A shorter version of below feature was originally published in Mandarin by Nat Geo Traveler China, alongside photographs by Ruben Salgado Escudero.
(The photographs on this page are by me,
excuse the poor resolution!)
THE ELEPHANT MEN
Inside life at a logging camp in the Bago-Yoma ranges
Meet the oozies, men who work with elephants to haul teak and hardwood logs in from the hills.
TO be a good oozie [mahout] requires three key characteristics,” U Maung Aye explains.
“A good oozie must be brave, be good at riding and looking after his elephant … and he must meet the minimum age requirement of 18,” he says, the latter an unnecessary declaration of his outfit's compliance with official industry labour standards.
At 53, U Maung Aye's days of scrambling up and down hills, hacking through the dense scrub of the forest and driving his own logging elephant are behind him.
Having become an oozie the moment he turned 18 (he says), he is now the head oozie at a logging village in lower-central Myanmar's Bago-Yoma ranges. He oversees a team of some 40 oozies and their pachyderm charges.
The daily routine for an oozie in the village involves waking up at dawn and heading out, barefoot or in flip flops, into the forest. At the end of each day's work, the elephants are released to forage overnight.
Every work day begins with the task of finding one's elephant.
Often they haven't strayed very far. The oozies learn to follow the tracks carved through the bush by the enormous creatures, as well as other indicators such as droppings and the presence of the elephants' favourite types of foliage.
The individualised wooden bells kept around the elephants' necks can help an oozie identify his charge from a distance in the thick of the forest. Sometimes they stuff the bells with mud, so they can hide out and eat longer.
But, if he can't find his elephant, he stays out there until he does. This is where the bravery comes in, U Maung Aye explains. An oozie must be prepared to spend nights at a time in the jungle. “Alone, and often with no food,” he says.
21-year-old Ko Ko says that when he first started as an oozie (at 18), just two weeks into the job, he couldn't find his elephant.
He spent five nights in the forest alone, armed with the machete he uses to hack his way through the foliage, a slingshot, and the clothes on his back. He drank from streams and clambered up into the thick branches of the subcanopy to catch whatever little sleep he could, for fear of the venomous snakes that inhabit the forest floor. “I was very scared”, he said. “I barely ate for five days.”
Fortunately for Ko Ko, he eventually found his elephant. If he hadn't, he could have faced a prison sentence.
Myanmar is believed to be home to perhaps the second-largest population of wild elephants, after India. There are some 5000 elephants employed in state-owned logging enterprises, and about as many roaming free.
The government-owned elephants are branded on the backside when they enter the workforce, and the oozie is held almost entirely responsible for his charge's wellbeing.
If an elephant gets sick, the oozie must ensure a government veterinarian has been informed, and the details of its ailment and any attempts to remedy this are recorded by officials. Most every nick and scratch is noted. Elephant death by oozie neglect is, for this reason, virtually unheard of.
Myanmar's large free-to-roam and wild elephant population, combined with relatively porous borders and increasing demand for animal parts driven by a burgeoning Chinese middle class, means poachers are more of a concern than ever before.
U Maung Aye says that, while no elephants have been killed by poachers at his particular camp, he has seen it happen elsewhere. “It is terrible... I don't understand how someone could do this. They do it for the ivory.”
“They cut a hole in the body and take samples to make an autopsy, then they burn in from the inside out, so poachers can't come back and take its skin to sell."
When a state-owned elephant's body is discovered in the forest, an investigation is launched by the authorities, he says.
“They cut a hole in the body and take samples to make an autopsy, then they burn the elephant from the inside out so poachers can't come back and take its skin to sell.”
In the case of logging elephants that fall victim to poachers while roaming the forest, as its handler sleeps miles away, the oozie can still be the one to face prison time.
Once an oozie has located his elephant and driven them back to the village, he washes it, fits it with a harness, and heads back out into the spot designated for the day's logging.
The huge teak logs are usually lying on the forest floor for collection, having been cut down by chainsaw.
The elephants then lug them up steep hills, sometimes only making a metre of progress at a time.
They sway back and forth before throwing their significant mass into it, buckling and the knees, sometimes straining under the load with a prehistoric-sounding groan that shakes the forest.
The oozies sit atop the elephant's neck, egging them on with a kick of the heels behind either side of its ears.
They call out instructions, which the elephants generally follow. If the elephant is being lazy, the oozie will brandish his machete as a threat.
For flatter, easier-going terrain, the oozies follow behind on foot. Sometimes he'll fire off a pebble with his slingshot, to remind the elephant to keep moving.
A day's logging is usually about three hours, with the pair going back to the village a bit after midday, as the unrelenting heat of the day comes in to full force.
The process for training an elephant, U Maung Aye explains matter-of-factly, involves deprivation and reward; that is, it is usually herded into a pit or wooden cage, and not fed for two or three days.
Gradually this wears them down, and they come to see humans as the gatekeepers of respite from this suffering.
He acknowledges there are beatings, which can sometimes be severe.
The oozies are all aware at the outsider perception that logging is inherently cruel.
But, it's their livelihood and this is the way it's been done for generations.
A baby elephant, once past the
six-month mark, will be released into the wild with its mother.
Training begins once the young elephant has reached about five years of age.
Most days will see an elephant bring in between five and ten logs, but it depends on how far away the area they've been assigned to clear is.
Logging concessions on state-owned land are held by a handful of the country's super-wealthy. In the last two years, the government has instated a crackdown on logging and looked to curb the quantities exported. Whether or not the current scale of operations is sustainable seems, for now at least, uncertain.
The scale of deforestation is manifestly clear on either side of the road, as you wind up through the hills of teak country. The (until-recently) largely unchecked logging activities have left their mark on the land, as has the slash-and-burn method used to promote regeneration of the forest.
While this may encourage new teak growth, it has also meant wholesale destruction and major habitat loss. “I used to see large cats with spots [possibly a leopard], but not for maybe five years”, says U Maung Aye.
"I used to see large cats with spots ...
but not for maybe
When asked to point out a teak tree in the forest twenty minutes' trek from the village, U Ko Ko takes a minute to look around.
“You see over there?”, he says, pointing some fifty metres in the distance, on the edge of a clearing. “There's one. But it used to be anywhere you pointed.”
It's not the oozies who get rich, slogging away day-in-day-out. The usual wage for an oozie, per month, equates to about US$120 – not much, when they're often the sole provider to their family in a village with few other economic prospects. Many families illegally make and sell charcoal.
When asked if he thinks the unique working relationship between man and these enormous beasts can continue along its current trajectory, U Maung Aye shrugs.
“I guess it depends on how the government decides to manage it.”