March 8, 2009

Lonely Myanmar Elephant Camp Receives Few Tourists

Down a rocky path in an isolated mountain range in central Myanmar waits an inquisitive, young elephant calf named Wine Suu Khaing Thein whom should be the star attraction of the Pho Kyar eco-reserve, recounts AFP News.  

The reserve is home to the one-year-old elephant calf, along with 80 other elephants who roam about among decades-old teak trees and singing birds. 

Although the camp promises elephant rides and jungle treks, eco-tourists simply do not want to come to the military-dominated nation, let alone attempt the pot-holed ride to the secluded Pho Kyar.  

Holiday seekers to Myanmar have been declining since a violent crackdown in 2007 on anti-junta protests, while the previous year's cyclone and coercion from pro-democracy groups to shun the country also discourage tourists.

"We have very few visitors now," said a manager of Asia Green Travels and Tours Company, which arranges tours of the Pho Kyar park, who requested he remain anonymous as he was not authorized to speak to the media. 

Further he added, "It is not because of difficult transportation to this place but because of tourist arrivals declining these last months."

Despite it being the height of the tourist season, which runs from October to April, there were no local or foreign visitors at the 20-acre park in the Bago mountain range, on the day AFP reporters visited. 

Instead, Wine Suu Khaing Thein gets a thrashing with a bamboo stick by one of the elephant handlers, known as mahouts, rather than the attention of curious spectators. 

The man shouts, "You shouldn't run here or there. Stay beside your mother," as he herds the calf back to her family as they await their check-up from the vet.

Two hundred miles away from the camp is the commercial and transport hub, Yangon, but even closer is the military regime's sprawling, new capital Naypyidaw, which tourists are prohibited to visit. 

Since 1962, Myanmar has been controlled by various military juntas, and for most of the last two decades opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been detained and kept under house arrest. 

In effort to deny military leaders revenue from tourism, she encouraged foreigners to stay away from Myanmar, previously known as Burma.  It is not known if she still holds these views since she is kept quiet by the junta.  

Heated debates among travelers on whether to explore Myanmar's ancient temples, disintegrating cities and isolated jungles have sparked controversy.  The Rough Guide travel series has elected not to publish a book on the nation out of protest. 

Moral disputes aside, the global economic recession and these latest events in Myanmar have destroyed the industry just as it was taking flight. 

Tourists' confidence has been murdered after images of Buddhist monks escaping gunfire during protests on Yangon's streets in September 2007, and of paddy fields of the southern delta scattered with bobbing corpses after Cyclone Nargis last May. 

The government's hotel and tourism department reported 177,018 foreigners arrived at Yangon International Airport in 2008, as oppose to the 231,587 foreigners who came in 2007; nearly a 25 percent decrease. 

Khin, a manager of a Yangon tour company, said "Tourist arrivals have declined because of Cyclone Nargis.  Tourists think that we have a very bad situation and dare not visit for relaxation."  It is unclear how many people make it to Pho Kyar elephant camp, which was established 20 years ago, because the reserve does not track visitors. 

More than half of the camp elephants are working animals in the logging industry for the Myanmar Timber Enterprise and help move fallen trees through the jungle during dry season.  When the rainy season comes again, the elephants are returned to the camp to amuse any tourists that happen to show up. 

"Pho Kyar elephant camp is the best one in the country," said a vet from the forestry ministry who wishes not to release his name.  "We always take care of the elephants."

There is an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 elephants in Myanmar, making it the largest elephant population in Southeast Asia, reported a recent wildlife group TRAFFIC that warned the animal is jeopardized by poaching. 

Environmentalists in Myanmar have said that the junta have increased logging into teak forests, and are capturing wild elephants to train for clear-cutting operations that devastate their own habitats.

Managers at Pho Kyar camp desire to educate visitors about protecting the elephants of Myanmar, if only holiday-seekers would return.