Wildlife conservationists have expressed concern regarding the deaths and injuries to elephants caused by landmines allegedly laid by Myanmar security forces along its border with Bangladesh.
A wild elephant died after stepping on a landmine along Naikhongchari border area in Bandarban district on November 21.
Confirming the death, Divisional Forest Officer of Lama Forest Division Md Kamal Uddin said: “The giant mammal sustained injuries Monday night after stepping on a landmine in the no-man’s land along Naikhongchari border.
“The elephant died the next day.”
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Expressing grave concern, eminent wildlife biologist Dr AHM Raihan Sarker told the Dhaka Tribune: “Some 350 elephants live in Bangladesh while around 5,000 of the large mammals live in Myanmar.
“It is a matter of serious concern that the Myanmar forces erected barbed wire fences and laid landmines along the border. Like any other mammal, elephants too require undisturbed feeding, breeding and resting places.”
“The movement of elephants between the two countries will be disrupted due to the landmines laid along the border,” he said, adding that the existence of the mammals will be put at great risk.
Dr Raihan, who also teaches at the Institute of Forestry & Environmental Sciences (IFES) at Chittagong University, said the home range of an elephant usually covers 300 square kilometres and these mammals always follow set routes and corridors for movement.
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“If their usual routes are disrupted, the elephants will be forced to venture into uncharted territory, which may also cause a behavioural change. Therefore, the trans-boundary routes of elephants should be kept uninterrupted, otherwise, it will take a huge toll on the genetic diversity of the largest land mammals,” cautioned the wildlife biologist.
He said: “In general, the higher the genetic variation or gene pool within a breeding population, the less likely it is to suffer from inbreeding depression. Inbreeding is the production of offspring from the mating or breeding of individuals or organisms that are closely related genetically.
“Inbreeding results in homozygosity which can increase the chances of offspring being affected by recessive or deleterious traits. This generally leads to decreased biological fitness of a population, which is also called inbreeding depression.”
Md Jahidul Kabir, conservator of forests (wildlife and nature conservation circle), echoed the same sentiment.
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He told the Dhaka Tribune that they were taking the landmine-related casualties of elephants in all seriousness and had notified the authorities concerned in this regard.
Jahidul said: “Any disruption to the mobility of the elephants will certainly endanger the genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is of great importance.
“The greater the genetic diversity within a species, the greater the chances of long-term survival for the species. This is because negative traits or inherited diseases become widespread within a population when that population is left to reproduce only with its own members.”
According to a publication titled “Status of Asian Elephants in Bangladesh”, elephants belong to two species - Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and African elephant (Loxodonta africana).
The IUCN Red List of Bangladesh categorized Asian elephant as “critically endangered” as the species of wild animal is now at risk of extinction.
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According to a survey conducted by the IUCN from 2013-2016, three types of elephants – resident, migratory and captive – are found in Bangladesh. The survey said there are 268 resident wild elephants, 93 migratory elephants and 96 captive elephants in Bangladesh.
Almost a century ago, elephants were a very common sight in the forests of Bangladesh and scientists reported the existence of 500 elephants in the forest of Bangladesh back in 1950s. However, a recent study has put the number of Asian elephants in Bangladesh in between 228-327.
When contacted, Chief Conservator of Forest Shafiuyl Alam Chowdhury said they were concerned, but the Forest Department has very little to do in this regard.
Earlier in September, Reuters published a story which stated that Myanmar was laying landmines across a section of its border with Bangladesh to prevent the return of Rohingyas fleeing the violence in the country.
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In her September 21 address to the UN General Assembly in New York, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina accused Myanmar of laying landmines along the border.
Later on September 23, Human Rights Watch (HRW) asked Myanmar to join the 1997 Mine Treaty and called upon the country’s government to immediately stop using antipersonnel landmines along the border.
The rights group also said Myanmar's Deputy Minister of Defence Major General Myint Nwe had admitted its army continuing to use landmines in armed conflicts in the country.
However, Myanmar leaders say they use landmines to safeguard the life and property of people and in self-defence.
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Fortify Rights, a US-based rights group, revealed that nine out of the 14 states and regions in Myanmar are contaminated with landmines, making it the world's third most landmine-contaminated country, after Afghanistan and Colombia.
In a report published on September 9, Amnesty International (AI) said the Myanmar Army is one of few state forces in the world, along with North Korea and Syria, to still openly use antipersonnel landmines.
“Authorities must immediately end this abhorrent practice against people who are already fleeing persecution," the report pointed out.
On September 12, International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in a report titled “Reports of landmine use in Myanmar” mentioned that the armed forces of Myanmar have been using antipersonnel mines for decades.
The ICBL also called upon the Myanmar government, as well as all other armed actors in the country, to renounce the use of antipersonnel mines once and for all.