Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Monday, February 01, 2016

The Idling Elephant Malaise

"Modern Burmese history was built on teak, which is to say it was built on the backs of elephants. The British quickly saw teak’s potential after colonizing Burma in 1824, and realized that hitching an elephant to a two-ton log was the only way of getting timber from where it was felled to the nearest waterway, and floating it to mill and market."
"Last year, in the land that is now officially known as Myanmar, total timber exports surpassed 1.24 million cubic tons and generated more than $1 billion in revenue, of which teak alone earned $359 million. From Tuesday [March 31, 2014], however, the new quasi-democratic government is banning the export of round logs and slashing its total logging quotas. The plan is to stimulate a domestic milling and carpentry industry and protect already plundered forest, which plummeted from 58% of total land in 1990 to 47% in 2010, according to government figures."
Time Magazine
An elephant pulls a teak log
An elephant pulls a teak log in a logging camp in Pinlebu township, Sagaing, northern Burma, in this picture taken March 6, 2014  Time magazine
Beasts of burden, they are called, strong animals that were trained by men to do tasks that men could not do with the relative ease of these animals. Before the invention of the motor vehicle, horses were used for transport. I am myself old enough to remember as a child horse-drawn wagons rumbling down the street I lived on, with cold, dripping blocks of ice hawked to housewives to put in their iceboxes, before refrigerators were common household appliances.

I remember as a child the thrill of excited disbelief when we children heard that there had been a dreadful accident between a motorcar and a horse. Eventually there was no more work for horses, and they were metaphorically 'put out to pasture'. With mechanization reliance on dray animals, such as farm-working draught horses, the emergence of steam-driven tractors made the animals completely redundant. Small ponies were once used in mines to pull wagonloads of coal.

All that changed with automation and mechanization. In Myanmar, the government, taking stock of its diminishing forests due to overlogging in reflection of how important the export of exotic wood was to the country's economy, decided it had to better regulate its natural resource of wood products. And that has resulted in elephants in their thousands, no longer required to exert their enormous strength in extracting felled timber from forests.

"They become angry a lot more easily", explained U Chit Sein, the possessor of eight logging elephants. "There is no work, so they are getting fat. And all the males want to do is have sex all the time", he explained of his working elephants accustomed to hard work now no longer working more than a few days a month. Just as human beings become bored, so do animals. Just as human beings require a sense of purpose, so do animals, to give structure and meaning to their lives.

Mahouts rode their elephants back to their camp in the jungle near Wa Kalu Pu. Credit Adam Dean for The New York Times

"Unemployment is really hard to handle. There is no logging because there are no more trees", observed U Saw Tha Pyae, whose own six working elephants have been without work for two years. Daw Khyne U Mar, the country's leading elephant expert, speaks of 2,500 elephants now without work. "Most of these elephants don't know what to do. The owners have a great burden. It's expensive to keep them."

Mature elephants, weighing in the neighbourhood of 4,500 kilograms must consume 180 kg of food daily. There are options for some elephants aside from hauling logs; some are employed in circuses, but those opportunities are limited. A 2008 study concluded that Myanmar's logging elephants live much longer than elephants kept in zoos in Europe; the working elephants living approximately 42 years rather than the 19 years' longevity for their zoo counterparts.

"You see working elephants living into their 50s and 60s quite regularly. It all comes down to nutrition and proper care", advised Joshua Plotnik, a Thailand-based elephant behaviour specialist. "I don't want to anthropomorphize, but if you take away that part of their life that has entertained them or stretched them mentally and physically -- it's difficult", explained John Edward Roberts, director of elephants and conservation activities at an elephant rescue centre in Thailand, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.

Some Burmese elephant owners have parted with their elephants out of necessity, selling them to Thai businessmen. There they will be used in the tourism industry, in elephant shows and on jungle treks popular with tourists. This does not necessarily reflect all working elephant owners' decisions on how to solve their dilemma of no work for their elephants. "I don't know what I will do with my elephants", Saw Tha Pyae worried of the beasts he had inherited from his parents.

"But I will never sell them, never! I love them so much!"

Adam Dean for The New York Times

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