Rampaging elephants, spurred by habitat loss, force Myanmar villagers to shelter in the trees

People standing near a tree house in the Kyauk Ye village on the outskirts of Yangon. Wild elephants are driving fearful villagers to seek refuge in tree houses.
People standing near a tree house in the Kyauk Ye village on the outskirts of Yangon. Wild elephants are driving fearful villagers to seek refuge in tree houses.PHOTO: AFP
A man climbing up to a tree house at the Kyauk Ye village on the outskirts of Yangon.
A man climbing up to a tree house at the Kyauk Ye village on the outskirts of Yangon. PHOTO: AFP
A boy holding the rope to go up a tree house with a ladder.
A boy holding the rope to go up a tree house with a ladder.PHOTO: AFP
A man preparing to climb up to a tree house.
A man preparing to climb up to a tree house.PHOTO: AFP

TAIK KYI, Myanmar (AFP) - Pushed from their forest home by encroaching farm land, wild elephants are driving fearful villagers in a Myanmar township to seek refuge in tree houses while the animals storm their rice paddies looking for food.

The elephants have trampled crops, destroyed homes and even, villagers say, killed people in their path - forcing families in Kyat Chuang to build new shelters made of wood and bamboo on higher ground.

"We have had to move our huts into the trees, so we are safe," explained Mr San Lwin, who dashes several metres up a tree to his thatch-roofed shelter when the elephants are near.

Villagers in Kyat Chaung, a farming community 100km north of Yangon, told AFP they yearned for the days before the elephant rampages started three years ago.

Now they scamper up home-made bamboo ladders to their elevated huts whenever they hear the thundering sound of elephant feet, which is usually several times a week.

"We want them to be taken away... so we can live peacefully," said Mr Than Shin, a 57-year-old farmer.

Spurred by the loss of their forest habitats, the elephants, and villagers they have been terrorising, are some of the casualties of Myanmar's alarming rate of deforestation, one of the fastest in the region.

The country lost almost 20 per cent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Experts say the chief drivers of forest loss are logging and large-scale land concessions for commercial agriculture handed out under decades of opaque junta rule.

Myanmar's population of wild Asian elephants is thought to be one of the largest in the region, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

But the endangered species is increasingly threatened by habitat loss, a thirst for ivory, and traffickers who smuggle the animals into Thailand for the tourist industry.

The newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) - the pro-democracy party of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi that swept to a thumping majority in landmark elections in November - said on Thursday (Jan 14) it would address Myanmar's medley of environmental issues after assuming office later this year.

"We will try to restore the environment in Myanmar that has been ruined for many decades," Mr Soe Nyunt, vice-chairman of the NLD's Environmental Conservation Committee told AFP.

"It will not be easy," he added.