Retiring Elephants in the Southern Shan States

In 1936 the imperial government sanctioned the abolition of the elephant establishments used by several colonial officials serving in the Southern Shan States—the more accessible part of the hilly regions of northeast colonial Burma. Most of the elephants were sold off. But two elderly female elephants did not attract any buyers. They were both around 60 years of age and, although described as very tame, friendly and well-trained, they were no longer of much use as workers. It was decided that they would be shot.

Fortunately for the elephants and their mahouts, they escaped this sad end. Colonial officials made arrangements with some Shan princes to take the elephants (with their riders) free of charge, to be used to perform at ceremonies. As the officials explained in their letters, they did not want to have to kill these animals because they were so fond of them. Instead, they wanted to reward their hard work and good service with a place to retire. This was just one brief episode, coming out of my research in the National Archives of Myanmar, that reveals the pragmatic and emotional relationships that developed between humans and elephants during the colonial period. But it is one with particular contemporary resonances.

What to do with out-of-work elephants is now a substantial problem in Myanmar. Since independence, most working elephants have been extensively used in government forestry and timber work, and owned by the state-run Myanma Timber Enterprise. There are now roughly 5000 elephants employed in the country, with recent reports estimating that a similar number remain in the wild. Burmese working elephants have long been kept in semi-captive conditions. They are usually released at night, to be relocated and returned to work by their riders in the mornings. As a result, timber camps have to be carefully selected for good sources of shelter, fodder and water. But now the industry is changing, and their future employment looks uncertain. The question of what to do with Myanmar’s working elephants is a complicated and increasingly pressing problem.

Me feeding an elderly female elephant, who was wary of accepting food from humans with her trunk because of some earlier traumatic experience.
Me feeding an elderly female elephant, who was wary of accepting food from humans with her trunk because of some earlier traumatic experience.

At the end of my recent research trip I visited Green Hill Valley elephant camp in Southern Shan State. It is an enterprise that is attempting to offer some small scale solutions to the problem of unemployed elephants. The camp was founded in 2011 by Htun Htun Wyn and Tin Win Maw, who together have decades of experience in the tourist industry, and it is managed by U Ba Kyaw Than, a retired veterinarian specialising in elephants. They have taken in seven elephants, along with their riders. The camp is funded through visitors who come to meet and interact with their animals, whilst eating, trekking and generally enjoying the stunning views down the valley. But providing entertainment for tourists is not its purpose. Instead, it is orientated around the needs of their elephants, their riders and the local ecology. The elephants are not made to perform or work. They have constructed a village for the elephant riders and their families, complete with a school. And they are replanting trees to help the forest to recover.

Although I have been researching elephants for the last few years, before this trip I had never actually met one. It was an incredible experience, and talking to Htun and Maw about their project was inspiring. The histories that I have been researching have shown how the lives of elephants have been altered by the changing demands of human society. Since their employment in timber work has begun to decline, Burmese elephants are increasingly heading over the border into Thailand, to work in tourist camps, often in entirely captive conditions. Alongside this is the threat of poaching. As a result the survival of Burmese working elephants, as well as the wild population, is under threat. In the face of this, the Green Hill Valley camp offers a model that puts the elephants’ needs at its heart.

Whilst the fate of Myanmar’s elephants may seem like a distant or niche problem, particularly given the country’s many current difficulties and unresolved political tensions and conflicts, I think it represents a wider challenge. The attempt to understand the needs of elephants—or any other more-than-human actors—and put them at the centre of our thinking is a process that forces us to take a fuller account of the environment we human-animals live in and depend upon. In the age of the Anthropocene, in which human activity has become the determining geological force, these new ways of thinking are more important than ever.

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