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.
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.
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?