By Fiona MacGregor
A spectacular festival featuring a 300 kilometre (185 mile) elephant caravan and a major light and music show with performances from global and local artists is set to take place in Myanmar next year.
The Myanmar Elephant Festival 2015 aims to highlight the role of the Asian elephant in Myanmar’s cultural and environmental heritage and boost eco-tourism, organisers say.
The festival is a joint project between conservation organisation ElefantAsia and internationally-acclaimed arts director Philippe Bouler, the man behind the hugely successful Hue festival in Vietnam. It will see the caravan of elephants make a month-long journey through Myanmar before reaching Yangon.
The event is set to conclude with a series of 3D light and animation show telling the story of Myanmar’s elephants to be created by Alleumers d’Images whose projections onto landmark buildings across the world draw crowds of tens of thousands.
“After India, Myanmar has the second-largest population of elephants in Asia, but the Asian elephant is on the brink of extinction,” said Sebastien Duffillot of Elefantasia, speaking in Yangon on May 23.
“The caravan and festival are about trying to keep up awareness of the animal and raise visibility and support for the animal,” he added.
Mr Duffillot said the event will be a celebration for the whole of Myanmar, with the elephant being a cultural symbol that transcends political and ethnic differences.
“Elephants are part of Myanmar’s common natural and cultural heritage. They are without borders, and not belonging to one ethnic group. Symbolically they are incredibly culturally and historically significant across the whole country,” he said.
Mr Duffillot, who organised a similar caravan in Laos 12 years ago that led to the establishment of an annual elephant festival there, said elephants also represented closer ties in the developing ASEAN community and better cross-border connections.
“The first impact the Laos caravan had was the reaction of people in the local communities as we reached their villages, but it also raised awareness in the local media and the government took notice of that. So it was good for the species and a good way to bring it to the front of the stage,” he said.
Following the first elephant festival in Laos the government returned to using the country’s old name, “Land of a Million Elephants”, said Mr Duffillot. The phrase had fallen out of favour with the communist regime because of its previous association with the monarchy, and its revival has helped to increase tourism, he added.
“This festival will help raise awareness of Myanmar’s elephants across the world, and the important role they can play in developing conservation tourism,” he said.
Mr Bouler, who has organised major arts events in 55 countries, said he hoped the festival will become a biennial celebration of Myanmar’s elephants that will draw local and foreign people alike.
“The story of the elephant is extraordinary and my job is about opening windows [on that story\. Artists from France and elsewhere will come and create work with Burmese musicians and something amazing will happen.”
Mr Bouler said the Hue festival, which he first became involved with 15 years ago, now draws over 2 million visitors and that Alleumeurs d’Image shows at the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh last year had attracted over 300,000 people.
“My aim is that everyone in Yangon will be able to come and see this event,” he said.
The festival team is currently identifying which of Yangon’s historical buildings will make the best backdrop for the show.
After they choose the location an exact replica of the building will be made to scale for the artists to design the show around, said Mr Bouler.
“Once the light show has been created it can be shown over and over again and I would hope to have several showings every evening over three or four days during the festival,” added Mr Bouler.
But he stressed that while the light show design work would take place in France the overall event would be intrinsically Myanamar.
“The work will be a collaboration between international and Myanmar artists and performers, but the event will be entirely Myanmar in its essence,” he added.
While the elephant plays an important role in Myanmar’s cultural and environmental heritage, the animal is under serious threat here.
Deforestation, which has destroyed much of the elephant’s natural habitat, has left the country’s estimated 4000 wild elephants vulnerable to poachers and created an increase in human elephant conflict as the animals are forced into closer contact with human settlements as they seek food.
Recent restrictions on the logging industry also threatens the future of Myanmar’s registered working elephant population of just over 6500, said Mr Duffillot.
“Keeping an elephant comes at a cost and if there is no longer work for them, then they face an extremely uncertain future,” he said.
“There is also a risk that some logging elephants will just be let loose in what’s left of the forest or that they will be illegally exported to China or Thailand to work in tourism, or circuses,” he added.
However, while the risks faced by Myanmar’s elephants are unquestionably serious, the caravan and festival will be about celebration, the organisers insist.
“The aim is to create a world-class event focussing on elephants and traditional and contemporary culture that will leave a lasting impression on everyone who sees it,” said Mr Duffillot.