Co-authors: Jenny Anne Glikman, S.L. Rodriguez, David Tonkyn, Paing Soe, David O’Connor, Aung Myo Chit and Peter Leimgruber

Our project was never meant to be about poaching. But, like many fieldwork ventures, things did not go as planned. We originally hoped to use GPS collars to track elephants through the wilds of Myanmar and gain a better understanding of their movement and ecology. We intended to use these results to improve management and conservation, protecting and preserving the estimated 1,430–2,065 wild elephants within a country that has the largest unfragmented elephant habitat in Asia. Unfortunately, poachers had other ideas.

Of the initial 19 elephants we collared between 2014–2017, seven were lost to poaching. Over the next 2 years, we found more than 40 elephant carcasses just within our relatively small study area, including many carcasses that had been skinned. Poachers were targeting male and female elephants for skin and body parts, not just for ivory, placing the small remaining populations at risk of extinction. Our project had unexpectedly revealed that one of the elephant’s last strongholds in Myanmar was not safe from poaching.

A male elephant wearing a satellite GPS collar in the mountainous landscape of the Bago Yoma.

We immediately started working with our collaborators to prevent poaching and protect the remaining population, but we also needed to find out why the poaching was happening and whether the people of Myanmar supported elephant conservation and anti-poaching efforts. There is often a divide in conservation views between urban populations who may primarily see animals in zoos or as tourists when visiting the countryside, and rural communities who live among animals. Attitudes towards charismatic megafauna can vary greatly between these two groups, with implications for conservation, particularly as populations become increasingly urbanized.

Left: Developing relationships with the local community is essential as they often help the research team by sharing information about elephant movement in the area. Right: Captive elephants are  an integral part of the research team, helping to ensure the safety of both the researchers and wild elephants during collaring activities.

Both groups of people have stakes in the conservation and management of elephants—and all wildlife—within their country. Urban communities may be more likely to spend money in the ecotourism sector, hold idealized perceptions of megafauna such as elephants, and potentially provide demand for poached animal products. On the other hand, living alongside megafauna such as elephants can be very hard for rural communities. Negative interactions with elephants can directly impact communities through extensive crop loss, damage to property, and injury or death of people, and also indirectly, leading to increased fear and stress, and financial insecurity. In addition, those who live among elephants are not only threatened by elephants themselves, but also by poachers who come to kill the elephants.

Effective anti-poaching policies and wildlife conservation efforts require support from all stakeholders, including the often varied views of the general public. We conducted interview surveys in two regions, one urban and one rural, in south-central Myanmar, to assess attitudes towards and perceptions of elephant populations, as well as people’s experience with and perceptions of poaching activities and poached elephant products. We also aimed to determine people’s willingness and motivations for complying with Myanmar’s elephant conservation laws, and to  identify the consequences of elephant poaching experienced by community members.

The research team planning elephant collaring activities in Myanmar.

Despite both urban and rural participants being generally supportive of elephant conservation, there were some differences of note. For example, urban participants expressed more favourable attitudes towards elephants overall, and rural communities tended to be more supportive of conservation initiatives that prioritized human activities over elephant conservation. Identifying such differences allows wildlife officials to craft mitigation strategies that work for both people and elephants. Particularly important, and encouraging, was discovering that support of rural communities for elephant conservation was strong in spite of the challenges of coexistence. This demonstrates that these communities are potentially open to working to protect these animals. Although managers must also recognize that this support cannot be taken for granted and that their concerns must be addressed and incorporated into policies to ensure successful long-term elephant conservation.

Left: A map of all of the GPS locations received from collared elephants between 2014-2016. Each color represents a different elephant and these locations were recorded every hour. Right: A child surveys the damage left behind after a small herd of elephants flattened a home and consumed a grove of banana trees (no one was injured during this conflict event).

Both groups demonstrated they were aware of elephant poaching and were willing to comply with elephant protection laws. Rural communities, however, appeared to experience far more of the negative consequences that poaching can inflict on communities. Of the participants who feared poachers, most commented that poachers ‘bring guns and violence’ into the community, and that ‘they can kill me’, highlighting the distress engendered by their presence.

Our results identify potential areas where the government and conservation organizations could intervene to support both the human and elephant populations in Myanmar. These stakeholders need to expand their mitigation efforts to include ways to address the consequences of poaching and the illicit wildlife trade felt by local communities and elephants alike.

Video: Asian elephant herd vocalizing after a rainstorm. Credit: Christie Sampson

All photos: Christie Sampson

The article Rural and urban views on elephants, conservation, and poaching is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Christie Sampson is an Eyes High Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Calgary, a Research Associate with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and an Adjunct Faculty member at Clemson University. Her research focuses on using interdisciplinary tools to support the conservation of endangered species and habitats around the world.