• Aung Myo Chit in Myanmar | © Charlie Scott

Myanmar's Conservation Colossus – Aung Myo Chit

Aung Myo Chit is the authority on wild elephants in Myanmar and one of Southeast Asia’s most pre-eminent ecologists. In the 1990s he began guiding foreign field naturalists and acting as a consultant on multi-year film projects focused on the ecology of Myanmar, eventually serving as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Country Coordinator for the Irrawaddy dolphin from 2006-2012. Aung has also worked as Myanmar’s Country Coordinator for the Smithsonian Institution, heading up a project focused on the movement of Asian elephants within Myanmar. Thanks to the success of this project, the Smithsonian are now continuing their work in Myanmar, assisting with the rewilding of captive elephants and improving the health of both captive and domesticated elephants.

Aung also works with the non-profit organisation Grow Back for Prosperity (GBP). GBP’s mission is to collaborate with local communities, government, national and international CSOs, and other stakeholders in order to protect Myanmar's natural and cultural heritage. Aung and the rest of the team at GBP believe in community-based solutions for wildlife conservation. They work with the people of Myanmar to foster peace between people and elephants, speak with local fisherman to assess the population of the Irrawaddy dolphin, and develop culturally sensitive ecotourism projects in Nagaland, among other projects.

In early 2019 our Head of PR & Partnerships, Carina Hibbitt, visited Myanmar to meet with Aung, as well as fellow conservationist Jon Miceler and members of the KnoWhere Journeys Myanmar team. Together with NWS, these forward-thinking individuals are pioneering a low-volume, high-impact tourism concept, bringing communities, conservationists and scientists together for the benefit of Myanmar’s natural treasures. For an in-depth account of the latest elephant and dolphin ecotourism project taking place in Myanmar, you can read Carina’s blog entitled ‘Treading the Earth Lightly’.

Aung Myo Chit in Myanmar | © Ken Kochey

Could you tell us briefly about your experience in the world of conservation that has led you to where you are today?

My conservation journey started with National Geographic Television in 1998 after I finished my university studies. I served as liaison officer between government ministries, guides, translators and field facilitators in Myanmar for a number of “first ever” wildlife documentary projects. Between 1998 and 2001, two documentaries were completed: Elephant Power and Burma’s Forbidden Islands. After these documentaries, I completely dedicated my life to conservation because these films enabled me to work up close on many different conservation issues which were in need of attention.

Aung Myo Chit on the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar | © Charlie Scott

Your Myanmar-based NGO, Grow Back for Posterity, seeks community-based solutions for wildlife conservation. Could you talk to us about the kind of projects you are involved in?

Under the GBP umbrella I undertake many different conservation initiatives, including:

  • Educating the communities around Myanmar on the importance of wildlife conservation, and specifically how to avoid human-wildlife conflict related to elephants.
  • I have been working to get better protection for Myanmar’s oldest wildlife park, the Tawyagyi Wildlife Sanctuary, which was established in 1862. Activities there include reforestation, conserving Myanmar’s endemic golden deer, establishing a riparian avian species sanctuary, making fuel from agricultural waste, and educating monks about the importance of being stewards of their environment, and including that in their teachings to other people in Myanmar.
  • I am very much involved in Irrawaddy dolphin conservation, specifically around raising awareness of the dangers of electric fishing and drift nets.
  • Elephant radio collaring and monitoring, and anti-poaching activities with larger INGOs and the Myanmar government.

You can find out more about Grow Back for Posterity by watching this video, or by visiting our website.

Aung Myo Chit, NWS Carina and team | © Charlie Scott

How important is the education and cooperation of local communities in the protection of Myanmar’s natural and cultural heritage?

Myanmar’s landscapes, environment, and flora and fauna are world class, however the communities living here are among the world’s poorest. Because of this, the education of local communities is critical, and ensuring their involvement and cooperation is essential if we are to protect Myanmar’s natural and cultural heritage. Currently the level of education is not so high, so I spend a lot of time in rural communities educating kids and adults on both wildlife conservation and, where possible, cultural preservation. This mainly means that when working with tribes like the Naga and Chin, we highlight the importance of keeping their culture alive, not just for future tourists that may wish to meet them but also for their own understanding of where they come from.

Aung Myo Chit in Myanmar  | © Charlie Scott

As well as working towards peaceful human-wildlife coexistence, a big part of your work is devoted to preventing human-wildlife conflict. With the decline of the timber industry in Myanmar, there are now thousands of elephants in the country – both wild and domesticated – whose lives are in danger as a result of poaching. What solutions are there, and what role can tourism play?

Wild elephants are in danger of being poached for their skin and their trunks. The trade in live elephants for use in captivity is another threat. Well-thought-out, properly planned and high-end wild elephant viewing and collaring tourism can help support the government and local communities in their efforts to protect these elephants. But there is very, very little money that Myanmar’s government can give and local people have nothing to give.

So tourism plays an important role – if the right kinds of tourists come and participate in things like radio collaring, tracking, and walking with former timber elephants, the government of Myanmar and local people will see that these animals are worth a lot more alive than dead. They will then be able to protect the elephants better because the money the tourists bring helps protection. And if more tourists take part in this kind of nature tourism then they can help raise awareness in their own country about our situation in Myanmar.

This will also help to show the world that Myanmar is not a place that’s all bad news; lots and lots of good things happen here, but we are starting from a position of nothing, with no experience, and it takes time to become a great society. More tourists coming to see our elephants – both wild ones and domesticated ones – will also help to keep poachers away, as there is a higher chance of them getting caught if tourists are around.

Myanmar | © Charlie Scott

In 2019, many people are understandably concerned about elephants being ridden. Although the elephants used in the new KnoWhere Journeys Myanmar venture are ridden only by their mahouts and not by tourists, what would you say to a concerned animal activist who believes there is no situation where an elephant should be ridden?

Riding or not riding is not the issue; how to handle (use) the elephants is our major concern. Horses need bridles, dogs need leashes, cows and buffalo need nose ropes, so elephants need mahouts (riders) – at this point because they are already tame. For the future my hope is that all elephants will be wild, but realistically we have domesticated elephants and they have to be controlled. They cannot be left to run free into people’s crops because this can cause communities to starve, become angry and kill elephants. For now we need mahouts. I would say to these activists, come and live here and see our life, and then decide.

Aung Myo Chit and Jon Miceler in Myanmar | © Charlie Scott

In addition to the ivory trade, a sinister new demand for elephant skin poses a dire threat to Myanmar’s elephants. Some say the skin has medicinal purposes, while others create “blood beads” for use in jewellery. What can be done to persuade consumers that fashion is not an appropriate excuse to kill elephants, and that the animal’s skin has no medicinal benefits?

Blood beads are so called because they are made from the subcutaneous skin of elephants, which is usually a bright red colour. However, after an elephant dies, the concentration of blood in the small capillaries under the skin begins to decrease, and the colour fades. Because of this, it is often necessary to harvest elephant skin from a live or half-dead animal. The animal will be killed with poison, but this poison is not strong enough to kill an elephant immediately. It will weaken the elephant for two to three days before it finally collapses.

Poachers first shoot a poisoned arrow into the back of an elephant’s hind leg, then they shoot another arrow into the muscle so that the animal is easy to trace – as it limps, it leaves easily identifiable marks in the forest, allowing the poachers to follow its trail. After two to three days the elephant will have suffered great agony as the poison spreads over every inch of its body. The poachers will then quickly skin the animal to get the best material for the manufacture of blood beads. The skin itself is then turned into a powder which is sold for its supposed medicinal benefits, although the amount of residual poison within it actually makes this product harmful to one’s health.

To stop this heinous act we need more global attention on the issue and shaming of those involved. There needs to be more focus on the places where the demand for elephant parts comes from, to make them see the horror of killing elephants for jewellery. Because of this, the efforts need to focus on Asia.

Asian elephant, Myanmar | © Ken Kochey

The Irrawaddy dolphin is another species that is obviously close to your heart. Could you talk to us about Irrawaddy dolphin conservation, and the incredible symbiotic relationship between the dolphins and the fishermen with whom they share the river?

As we all know, all the Irrawaddy dolphins among the riverine countries face many dangers as a result of anthropogenic effects. However, before 2006, most Myanmar citizens did not know that they had Irrawaddy dolphins in their mighty Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River. The worst thing is that only a handful of people understand the mutual relationship between dolphins and fishermen.

My understanding of the Irrawaddy dolphin began with a conservation project in 2006 when based in Mandalay. During those days even my friends who lived in Mandalay had no idea about this species, so I started writing about the conservation status of the Irrawaddy dolphin, as well as its behaviour, distribution and home range. I highlighted the cooperative fishing (a human-animal relationship) to my countrymen through local newspapers, journals and magazines every week, as well as international papers. I also made documentaries with international and local media.

Slowly, after years and years, the locals and union and regional officials became aware of the existence of the Irrawaddy dolphin and its unique relationship with humans. I am working with hundreds of fishermen nowadays through conservation tourism. The major challenges are electric fishing, the use of drift nets, and invasive species. So the efforts towards raising awareness need to focus on local populations, educating them about the dolphins and ideally providing a benefit to them in keeping the animals alive. The members of fishing communities that work in our elephant camps know this, and they are becoming ambassadors for the species, so this can help, but they need support.

Myanmar | © Carina Hibbitt

At the last census, there were just 77 dolphins remaining in the Irrawaddy River. Is it too late to save the animals living here? If so, is it possible to repopulate the river with Irrawaddy dolphins living elsewhere in Southeast Asia?

The population of Irrawaddy dolphins seems more or less stable in the Ayeyarwady River according to survey results. 77 individuals were counted in 2010. We do not need to reintroduce Irrawaddy dolphins to the river, but instead need better management systems and strong law enforcement. This will surely bring more Irrawaddy dolphins to the river.

Aung Myo Chit and Jon Miceler on the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar | © Carina Hibbitt

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

I respect everyone who is willing to work and sacrifice their life for the natural environment. These are my heroes. Some people become very famous, but there are many unsung heroes too.

The KnoWhere Journeys Myanmar team | © Charlie Scott

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

In Myanmar, I have been to 14,000 ft above sea level where there is only rock and snow, and 130 ft underwater where there is only sea ferns, sand and beautiful corals. I have caught dragonflies for identification and collared elephants to track their movements. I have also taught the students, trainers and local communities of Myanmar about environmental awareness. All of these are the best natural world experience for me. Not a single one, but all together.

Aung Myo Chit in Myanmar | © Ken Kochey

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

As the name ‘Golden Myanmar’ implies, my country is one full of interesting places, natural resources, cultural treasures and ancient cities. Myanmar has been segregated from the outside world for the past 60 years. Only recently has Myanmar been made known to the world and its valuable heritage recognised. Exploring Myanmar’s natural world is a magical adventure with lots of meaning – seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is the most exciting experience imaginable, and will make people happy. Yes, this is Myanmar, but it is open to the entire world: Myanmar’s heritage is the world’s heritage. Give us time and be patient, and most of all come and see our country before judging. So many good things are happening here, but we need your help.

Asian elephant, Sri Lanka

Inspired by Aung Myo Chit

If you've been inspired by Aung Myo Chit, and want to see elephants in the wild for yourself, speak to one of our Destination Specialists to start planning your safari.