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Burma’s Last Timber Elephants

Myanmar's timber elephants and their handlers have survived wars and dictatorships, but will they survive democracy?

Last Modified: 25 Oct 2013 06:41
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Each morning at the break of dawn, Zaw Win and his team herd their elephants across the sweeping forest floor down to the river bank. They scrub and clean the mighty mammals before harnessing them to begin their day's work. Zaw Win, a third-generation oozie [Burmese for elephant handler] keeps a close eye on his animals which are his livelihood.

Decades of military dictatorship has meant many aspects of Myanmar are frozen in time. One of those traditions dates back thousands of years - the timber elephant.

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Myanmar has around 5,000 elephants living in captivity - more than any other Asian country. More than half of them belong to a single government logging agency, the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE). Elephants are chosen over machines because they do the least damage to the forest.

These elephants have survived ancient wars, colonialism and World War II while hard woods extracted by elephants in Myanmar once fed the British naval fleet. Yet today, Myanmar's timber elephant is under threat.

Once the richest reservoir for biodiversity in Asia, Myanmar's forest cover is steadily depleting and the government blames it on illegal loggers.

Now, the forest policy is being overhauled.

The Ministry for Environmental Conservation and Forestry has pledged to reduce its logging by more than 80,000 tonnes this fiscal year. Myanmar will ban raw teak and timber exports by April 1, 2014, allowing only export of high-end finished timber products.

MTE says that the private elephant owners contracted by the government will be the first on the chopping block. Saw Moo, a second generation private elephant owner, sees a bleak future for his stable of 20 elephants. He fears the family business will end in his hands and he may have to sell his elephants, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

101 East follows the oozies deep into Myanmar's forests, gaining unprecedented access to remote elephant logging camps and witnessing the extraordinary communication between elephants and men as they work.

But will the elephants and their handlers, who have survived kingdoms and military dictatorships, survive democracy and the open market? Is there a place for them in a changing modern world? 

101 East asks if this could be the end of Burma's mighty timber elephants.

What are the solutions for out-of-work timber elephants? Share your thoughts with us @AJ101East #TimberElephants

Myanmar's logging elephants

By Nirmal Ghosh

Oozies control the three-ton giants using their feet, vocal commands and sometimes a stick [Tiffany Ang]

"Bring jungle boots, raincoat and drugs," the email said.

It was from a veterinarian in Yangon, Myanmar's capital, who was taking us for a journey deep into the country's forests. But it could have been written a hundred years ago, in a cable perhaps, to a young British colonial officer about to sail from England to Burma to make a living in the timber business.

The trek into the Arakan Yoma to see the timber elephants working at the extraction site took us almost two days. Mile upon mile of green rice fields and flooded plains, and jungles of fern and giant bamboo under lowering monsoon skies, formed a constant backdrop.

Cameraman Mark Dobbin, producer Tiffany Ang, and I walked on high ridges in baking sun, then got drenched to the bone in bucketing rain. We waded across rivers and slept exhausted in damp clothes in bamboo huts to the sound of frogs and cicadas. Mark had to wait a few minutes each morning for the humidity to clear from his camera lenses.

Today, Myanmar is in a hurry to catch up with the rest of the world. It is reforming its timber business, signing on to international sustainability agreements, and trying to curb rampant deforestation. One key measure is to dramatically reduce timber extraction, so export of logs will be banned from April 2014.

Neighbouring countries have already been down that road. It saves forests, but it also has left thousands of elephants ''unemployed'' - and that is a problem.

Across South and Southeast Asia, elephant populations have been deeply damaged. They have been used in wars, employed for begging and shipped to circuses.

Experience from Thailand and India shows that left in private hands, elephants are often bought, sold or rented, and then exploited and abused. Meanwhile, the tradition of the elephant handlers, and their compassionate, symbiotic relationship with elephants, is fading.

The profession is normally handed down from father to son, but there are more opportunities now in modern Myanmar. And with logging reduced, there may be less livelihood options for the children of oozies like Zaw Win, who we follow in the film.

The oozies' way of life is simple and basic. But it is also very hard. Zaw Win, a father of two, gets a salary of just $103 a month. He is among those who want a different future for their children and insists that his son stays in school so he is not limited to being an elephant handler for the rest of his life.

Oozies live largely off the forest, and in the monsoon extraction season they are apart from their families for up to six months. Health care is non-existent in the extraction camps.

I came away from the film project with mixed feelings about logging by elephants. It is tough and arduous work and the elephants are in chains and harnesses. Yet Myanmar's timber elephants are acknowledged as among the best cared for elephants in captivity. They work under strict guidelines for only a few hours a day and browse natural fodder from the forest. They are monitored by vets who, with few resources, spend days on the road and in camps in tough conditions.

We met some extraordinary characters, including the sure-footed, steady and tolerant elephants and the private elephant owner Saw Moo in Pathein who fears the family business will end in his lifetime.

As we trekked back down to the road after days in the jungle, with mist rising from the folds of the Arakan mountains behind us, we were conscious that Myanmar's elephants face an uncertain future. Under Myanmar's sustainable logging policies, the extraction camp we visited will be abandoned after this season for 30 years before the loggers and the elephants return.

But this time they may never come back. And as for the next generation of oozies, in some cases there may not be one.

Back in the hotel in the city of Yangon it took a while to adjust to a comfortable bed and clean white sheets. And I now understood what one of the vets, Dr Myo Nay Zar, meant when he told us that whenever he returns to Yangon from the field, he misses the sounds of the jungle at night.

In Pictures:
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