Retired Timber Elephants

Myanmar is home to one of the last remaining old-growth teak forests, largely due to the use of elephants to access difficult terrain and selectively harvest the lumber. Despite this more sustainable method, deforestation occurred faster than expected and between 2014 and 2017 the government began to phase out annual revenue targets, cease subcontracting to private owners, and implement logging bans. These initiatives were intended to offset deforestation as well as ensure that any available labour went to the elephants owned by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise. (Source). 

Elephants in the timber industry have historically been granted progressive working conditions, though there may not be total adherence to the legislation among owners. Written concessions include a well-maintained health condition log, age-appropriate training and labour stages, maximum working hours, adequate rest periods and maternity leave, and a mandatory retirement age (Source). Since deforestation has become a major concern and the restrictions have been implemented, both private- and MTE-owned elephants are experiencing job loss. They have been trained for this labour since their youth and the absence of physical and cognitive stimulation is resulting in high levels of boredom, the development of stereotyped movements, and negative changes in physical health. There are approximately 5,000 elephants in captivity in Myanmar, and 2,700 of those in private ownership, finding work for that many animals is very difficult (Source).

Owners who have lost contracts with the lumber industry struggle to sustain their families, feed their elephants, and obtain the animals’ medical care, which can be quite costly when not provided through the MTE. Most owners have multiple elephants in their care, and multiple mahouts in their employ. Mahouts are elephant trainers that traditionally work with one individual and form incredibly strong bonds. An out of work elephant means that the mahout and his family will likely also experience a loss of income or even separation as a result of the owner selling or releasing the elephant.

Solutions are needed to replace the income generated by work in the logging industry. Many owners have been forced to illegally sell their elephants to the tourism industry in Thailand, while others have entered their elephants into processions or rented them to tourism camps within Myanmar. Perhaps more concerning is the chance that many elephants have become too expensive to sustain and have been released into the wild, causing trouble in settings where animals and humans are coming into conflict over food and territory, as well as difficulty assimilating into existing multi-generational matriarchal herds.

During my time assisting with enrichment and veterinary care at an elephant retirement camp in the Shan State of Myanmar, I learned about the philosophy that guides the decisions of the camp's founders. It is in their view that humans, elephants, and the natural environment must all three be cared for, sustained, and protected for any one of them to thrive. Through my research I hope to shed light on the ways that this philosophy and its practical applications can be upheld in the management of unemployed elephants in Myanmar.