• A mahout and his elephant in Myanmar | © Ken Kochey

Better Than Blood Beads

On this exclusive expedition for change, you'll support critical conservation work in Myanmar on this pioneering land-based and boat-based expedition. You’ll walk deep into remnant teak forests with former timber elephants, relax in comfort on a teak boat while seeking out the rare Irrawaddy dolphin, encounter the famed leg rowers of Inle Lake and discover the iconic temples of Bagan. Your participation in this expedition supports both domestic elephant re-wilding and funding radio-collaring wild elephants in the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River Delta.

Our in-country partners Aung Myo Chit and Jon Miceler, two dedicated world-class conservationists, are tackling complex conservation issues in this land of temples and tribes. Campaigning for solutions to the devastating poaching crisis faced by both the wild and domesticated elephants of Myanmar, Aung and Jon decided to raise awareness of the plight of the country’s wildlife through KnoWhere Journeys. Aung and Jon are founding members of this low-volume, high-impact tourism concept, which works with communities, conservationists and scientists in remote places, with the goal of effecting positive, long-lasting changes for the natural world. As a guest travelling on our EFC Myanmar 2020 departure, you will join Natural World Safaris and our in-country partners in treading lightly upon the earth, following a philosophy that will hopefully ensure the survival of Myanmar’s natural and cultural treasures.

Accompanied by both Aung and Jon throughout, EFC Myanmar 2020 extends beyond this core experience with the timber elephants to include supporting frontline conservation work. Guests on this expedition will fund the fitting of a radio collar to a wild elephant in the mixed tropical rainforest of the Irrawaddy River Delta, west of Yangon. Following your time with the domesticated elephants is a classic 4-day journey down the Irrawaddy River on a comfortable teak boat, during which Aung (AKA the ‘dolphin whisperer’) shares insights on the plight of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.

The demand for ivory has made elephants the poster animal for the illegal wildlife trade. While poachers remain bent on killing elephants for their tusks, the insidious “blood bead” trade has made elephant skin the latest body part prized by the black market.

Although threatened with habitat loss, the Asian elephant has been spared the brunt of ivory poaching, as none of the females and only some of the males grow tusks. But in April 2018, a report by the charity – and NWS partner – Elephant Family revealed how growing demand for elephant skin has placed every Asian elephant in the poacher’s crosshairs. Whereas poached elephants in Africa are found with their heads horrifically mutilated in order to remove the tusks, Asian elephants are instead having layers of skin stripped from their hides.

The objects prized enough to warrant such slaughter, as with so many things in the illegal wildlife trade, are sickeningly insignificant. Skinning elephants yields deep layers of subcutaneous tissue that are rich in blood vessels, which can then be crafted into small beads that are polished to a high shine and turned into bracelets and necklaces. These are then sold on the black market.

Although elephants can be found in a number of countries throughout Southeast Asia, the blood bead trade is unequivocally focused in Myanmar. Poaching incidents have increased dramatically here since 2010. As well as a wild population of around 2,000, there are some 6,000 captive elephants living in Myanmar, each one now a target for the blood bead trade following the logging moratorium that the Government of Myanmar imposed in 2016. These elephants, raised in captivity to work in the logging industry and unsuited to a life in the wild, now live perilously close to the poacher’s knife.

Your Expedition Leaders

The trip is led by veteran conservationists Aung Myo Chit and Jon Miceler, both of whom are founding members of the low-volume, high-impact tourism concept known as Knowhere Journeys. Aung and Jon are easy company, helping guests spot some of the region’s rarest wildlife while also pitching in with their share of campfire stories. Together they have decades’ worth of experience in conservation and nature tourism, with careers that have taken them throughout Myanmar and Greater Asia.

Jon Miceler has over 25 years of conservation experience in Asia, nearly 20 of which have been spent intermittently in Myanmar. His focus has been community-based conservation and conservation travel. He is the founder of USA-based Inner Asia Conservation, and has recently completed 10 years as Managing Director of the World Wildlife Fund’s Eastern Himalaya Programme, which focuses on protecting wild tigers, elephants and rhinos in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.

Aung Myo Chit is one of Southeast Asia’s pre-eminent ecologists and the foremost figure in the world of Myanmar conservation. He has been influential in protecting his country's natural treasures, educating its people, and fostering ecotourism projects.

Both leaders were honoured at the Vanity Fair Changing Your Mind Travel Awards in February of this year. The magazine referred to them as ‘beacons of hope’ in Myanmar.

“We want to show that elephant tourism is viable without tourists riding.”

– Jon Miceler

Selected Projects Supported by This Expedition

A portion of the trip fees for this one-of-a-kind experience will be donated to KnoWhere Myanmar, as well as Burmese NGOs Grow Back for Posterity and the Living Irrawaddy Dolphin Project. This is a low-volume, high-impact conservation journey, working with communities, conservationists and scientists in remote locations.

How can conservation tourism benefit Myanmar?

Domesticated elephants have been used to extract timber from Myanmar’s hardwood forests for centuries. Today, the majority – around 3,000 elephants – are owned by Myanmar Timber Enterprises (MTE). In 2016, to protect Myanmar’s rapidly shrinking forests, the Government issued a moratorium banning further logging in the country. Although a positive development for the forests, this put the elephants and their mahouts largely out of work, making them vulnerable to exploitation and poaching. Low-impact tourism in Myanmar utilises both MTE’s out of-work elephants and the pristine teak heartlands the moratorium was designed to protect, providing visitors with unprecedented access to this rarely seen part of the natural world. When the tourism benefits flow, it gives communities a reason to protect their wildlife and their habitats, while providing them with improved livelihoods through their stewardship. Now more than ever, Myanmar needs engagement rather than isolation. Isolation would encourage a drift towards economic partners that do not prioritise human rights and environmental protection.

Will my participation help save wild elephants?

Collectively, the Myanmar Forestry Department, the Smithsonian Institution and Aung Myo Chit’s local NGO, Grow Back for Posterity, urgently need more interventions to help save Myanmar’s wild elephants. The need for funds to radio collar wild elephants, for example, is ongoing. Radio collaring allows frontline conservationists to better understand elephants’ migratory patterns, while also providing a way to track the animals when the risk of poaching is high, such as during the monsoon season.

The collaring undertaken with funding from your participation on this journey will be done through a collaborative effort with the aforementioned NGOs and institutions. The estimated cost of collaring an elephant and monitoring it for a year can be as high as $9,000 to $15,000. But the money is well worth it in the context of being able to monitor a herd through the collaring of several of the matriarchs. A portion of the cost of this trip will be donated to this essential work, and your contribution will provide you with year-long updates on the condition of the elephants collared.

This expedition also supports Irrawaddy dolphins. What threats do they face?

The Irrawaddy dolphins face alarming challenges. At the time of the last census only 77 Irrawaddy dolphins remained in the river, with just 23 of these found in the protected conservation zone. Just over 100 individual Burmese fishermen know how to cooperate with the dolphins in a unique fishing partnership. Increased boat traffic, along with logging, gold panning and the use of electric shocks in fishing all threaten the Irrawaddy dolphins and their ecosystem. This is a sobering reality to face.

If fortune favours, guests on this trip will be lucky enough to encounter the dolphins. Once encountered, we will follow discreetly behind the narrow canoes to witness this fascinating cooperation between the dolphins and the fishermen. A flick of the dolphin’s fin says “follow me”. The side fluke signals “ready”, and with a final “tap tap” of the dolphin’s tail, the fishermen throw their nets. As a fisherman draws in the catch, the dolphins nibble at the fish poking out of the net. This rare experience is incredibly moving to witness. Aung Myo Chit is determined to sustain this symbiotic relationship by showing it to visitors who in turn can be ambassadors for the species, championing the cause for conserving the dolphins and the fishermen’s way of life.

Contact a member of our team for your chance to join us on an Expedition for Change.