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Myanmar elephant camp empty as tourists stay away

AFP  Mar 08, 2009

PHO KYAR, Myanmar — Curious elephant calf Wine Suu Khaing Thein should be the star attraction of the Pho Kyar eco-reserve down a rocky road in an isolated mountain range in central Myanmar.

The one-year-old is the youngest of about 80 elephants roaming the reserve packed with decades-old teak trees and filled with bird song.

Yet despite the promise of elephant rides and jungle treks, the eco-tourists the camp wants to attract are simply not coming to the military-ruled nation, let alone making the bumpy ride to remote Pho Kyar.

Tourist arrivals to Myanmar have been dropping since a bloody 2007 crackdown on anti-junta protests, while last year's cyclone and pressure from pro-democracy groups overseas to boycott the country also deter holiday-makers.

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

"It is not because of difficult transportation to this place but because of tourist arrivals declining these past months."

On the day AFP visited, there were no foreign or local visitors at the 20-acre (eight-hectare) Pho Kyar in the Bago mountain range, despite it being the height of the tourist season, which runs from October to April.

Instead, the only attention Wine Suu Khaing Thein gets is a beating with a bamboo stick by one of the elephant handlers, known as mahouts.

"You shouldn't run here and there. Stay beside your mother," the man shouts, herding the calf back to her family as they wait for a check-up from the vet.

The reserve is about 200 miles (320 kilometres) away from the commercial and transport hub Yangon, closer to the military regime's new capital Naypyidaw, a sprawling, hidden-away city that tourists are not allowed to visit.

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

She once urged foreigners to stay away from Myanmar -- formally known as Burma -- to deny the military rulers revenue from tourism, although as she is mostly kept silent by the junta it is unclear if her views have changed.

Whether to explore Myanmar's ancient temples, crumbling cities and remote jungles remains a heated debate among travellers, with the Rough Guide travel series not even publishing a book on the nation out of protest.

Moral arguments aside, the global economic downturn and recent events in Myanmar have hammered the industry just as it was finding its feet.

Images of Buddhist monks fleeing gunfire on Yangon's streets during protests in September 2007 and of bloated corpses littering paddy fields in the southern delta after Cyclone Nargis last May did not inspire tourists' confidence.

The government's hotel and tourism department has said that 177,018 foreigners arrived at Yangon International Airport in 2008, nearly 25 per cent down from the 231,587 foreigners who came in 2007.

"Tourist arrivals have declined because of Cyclone Nargis. Tourists think that we have a very bad situation and dare not visit for relaxation," said Khin, a manager of a Yangon tour company.

Exactly how many people make it to Pho Kyar elephant camp, which was set up 20 years ago, is unclear as the reserve does not keep records.

More than half the elephants at the camp are working animals still used by the Myanma Timber Enterprise in the logging industry, and spend the dry season heaving felled trees through the jungle.

Come the rainy season -- or if the elephant is too old to work -- the pachyderms return to the reserve to amuse any tourists who do show up.

"Pho Kyar elephant camp is the best one in the country," said a vet from the forestry ministry who did not want to be named. "We always take care of the elephants."

Myanmar has the largest elephant population in Southeast Asia, with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 animals, said a recent report by wildlife group TRAFFIC that warned the animal is threatened by poaching.

Environmentalists in the country have also said that as Myanmar's junta expands logging in the teak forests, wild elephants are being captured and trained for clear-cutting operations that destroy their own habitats.

Managers at Pho Kyar camp hope that they can help educate visitors on preserving Myanmar's elephants, if only the holiday-makers would turn up.

Myanmar elephant camp empty as tourists stay away
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