique enough to qualify as a subspecies. Some scientist believe these elephants are close relatives of primitive proto-elephants that roamed the earth 2 million years ago.

Bangladesh is home to about 400 elephants, down from 1,000 in the 1980s.

Asian Elephants in China

There are about 300 wild elephants in China. They were once were found as north as Beijing but over the centuries have seen their numbers decline and habitat shrink as result of wars, ivory hunting, the destruction of forests. The last remaining elephants are found in three separate areas squeezed into ever-shrinking habitats sandwiched between rubber plantations, tea farms, rice paddies, highways and development schemes.

Killing an elephant is a serious crime. In 1995, four people were executed for poaching elephants for their tusks, Since then no poaching cases have been reported although some elephants have been wounded by gunshots when they have wandered across borders to Myanmar and Laos.

A male elephant named Xiguang was captured along the Chinese-Myanmar border by drug smugglers in March 2005 using heroin-laced bananas to pacify the creature, The elephant continue to be fed the bananas and became addicted to heroin. Two months later Xiaguang was captured with six other elephants in southwest China and found to suffering from withdrawal,. He was sent for rehab in a protection center on Hainan Island and was cured of his addiction using daily methadone doses five time larger than those given to humans. In September 2008, the Chinese media reported, was cured oof his addiction after three years of rehabilitation and will return to his home.

China is the largest market for ivory. Much of the ivory from poached elephants in Africa is smuggled into China . Jewelry, chopsticks, and figures made from ivory are widely sold in souvenir shops in southern China. According to animal welfare groups, few Chinese realize that ivory comes from killed elephants.

In July 2008, CITES allowed China to import ivory from several African nations.

Elephants in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan

The most famous elephant herd in China is in Wild Elephant Valley park near Mengman in the Xishuangbanna region of southwest Yunnan near Laos and Myanmar. The elephants are a big tourist attraction but otherwise they have an uneasy relation with the human population there who put up with gobbled up crops, smashed greenhouses and even laundry pulled off of clotheslines by the elephants. [Source: Barbara Demick and Nicole Liu, Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2010]

In recent years helping the elephants has become a cause taken up by environmentalists and the government, with the latter doing things like providing compensation for crops damaged by elephants, paying villagers to collect data on the elephants and offering farmers micro-credit loans to raise tea which elephants don’t like over corn which they fancy. In large cities animal welfare groups have organized campaigns to encourage Chinese not to buy ivory and to inform them that ivory comes killed elephants. There is some discussion of setting up a captive breeding center for elephants like the one for pandas.

Officials in Yunnan Province announced the creation of “dinner halls” for wild elephants to prevent them from devouring crops and attacking villages. Seventy hectares of bananas and sugar cane have been raised on spare land away from villages in hopes that 300 wild elephants that live in the area will eat these crops and leave farmer’s crops alone.

On how locals view the elephants one villager told the Los Angeles Times, “The villagers get angry with the elephants, but there is nothing they can do about it. The elephants are protected by the government.” One elderly farmer told the Los Angeles Times, “I see them now more often than I did when I was growing up in the 1950s. Back then there was jungle everywhere and they seldom emerged.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012


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