Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A picture is worth a thousand tusks

Two photographers use visual stories to protect wild elephants.

Photographer Ko Myo takes pictures of a white elephant calf. Photo - Kyaw KyawPhotographer Ko Myo takes pictures of a white elephant calf. Photo - Kyaw Kyaw

It takes a great deal of bravery to confront a wild elephant. But love, rather than courage, is what motivates photographers Ko Thet Htoo and Ko Myo.

For the past years, the two have been documenting the lives of pachyderms in remote parts of the Myanmar jungle and their often-moving interactions with humans.

Freelance documentary photographer Ko Myo fell in love with elephants when his mother told him the story of 18-year-old Kalu Sai whose best friend is an elephant. Kalu Sai and his animal friend Pho Khwar grew up together. Pho Khwar worked in a logging camp for a short period of time but when machines made animals redundant, Kalu Sai took his companion around the country to perform in religious festivals.

Ko Myo found them in Bagan, an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region to parade during religious activities.

“They were both raised in the jungle and even have their birthdays close to each other. They eat together, and at night Kalu Sai sleeps close to Pho Khwar. They are like brothers,” says Ko Myo.

He extracted from this story a poetic photo essay called “Brothers”, exploring the bond of affection between the elephant keeper, or “mahout”, and the animal.

The photo essay earned him fourth prize at the Yangon Photo Festival in 2015.

In cahoots with mahouts

That was just a beginning for Ko Myo, since then he has been documenting the lives of elephants with the help of conservation workers and mahouts.

“Wild elephants live in remote parts. People do not know much about them and their rider who live in hardship. Still, they have a strong attachment to their elephants. I met one boy who was riding an elephant that killed his father. He bears no grudge at all. I want to share their touching devotion to their elephants,” Ko Myo said.

Sometimes Ko Myo drops the camera and intervenes – at one time he had helped deliver an elephant calf near a camp. When the loggers heard the mother’s screams of pain during labour, they thought a wild elephant was trespassing. They frightened the mother who left her calf behind. Ko Myo still vividly remembers that tragic incident.

A farmer sets fire to bushes to scare a wild elephant away. Photo - Thet HtooA farmer sets fire to bushes to scare a wild elephant away. Photo - Thet Htoo

An elephant shelter welcomed the calf, a baby girl. Deprived of mother’s milk, she suffered from malnutrition. One mahout proposed to feed human milk to the baby elephant. Many women kindly accepted to contribute. Ko Myo documented the whole story.

Despite all their best efforts, the baby elephant did not survive. But Ko Myo made a captivating photo essay entitled “Beautiful Girl”, which won the third prize at Yangon Photo Festival 2017.

Although his work aims to show “the nature of wild elephants”, Ko Myo wishes his empathy for elephant were shared by a great number. He argues that if people understood elephants, they would be more respectful.

“Take the example of Mo Mo, the oldest Yangon zoo resident. Mo Mo has been kept in chains for the past 50 years. If people loved [her], they would set her free,” he says.

According to him, the high cost of travelling, the danger of confronting a wild elephant or a poacher and the need of suitable equipment has contributed to the lack of wildlife photographers in Myanmar.

But he is not alone.

The victims of the victims

Freelance photographer Ko Thet Htoo began to document human-elephant conflicts in 2013. His interest in the matter was sparked by a locally published news report in 2013. Villagers in Kyar Chaung, he read, were seeking refuge in tree houses for fear of wild elephants.

“I wanted to understand why wild elephants came so close to where people live and eat human crops,” Ko Thet Htoo said.

Photographer Ko Myo takes pictures of a young calf that died of malnutrition and diarrhea. Photo - Khun LattPhotographer Ko Myo takes pictures of a young calf that died of malnutrition and diarrhea. Photo - Khun Latt

He visited Kyar Chaung regularly for almost four years, staying two to three nights and spending hours capturing the interaction between men and elephants.

For him, deforestation and the rampant construction of dams have destroyed the elephants’ natural habitat. “Scarcity of food has forced them to encroach on human territory,” he says.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Myanmar had the third-highest rate of forest reduction in the world in 2010. Between 1990 and 2015, the country lost nearly 15 million hectares of forest and other wooded land. Since 2010, half a million hectares of forest has been lost every year.

But the elephants are not the only victims. “Some villagers, whose lands have been confiscated, see their remaining crops being eaten by wild elephants. They, too, have suffered losses,” he said.

Villagers have tried to develop alarm systems and surround their fields with thin rope tied to empty cans of condensed milk. But the system is not infallible.

Ko Thet Htoo recalls the story of this one boy who fell while trying to climb up into his tree house. He badly hurt his head. His mother took him to the neurosurgical department at the Yangon hospital but couldn’t afford long-term treatment. “Sometimes he wanders aimlessly around the village alone. His mother fears the return of the elephants and worries for her child,” he says.

Villagers feel rather defenseless. They tried to scare the elephants, lighting bushes on fire, but to no avail (see pictures).

They also tried to grow crops elephants do not eat, only to see the pachyderms playing with them.

Their best hope is called “Congyi”, a large, tamed elephant the Forest Department dispatches to herd the wild elephants back into the forest. But the Congyis do not always arrive on time.

A lot of villagers who saw the price of rice and sugar fell are now cash trapped and indebted. Misery has pushed them into the arms of poachers, a lucrative business.

According to World Wide Fund for Nature-Myanmar (WWF-Myanmar), there are two markets for trading elephant hides: local and border markets. In local markets, elephant skin is being sold for K10,000 per square inch. And in border markets, it is sold by weight - K60,000 for 30 ticals (49g).

Earlier this year, Ko Thet Htoo made a 16-minute short called “Victims to Victims”, which aims to explain the two sides of the elephant-human conflicts. The film was submitted to the Wathan Film Festival.

Ending the suffering

Elephant poaching has reached its peak in 2017 according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“At least 30 wild elephants have been poached so far in 2017 with six elephants killed in the last six weeks. This is far above the previous yearly poaching average for Myanmar,” says U Aung Myo Chit, the coordinator of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Myanmar.

The wild elephant population in Myanmar has plummeted, with estimates at between 1,400 and 2,000, however number could be far lower.

“It’s not easy to end killings,” says Ko Thet Htoo, “but it is not impossible.”

According to him, things will get better if villagers’ lives improve and if they can get out of the debt trap. Forest rangers should also be able to live comfortably. Only if their job is attractive will there be enough of them to take good care of the elephants.

For Ko Myo, the solution is almost as much about raising awareness - which he does through his work, as gaining mindfulness. “Poaching is motivated by greed. If humans tame their greed, the killing of elephants and the destruction of their habitat will stop.”