A village hunted by wild elephants
Kyar Chaung village, Myanmar
It was a fine winter evening and the first frame I took was a silhouette of a farmer and his wife wearing ta-na-ka, riding on their cow carts, so at once, I thought this is a very nice village. But in fact, its people have been living in fear for several years.
Kyar Chaung village is 64 miles north of Yangon, Myanmar. Most villagers have two houses. One on the ground to stay during the daytime and one in a tree to protect themselves from a wild elephant’s attack.
As I went to see the head of the village, people were already gathering in front of his house and chattering about a man who had to run for his life as he was chased by an elephant just a day ago.
“One night, while we were sleeping, we heard a loud crashing sound. I knew it was a ‘Bo-Taw’ (meaning elephant as if it is a powerful spirit). I was shocked when I found its trunk already lifting our rice bag. I just ran and ran and ran!”, the wife of the village’s head recalled her most terrifying memory with an elephant searching for meal. Luckily none of her family was hurt that night. “They can get a smell from within 5 miles and they can run more than 10 times faster than us!”
Five other neighboring villages within a 7 miles radius have been terrorized for 16 years. Villagers plant paddies, corns, sugar-canes, bananas and other crops for a living. Their houses are scattered, a few in the paddy fields, a few near the banana fields, some at the edge of the corn fields but all these fields are what an elephant loves to eat. It was not a problem when there was one or two elephants here. But villagers say there are about 30 to 40 elephants who eat in these fields that the villagers have been planting all their life. I knew there must be a reason for the increase over the last few years. Later, I found out why.
A notice board with a sign, “Beware Of The Elephants” states that every year, at least 5-10 people die in this township because of wild elephants. This notice board (which is now torn in half) is one of the very few things that the government forestry department has offered the villagers over the 16 years. The other thing the government offered, not to the villagers but to businessmen, was calling out tenders for the permit to arrest the elephants in 1997. Those who paid the highest price were allowed to arrest 17 elephants to be used as labor in the timber business. “When someone dies from an elephant’s stomp, instead of getting compensation, the remaining family members lose money as they pay to carry the body to and from the hospital,” Aik Too, the head of the village, said.
Villagers find their own ways to protect themselves. They use fire to prevent the elephants from coming near. They sleep in their tree-houses every night, but they have to forget about their belongings left in their house on the ground. In nearly every tree-house, there is a CD that’s reflection is used to scare the elephants. They have bow-guns to shoot at the elephants. This does not kill it but at least it is better than nothing.
As a last resort, a nearby military training camp gave the villagers a few ‘flash bombs’ to use when things get really out of control. There is also one 67-year-old retired hunter, Than Maung, who is an expert with the elephants. According to the experienced hunter, the reason many elephants come to this area is because there is no more food for them in the forests and mountains due to serious deforestation. “The elephants do not attack you if you don’t try to disturb them having their meals. But if they do, you run. You don’t run straight but you run in curves, heading along with the direction of the wind because they chase after your smell. That’s why you always need a lighter to know the direction of the wind.” Than Maung has once killed an elephant a long time ago on a government request. He is a hunter who hates to keep ‘souvenirs’ from the animals that he kills. “I hunt for my living but not for a pride or pleasure.”
Everyday, these wild elephants start searching for meals around 4pm and they go all night from one field to another until around 8 the next morning. Most of the elephants sleep during the day. When they don’t sleep, they often surprise the villagers working in the fields. There are some elephants who chase a person as soon as they see one, but there are also some who avoid humans. “We still have to work though. We must be on alert every hour. We cannot live without farming. What do we eat without our farms,” Su Mar Win, who works in the farms with her husband and has a 2-year-old daughter, said. Their family plants banana fields. Because of the elephants eating their banana leaves, their monthly income has decreased from about 45000 kyats ($50) to nearly no income at all. She still sadly thanks the elephants for letting her family live and eats what’s left by the elephants. “I don’t hate these elephants. I know they have fewer places to survive. I just hope my husband can go to work safely. I hope the government would move the wild animals to a suitable place”. But Su Mar Win will never forget that her cousin’s whole family was trampled to death by an elephant.
To me, the bravest is Dhamma Nanda, a 58-year-old Buddhist monk who says “I don’t care anymore. I just pray and share my love for them”. He believes the elephants only kill people who speak or do wrongful things. He has seen parts of a body of someone he knows being put in a bag and carried away. Dhamma Nanda lives alone in a monastery made with bamboo. There’s no tree-house in his compound. This might be the reason I saw only a few bananas and some scattered rice grains on his dining table. This is already his third monastery since the previous two were destroyed by the elephants.
Dhamma Nanda recalled his worst memory of an elephant chasing him. “I ran for my life until I got stuck in a bush. I couldn’t move anymore because this bush had many thorns. I kept praying. I spoke to them that I’m not someone who did wrongful things. I haven’t had enough time yet doing Buddhism. So please let me live!”
I spent some time in Kyar Chaung and nearby villages searching for the frames that might tell the story best. I spent a very cold night In a tree-house. But I never wished for a frame in which someone was chased or injured by a wild elephant. Maybe, I was sharing the same fear together with these villagers.