Health and Management of Working Elephants in Myanmar (Burma)
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2005
Sharon L. Deem1, DVM, PhD, DACZM; Janine L. Brown2, PhD; Lori Eggert3, PhD; Chris Wemmer4, PhD; Wan Htun5; Thoung Nyunt5; Suzan Murray1, DVM, DACZM; Peter Leimgruber4, PhD
1Department of Animal Health, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, Washington, D.C., USA; 2Department of Reproductive Sciences, Conservation and Research Center, Front Royal, VA, USA; 3Molecular Genetics Program, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., USA; 4Department of Conservation Biology, Conservation and Research Center, Front Royal, VA, USA; 5Myanmar Timber Enterprise, Yangon, Myanmar


Myanmar has approximately 6,000 working elephants. Remaining wild elephants are declining, partly because of live-capture for captivity. Through health and reproductive assessments, genetic analyses and GPS tracking of captive and wild elephants, we are exploring linkages between the two populations and conducting studies to reduce morbidity and mortality of captive elephants. Captive elephants live and work in Myanmar’s forests in close proximity and contact to the remaining wild herds. We propose that reducing morbidity and mortality in the captive elephants will decrease the need for live-capture, and the risk of disease transmission, to wild elephants.


There are an estimated 6,000 working elephants in Myanmar–half owned by the government-operated Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) and half owned privately.5 This may be one of the largest captive elephant populations in the world and its management will have a significant impact on remaining wild herds in Myanmar.4,6,8 With mortality rates higher than birth rates, the working population is probably maintained by supplementing it with elephants captured from the wild.5 There is evidence that continued harvest of wild elephants may have reduced the remaining wild populations of Myanmar. Recent surveys of wild populations in two of Myanmar’s protected elephant ranges revealed extremely low dung counts, indicative of small and declining herds. Constant contact with captive elephants in Myanmar’s forests may exacerbate the threat to Myanmar wild elephants by increasing the transmission of disease between these two groups. For both the above reasons, we believe that the conservation of wild elephants in Myanmar will require significant improvements in the care and management of currently existing captive populations.

Elephants owned by MTE receive veterinary care from the Burmese veterinarians that work for the timber company and travel extensively throughout the country to sites where the elephants are located.1 There is a dire need for veterinary supplies and laboratory capabilities in the country. Currently, veterinary practices are based on the extensive field experience of lead MTE veterinarians. However, MTE veterinarians frequently rely on older published work3,7 and would benefit significantly from training that incorporates new insights into elephant health and new veterinary techniques. Similarly, because of their close-up experience of elephant health problems in the forests, MTE veterinarians may be able to make important new contributions to the care and management of elephants elsewhere.

The overall objective of our study is to work jointly with MTE veterinarians to develop long-term captive population management strategies to reduce mortality and increase births in the working timber elephants and stop the continued off-take of animals from the wild to supplement captive herds.


The health component of this study has five major objectives. These are to:

1.  Conduct a training workshop, in conjunction with MTE veterinarians, on elephant management and veterinary care.

2.  Develop protocols so that the MTE veterinarians can collect samples for reproductive, genetic, and health status assessments.

3.  Analyze samples and provide data to MTE veterinarians to improve husbandry, preventive care and disease treatment of working elephants.

4.  Develop a comprehensive bibliography of all published information on the health and management of Myanmar elephants.

5.  Perform an epidemiologic evaluation of records available on the historic and current working elephant population.

Specific steps to achieve these objectives include:

1.  Determine causes and rates of morbidity and mortality of captive MTE elephants.

2.  Determine causes of low rates of reproduction in captivity.

3.  Develop a genetic profile of the captive herds.

4.  Develop a protocol to assess oozies—Burmese mahout—expertise in parallel with endocrine and health assessments to determine quality of care and potentially related stress.

5.  Develop small population viability models to assess how current mortality affects long-term survival of the captive population and what supplementation from the wild is needed for short- and long-term sustainability.

6.  Use population viability models to demonstrate how supplementation from the wild will negatively affect that population.

7.  Get baseline health parameter data on free-ranging elephants.

8.  Quantify habitat/space use using GPS and satellite tracking of captive and wild elephants.

Results and Discussion

During an initial exploratory visit in November 2004, we learned that the annual mortality rate for MTE working elephants was 2.4% (66) in 2003. Deaths occurred in all age groups (>18 yr, n=40; 4–17 yr, n=11; <4 yr, n=15) and included preventable diseases (i.e., poor nutrition, heat stroke, diarrhea, dystocia, infectious and parasitic agents). Additionally, we collected samples for performing health, genetic and endocrine analyses of 22 elephants maintained in one of the working camps (results to be presented). A relationship also was established with the veterinary staff at the Yangon Zoo, including follow up donations of veterinary literature and journals to the zoo. We provided medical advice for the care of an orphaned elephant calf and other animals housed at the zoo during our brief visit. We are seeking funds for a training course to be conducted in late 2005 and hope to perform health evaluations on a larger number of zoo and working elephants during that visit.

The National Zoo already has an extensive conservation program for wild elephants in Myanmar.4,6,8 This program has focused on assessing wild elephant populations in protected areas and satellite-tracking of four wild elephants to learn more about their conservation status and ecology in Myanmar. Currently this work is being extended to a national elephant survey. Part of this work included collecting fecal samples for genetic and health assessments.

The Smithsonian team of researchers involved in this project includes a veterinarian, reproduction physiologist, geneticist, conservation biologist, and landscape ecologist. All members of this multidisciplinary team have extensive experience working with elephants and together provide the necessary expertise to study and understand the numerous factors affecting Myanmar’s captive elephants and the long-term survival of elephants in Myanmar. These challenges range from human land use and elephant population fragmentation, human-elephant conflict, poor reproduction and health care of captive elephants and lack of information on the health status of the wild elephants. A viable conservation initiative for the elephants of Myanmar requires that health issues be addressed as one component of a comprehensive program to address the anthropogenic pressures on both working and wild elephants.2

The elephants of Myanmar are an excellent example of the fine line that exists between captive and wild animals, especially as it relates to health. Captive and wild elephants are regularly in direct and indirect contact. The working elephants live with their oozies who may expose them to diseases, such as tuberculosis. The working elephants in turn may encounter wild elephants at night in the forests where they forage and live during non-working hours. In fact, the majority of captive born calves are said to be sired by wild bulls. Potentially, the use of working elephants in selectively extracting valuable timber provides new strategies for the conservation of elephants and forests. Most likely, “elephant-logging” is less damaging than machine-operated timbering projects that tend to clear-cut areas and also damage the soil and streams. However, decreasing the negative impact of such practices (i.e., minimizing off-take of elephants from the wild, decreasing disease risks to the wild elephants) is imperative.

Literature Cited

1.  Aung, T., and T. Nyunt. 2002. The care and management of the domesticated Asian elephant in Myanmar. In: Baker, I., and M. Kashio (eds.). Giants on our Hands. Proc. Int. Workshop Domesticated Asian Elephant. Dharmasarn Co., Ltd. Bangkok, Thailand. Pp. 89–102.

2.  Deem, S.L., W.B. Karesh, and W. Weisman. 2001. Putting theory into practice: wildlife health in conservation. Conserv. Biol. 5:1224–1233.

3.  Evans, G.H. 1910. Elephants and Their Diseases. Government Printing. Rangoon. 323

4.  Kelly, D.S. 2005. Habitat selection in declining elephant populations of Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park. Master’s Thesis. George Mason University.

5.  Lair, R.C. 1997. Myanmar. In: Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity. FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Thailand. RAP Publication. Pp. 99–131

6.  Leimgruber, P., and C. Wemmer. 2004. National elephant symposium and workshop. Report to the USFWS and the Myanmar Forest Department.

7.  Pfaff, G. 1930. Reports on Diseases of Elephants. Government Printing. Rangoon. 91

8.  Wemmer, C., P. Leimgruber and D. S. Kelly. 2005. Managing wild elephants in Alaungdaw Kathapa National Park and Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary. Report to the USFWS and the Myanmar Forest Department.


Speaker Information
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Sharon L. Deem, DVM, PhD, DACZM
Department of Animal Health
Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park
Washington D.C., USA

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