Ai Weiwei

Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei visits elephant camps in Myanmar to raise awareness of jobless logging elephants in crisis

There are almost 5,000 working elephants in Myanmar, more than half employed by state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise to haul hardwood trees. However, an export ban put 1,000 elephants out of work. Some were killed, others were abandoned or sent to neighbouring countries

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2018, 6:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 6:28pm

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has carved a career out of controversy and activism, the dissident artist’s works that touch on subjects from human rights to corruption often raising the ire of the Chinese government.

Now the Berlin-based artist is getting his hands dirty for another cause. His latest passion project is all about the pachyderm, more specifically Myanmar’s “jobless” working elephants.

Last week Ai Weiwei visited several elephant camps in the country as part of a mission with animal welfare group, Four Paws. According to the Vienna-based organisation, about 2,900 of the almost 5,000 working elephants in Myanmar belong to state-owned enterprises, mostly the Myanmar Timber Enterprise. The rest are in private hands.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei mounts immigration-themed exhibition in New York

But Four Paws says the elephants that were once held in high regard in Myanmar, home to the world’s largest captive elephant population, are in crisis. For hundreds of years the beasts helped remove hardwood trees, especially teaks, from the country’s hard-to-access jungles, the timber playing a vital role in shaping the country – equipping the British imperial fleets, and after the country’s independence in 1948, when it was the second-highest source of exports for the military dictatorship.

But in April 2014, Myanmar bowed to pressure from environmentalists and introduced a one-year ban on raw timber export for the 2016/17 financial year, saying it would also reduce logging after that, as the country a bid to curb deforestation (A report by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation found Myanmar lost 19 per cent, or 7,445,000 hectares of forest between 1990 and 2010).

While a good move for the environment, the ban put about 1,000 elephants out of work. And according to Four Paws, many of those elephants have been abandoned, killed, or smuggled to neighbouring countries where they are being exploited in the tourism industry.

“I am so sad to see that. Elephants are quite similar to human beings, they are intelligent and emotional creatures,” says Ai in a video provided by Four Paws. “Unfortunately, elephants have been placed in these conditions by humans. This is not right and not fair. Elephants deserve to live in freedom, but they have always been mistreated. If I could I would wish to release them immediately. They are born to be free and not captive like this. Let the elephants be free!”

Ai Weiwei No 2 on list of contemporary art world’s most influential; Hong Kong pair in top 100

Four Paws vet Amir Khalil, who accompanied Ai during his trip, says working elephants live in poor conditions. “They have been deprived of their natural habitat and are forced to vegetate chained in elephant camps. We share the common values that if humans have rights, elephants also have rights. Most of these elephants could be rehabilitated and reintroduced into the wild.”

Four Paws is constructing one of the largest elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.

The 17,000-hectare Elephants Lake in the Bago region in the southern central part of the country, will care for former logging elephants as well as injured or orphaned wild elephants that will be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.

Ai says the animals need to be returned to their natural habitats.

“This is not only an issue for Four Paws, but an issue for humanity. I look forward to rescuing and releasing the first elephants soon into Elephants Lake.”