By Salai Thant Zin
PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — Seven suspected members of an elephant poaching ring were detained by military officers in Irrawaddy Division on Sunday, police said.
A military column in Ngaputaw Township apprehended the men after they were discovered with four ivory tusks and about 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms) of elephant hide. The suspects have since been handed over to regional police.
“Seven elephant poachers have been handed over to us by the military column. We are still investigating the case,” Irrawaddy Division Police Col. Aung Naing Thu told The Irrawaddy.
Light Infantry Battalion No. 38, led by deputy commander Maj. Nay Tun Hlaing, arrested the seven in Baw Gyo Valley, near Kwin Bt in Nga Yoke Kaung sub-township. Troops confiscated two cross-bows, 19 arrows, 36 small ball bearings and other hunting paraphernalia as well as the illicit animal parts.
The group was captured in a hut where they were said to have been cutting tusks and curing the hide after killing a male wild elephant with a handmade rifle, according to police who were briefed by the military battalion. Troops told police that they believe more handmade firearms are hidden in nearby forests.
The suspects will be charged at the Nga Yoke Kaung police station as police continue to search for other accomplices. Police said that a special task force led by the Ngaputaw Township Police has been formed to identify and apprehend any other suspects in the alleged poaching ring.
“We will find out who their accomplices are; those who carry, distribute, sell and buy ivory and elephant hide,” said Deputy Police Col. Aung Naing Moe of the Irrawaddy Division Police. “We also plan to find out exactly how many elephants have been killed. There have been earlier reports of poaching, so we will determine if they are connected.”
Reports of elephant poaching in the central region began to surface in August 2012. Thus far, wild elephants in three of Irrawaddy Division’s forest reserves—Sin Ma, Myit Ta Yar and Sin Hmone—have fallen victim to poachers.
At least five cases have come under investigation by regional police in 2012-13 alone, though only one has resulted in arrest. Police in Taung Ka Lay apprehended six poachers over one such case, while all others remain unresolved.
A local lawmaker told The Irrawaddy that targeting organized crime is crucial to stemming the problem.
“I would like to see the investigation focus on poaching gangs,” said Aye Kyi, a member of Irrawaddy Division’s regional parliament. Aye Kyi explained that organized poaching rings commonly come in from other areas and pay off local villagers for directions. Those villagers, he said, are often arrested by local authorities, though they were only part of larger criminal schemes originating elsewhere.
“I don’t want locals to get into trouble for something they didn’t do,” said Aye Kyi.
Ivory is typically sold by viss, a Bumese weight measurement equal to about 3.6 pounds (1.6 kilograms). A mature tusk tends to weigh between 10-15 viss, which can bring in up to 100 million kyats (US$101,000). Most Burmese ivory is sold on the black market to neighboring China or Thailand.
The seven suspects, still in custody as the investigation continues, are: Myo Aung, San Shae and San Myint from Nga Yoke Kaung; and Khin Maung Zaw, Naing Gyi, Khin Maung Win and Than Hlaing from Nga Thaing Chaung in Yekyi Township.