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Wild elephants

4,000 ~ 6,000

Ye Htut and Myint Aung

Domesticated elephants

6,000 ~ 7,000

Richard Lair



FAO (Anon., 1995d)

Anybody writing about conserving domesticated Asian elephants will inevitably write many sentences beginning, “Every country in the region, except Myanmar, has a severe problem with ...” Myanmar has the best surviving habitat and the highest number of domesticated elephants in Asia. Myanmar holds more than 30% of the world’s domesticated population, at least half again as many as either of its only serious rivals, Thailand and India. Furthermore, Myanmar has by far the world’s most government-owned elephants, the 2,800 animals of the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE), a large and easily managed subpopulation. State ownership of so many elephants ensures that Myanmar boasts the best large-scale veterinary care in Asia. State ownership also means that sweeping management decisions affecting thousands of elephants can be made in a short meeting. Anywhere else in Asia (except Indonesia), to gain such a degree of management over so many elephants would be impossible without massive new government subsidies, radical new legislation, and traumatic changes in jurisdiction amongst ministries.

Life is difficult for Myanmar’s elephants and their keepers, but mostly difficult in a way no different than for untold centuries. Elephant-wise, Myanmar is in an entirely positive sense a living museum, seemingly frozen in time decades or even centuries ago. Myanmar’s relative lack of development has ensured a legacy of superb mahouts, mostly on a par with any in the past and quite unlike Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, where standards of mahoutship seem to slide disastrously with each successive generation.

Myanmar still enjoys a bountiful, relatively untouched natural environment which, according to Lwin (1994), holds “300 mammal species, 1000 species of birds, 360 species of reptiles and 7000 species of flora including 1200 tree species.” The abundant flora ensures that all domesticated elephants are able to eat a wide variety of plants and to eat their fill, at least if given time to do so. (Such abundant food is strikingly unlike Sri Lanka, where food is scarce and must usually be brought to the elephant, or parts of Thailand, where many elephants are seasonally forced to leave home and wander in search of food.) Bountiful forests also provide Myanmar’s elephant owners with full employment, there being a paying job for the owner of any fit elephant. Healthy forests also ensure contact with wild bull elephants which continue to sire many of the calves born to domesticated cows, an ancient means of recruitment rapidly vanishing in other countries as wild numbers fall and as the proximity of domesticated elephants to them lessens.

Nonetheless, while much better off than its neighbors, Myanmar does suffer from environmental problems. Some severe environmental repercussions are inevitable when a human population increases from 7.7 million in 1891 to 43.1 million in 1993 (Aung, 1994). One international study (Anon., 1983b) reported that, “Satellite monitoring shows that the estimated 57% forest cover of 13 years ago [1970] had been reduced to 47% by 1980, a percentage figure which included even then vast areas of scrub vegetation and bamboo. Deforestation is estimated to be continuing at an average rate of 250,000 acres a year.” Deforestation in other Asian countries has always brought an initial heavy demand for elephants inevitably followed by a catastrophic loss of work for elephant owners and food sources for their elephants.

A fresh challenge is that Myanmar banned the capture of wild elephants in 1995, at a time when the birth rate of the MTE’s ‘herd’ is too low to sustain itself, even though that birth rate is as good as anywhere else in Asia. Nonetheless, the MTE’s absolute control over nearly half the national population ensures easy implementation of straightforward corrective methods - so long as senior management allows.

· See “Captive breeding and the MTE,” page 116.

Hard data abounds, at least relative to other countries, but very little of a general nature has been written about Myanmar recently, so many questions about craft and culture, in particular, remain obscure. Several very fine books about domesticated elephants have come out of Burma, as Myanmar was called when they were all written. (To avoid anachronisms, Myanmar will always be called Burma for the distant past and for describing events whenever Burma was still the country’s official English-language name.) Evans’s 1910 Elephants and Their Diseases is a landmark work on the hands-on management and veterinary care of elephants, and Ferrier’s very similar 1947 work, The Care and Management of Elephants in Burma, is equally valuable. The classic Elephant Bill (Williams, 1950) makes for excellent and informative reading, as does Williams’s 1954 Bandoola, although that work is more atmospheric and offers less factual information. (One cannot read Williams without wishing that he had written a book specifically for elephant managers.) Gale’s Burmese Timber Elephant (1974) remains a first-class blend of hard information and colorful description. If the present book focused on the timeless aspects of keeping technique rather than contemporary problems, all of these books would feature far more than they do below.

Wild elephants

Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) gave a figure of 3,000 to 10,000 wild elephants for Myanmar. Citing Ye Htut and Myint Aung as sources, Santiapillai (Pers. Comm., 1996) says there are between 4,000 and 6,000 wild elephants. Htut (1996) cites a minimum of 4,155 wild elephants in several prime areas: the northern hills, the Arakan Yoma, the Bago Yoma, the Tanintharyi Yoma, and the Shan State and the Chin State. Anon. (1983b) wrote that, “Large numbers [of wild elephants] are poached for their ivory by local security personnel and other gun-holders....”

Myanmar’s ratio of domesticated elephants to wild elephants is, like that of Thailand, extremely high - about 130% - as shown in Table 3. (See “Domesticated-to-wild elephant ratio,” page 26.)

Distribution of domesticated elephants

Although especially common in mountainous areas, domesticated elephants are found all over the country. Myanmar is unique in having Asia’s last sizeable number of domesticated elephants living and working a traditional life in lowland forests.

· See Table 9, page 105, for numbers by state.

Numbers of domesticated elephants

Before World War II the number of domesticated elephants was significantly higher than now, but the total will never be known with any degree of certainty. The British colonial authorities seemingly never collected, or perhaps never published, data on domesticated elephants.

Past numbers

The question of high pre-war numbers of domesticated elephants might seem academic until one considers the impact of massive captures upon the source, Myanmar’s wild elephant populations, where the elephant’s long reproductive span ensures that the ill effects of any such captures are still felt to this day.

Estimates for pre-war numbers are unclear and perplexing. Evans (1910) casually mentions that at the time the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation owned “2,000 or 3,000 elephants.” Hundley (1935) later refers to a single teak firm with 1,507 elephants. Gale (1974) states that the number of elephants “owned by the timber industry of [pre-war] Burma was about 10,000,” including 6,500 full-grown elephants and 3,500 under the age of 18. Williams (1950) states that at a conservative estimate before World War II there were about 6,000 adult elephants at work for teak firms and thus (assuming another 4,000 animals too young or too old to work) his numbers would seem to agree with Gale’s 10,000. A later government source says that before the war there were about 7,000 elephants engaged in the timber industry (Anon., 1982a).

Coming from true experts but couched in hopelessly vague terms, such population estimates raise some puzzling questions about the elephants owned and hired by teak firms and even more puzzling questions about the number of elephants neither owned nor employed by the teak firms. From Evans (1910) to Gale (1974), no contemporary expert ever published an opinion on the number of elephants that were not working for the teak firms.

Since time immemorial many elephants in any national population have been local or ‘home’ groups which produced large numbers of animals to be sent to work venues employing many elephants: logging concessions, construction projects, key trade routes, etc. Busy work sites such as logging camps will keep very few elephants which cannot be worked, so every work group comprised entirely of healthy, adult elephants must also have a counterpart group incapable of work: calves, pregnant and nursing cows, old elephants, physically unfit elephants, etc. This counterpart group of unproductive elephants will normally be based in the home village, where care is much easier and cheaper.

Probably about 40% of a typical elephant population is unable to do hard work. (It might be a bit more or less, but 40% is close enough for the following argument.) Assuming four unproductive counterpart elephants at home for every six elephants hired by the teak firms, then many elephants have not been counted in the 10,000 ‘teak firm elephants’. Furthermore, beyond logging, a great many fit, privately-owned elephants must obviously have worked as khoonkies and even more as pack animals on regular trade routes, particularly in the remote and hilly areas of north and east Burma. Accepting 10,000 elephants as the consensus of opinion for pre-war teak firm elephants in Burma, if only another 3,000 uncounted fit adult elephants worked privately (and if they had their approximately 2,000 unproductive counterparts), there could theoretically have been upwards of 15,000 domesticated elephants in pre-war Burma, perhaps even 20,000 - a not implausible figure given that 20,000 elephants have been ascribed to nearby northern Thailand a few decades earlier. Clearly, numbers before World War II were much higher than the numbers given for teak firms by Evans, Williams, or Gale - although just how much higher remains anybody’s guess.

Whatever numbers were before World War II, the conflict had grievous effect on Burma’s domesticated elephants. All the warring parties desired elephants as work animals; both the British and the Japanese invariably confiscated elephants, but the Japanese more frequently overworked them, often to death. Invaluable in transport, logging, and construction (especially building bridges), elephants were killed from the air and the ground by both sides. Many owners released their animals into the forest so as to give them a chance of survival. Other owners, trying to make the best of a bad business, sold their elephants cheaply into Thailand, which although technically an ally of the Japanese witnessed little fighting.

Only about 2,500 of Burma’s elephants survived the conflict according to Gale (1974), who wrote that “it is incredible that such a large number of giants should vanish so completely within a short span of three years.”

In 1973, the Working People’s Settlement Board, Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, stated that Burma had 6,672 domesticated elephants, both government and private, which by 1982 had dropped to 5,398, or a decline of 19% over nine years, a drop of serious proportions (Anon., 1982a). Olivier’s figures for Burma for the late 1970s are low by half, suggesting that he did not tally privately-owned elephants (Olivier, 1978b).

Present numbers

In 1993-94 (data are given in fiscal years in Myanmar) there were 2,873 MTE elephants (Mar, 1995a) and 2,718 surveyed privately-owned elephants (LBVD data), giving a total of 5,591 elephants, as shown in Table 9. The true total is undoubtedly higher because some privately-owned elephants have not been registered, especially in remote and troubled areas.

Dr. Khyne U Mar (Pers. comm., 1996) estimates that the number of privately-owned elephants is twice those hired by the MTE, which agrees well with the 2,718 animals surveyed by the Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department (LBVD). (The Forest Department, the agency legally charged with registration, has not published numbers for many years.) Adding the MTE’s 2,873 elephants to the 2,718 surveyed by the LBVD gives 5,591, which, allowing for some unregistered animals, suggests that 6,000 elephants is a reasonable minimum.

Several strong arguments point to the likelihood of higher numbers of privately-owned elephants. First, there must be sizeable numbers of unregistered animals in remote areas and in areas of weak government control, particularly areas occupied by tribal elephant-keeping peoples such as the Shan (Tai Yai) and the Karen. (Aung [1994] says that in 1985 many unlicensed elephants were found in Kachin.) Second, even in government-controlled areas registration procedures would seem to have become less rigorous of late (as will be discussed below), suggesting uncounted elephants. Third, a significant amount of illegal capture suggests uncounted elephants, the captors naturally wishing to avoid registration; the number of elephants smuggled into Thailand supports this contention. Fourth, assuming all data in Table 9 to be accurate, if the 1,126 privately-owned, fit, adult elephants hired by the MTE have 750 unproductive counterparts (40%) at home, then only 850 surveyed and registered elephants remain, of which 340 must be unproductive; this leaves the suspiciously low number of only about 500 fit adults to work in private logging (especially softwoods), transport, and village work. These four arguments might easily justify another 500 elephants, perhaps even 1,000, leaving a probably high but still plausible maximum figure of 7,000 domesticated elephants in Myanmar. Let the ‘most likely’ number be 6,400.

The sex ratio of males to females of all ages owned by the MTE in 1993-94 was 0.74:1, slightly lower than the 0.86:1 ratio of Thailand in the same year. Sex ratios in capture would seem to be a big factor; the male-to-female ratio of elephants captured between 1973-1982 was said to be 0.45:1 (Anon., 1982a), an imbalance which undoubtedly reflects the natural bias of kheddah to capture female-and-young family units.

Legal status

The Wildlife Protection (Amendment) Act, 1956, forbids the hunting, capture, possession, sale, or purchase of live or dead elephants or their products without proper permission. Myanmar is not a signatory of CITES but is considering joining. The Elephant Regulation Act of 1951 requires that domesticated elephants register with the Forestry Department.

Table 9: Domesticated elephants in Myanmar, 1993-94

- Myanma Timber Enterprise 1-

- Privately owned -


Full Grown 2

Trained Calf

Calf At Heel


Elephants 3 Hired by MTE 4









M + F

























East Bago












West Bago










- 5






































































































































1 Myanma Timber Enterprise data as cited by Dr. Khyne U Mar (Mar, 1995a). Figures for 1994-95 were available (2,924), but 1993-94 was used so as to allow comparison in the same year as the infrequently censused privately-owned elephants. Provinces are listed in decreasing order.

2 Full Grown is 18 years and over; Trained Calf is 5-17 years; and Calf At Heel is under 5 years.

3 Data on privately-owned elephants for 1993-94 is courtesy of U Than Hla, Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department, which conducts a census every 4 to 8 years.

4 MTE data on privately-owned elephants engaged by the MTE to work within that state; they are not necessarily registered in that state. ‘Hired’ is the word usually used, but in fact such elephants are working at piece-rate under contract.

5 The LBVD gives figures only for ‘Bago’.


Registration of domesticated elephants is required at the age of three months by the Elephant Regulation Act of 1951, the primary intent of which is to prevent illegal trade and illegal capture (Aung, 1994). The Working People’s Settlement Board (1982a) stated that, “Privately owned elephants are registered with the Forest Department and their movements are controlled by the same department.” Unfortunately, since the late 1980s the Forestry Department has had insufficient funds to systematically register elephants (Mar, pers. comm., 1996).

MTE elephants are far more meticulously documented than privately-owned elephants, although registration numbers are assigned only after the animal completes training. Elephants are chemically branded at the time the elephant is registered; the MTE brand, a star, and the registration number are applied with caustic soda. Privately-owned elephants are not required to be ‘branded’.

· See “Marking for individual identification,” page 244.

A current project, the first of its kind in Asia, is compiling a central database on the MTE’s elephants, the data coming from each elephant’s meticulously maintained log book (called “Form J”). This database is a collaboration between the MTE and the Smithsonian Institution (Conservation and Research Center, National Zoological Park), with Dr. Chris Wemmer as scientific supervisor; financial assistance has been provided by the International Foundation for Science of Sweden (IFSS). The MTE’s traditional log books (similar to the ‘studbooks’ of individual animals of endangered species kept in the West) have always travelled everywhere with the elephant and have only now been gathered from across the country, a wealth of long dormant information. (It is easy to imagine a forgotten closet full of Form J’s collecting dust long after the death of their namesakes.) Besides all of the expected information on biodata, work history, and veterinary history, MTE log books note myriad other details.1 This database will effectively become by far the world’s largest studbook on Asian elephants.

A specific practical goal of the MTE-Smithsonian database is to analyze all data pertinent to reproduction (e.g., intercalving interval, age-specific fecundity, neonatal mortality) so as to improve hands-on management in the field. Mar (1994) says the aim is “to calculate descriptive statistics for each of the life history variables which could then be used to model population growth rate and to recommend changes in management necessary for births to exceed deaths....” Given the log books’ wide dispersal, it has proven difficult to trace biodata relating to breeding, such as calving rate, intercalving interval, and data indicative of inbreeding {Wemmer, 1996}. A wider management concern of the database is to compare the reproductive parameters between captive-born and wild-caught elephants and also between dry-zone and wet-zone elephants.

A second phase of this ambitious and badly needed project will collect data on privately-owned elephants.

Institutions involved

The Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE), originally constituted in 1952 as the State Timber Corporation, holds a monopoly on the extraction and marketing of teak. It employs nearly 50,000 people and operates 38 extracting and rafting agencies (Gyi and Tint, 1995). The MTE’s absolute control over half of the country’s domesticated elephants means that any problems or inadequacies should be easily addressable, if not easily correctable.

· See “Myanma Timber Enterprise elephants,” page 126, for life and work history.

The Forest Department is responsible for the registration and controlling the movements of privately-owned elephants. (Blower [1985a] wrote, “The Forest Department, one of the oldest in Asia, is technically still responsible for managing the forests [and elephants], but is hampered by serious shortages of staff and funds, and by the fact that it has little control over the more powerful Timber Corporation.”) The Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department (LBVD), although under no formal obligation whatsoever, is involved in the veterinary treatment of some but not all privately-owned elephants; with some funds and training, the LBVD’s role could be greatly expanded.

International interest

In the early 1980s a great deal of attention was suddenly focused on wild elephants in Burma, and some concern lapped over to domesticated elephants. An FAO consultant published a key paper on the demographics and population biology of both domesticated and wild elephants, including the likely effects of capture (Caughley, 1980); and a government agency, the Working People’s Settlement Board (WPSB), soon followed with an important paper and data about the management of both wild and domesticated elephants (Anon., 1982a). (The WPSB was the originator of official publications on wildlife before the establishment of the Wildlife and National Parks Division of the Forest Department.) A UNDP-FAO project on wildlife and national parks clarified the likely ramifications of capture on wild populations (Anon., 1983b). Improved capture methods were recommended by Farrrell (1981).

A highly visible and ambitious proposal (“The Importance of Elephants in Burmese Forestry”) saw wild and domesticated elephants as “two interdependent components.” This proposal suggested a cooperative effort involving the State Timber Corporation (the precursor of the MTE), the Forest Department, and IUCN/WWF; funding was to come from the World Bank (McNeely, 1980). The intention was to enhance management at the State Timber Corporation by improving administration and planning, existing elephant expertise being already sufficient. Project components included establishing a school for training elephants, teaching foresters about elephant management, and preparing a course in veterinary medicine. Olivier (1980) wrote that “the State Timber Corporation is planning an improved captive-elephant management program, which amongst other objectives, aims ‘to improve standards of nutrition, captive breeding, and working’.”

Unfortunately, not one of these far-sighted projects was ever realized, probably because of government institutions undergoing change.

Veterinary care and health

The elephants of the Myanma Timber Enterprise all receive excellent veterinary care. Caughley (1980) states, “Veterinary treatment and training in Burma is modern, highly developed, and backed by an elaborate recording system.... Burma could teach other countries a lot about veterinary care of elephants but there is little or nothing on this subject that other countries could teach Burma.” The MTE in 1995 had a managerial and veterinary staff of one manager, 11 assistant managers, 44 departmental veterinarians, and 3 veterinary assistants.

All elephants are inoculated against haemorrhagic septicaemia and anthrax, which are fairly common. (Smith [1930] noted that in some areas anthrax killed as many as 10% of the elephants: “Anthrax is always liable to attack the crowded stationary camps in the hot weather, and when it comes it kills off the beasts like flies.”) Filiarisis is a common complaint, although only rarely a fatal one.

While the use of highly sophisticated techniques is often impossible ‘off in the bush’, this lack is compensated for by a wellspring of practical experience and a deep understanding of elephants. Herbal medicines are still very widely used, not out of necessity but out of conviction; and it would be very welcome if someone knowledgeable were to write about traditional medicine. The author remembers being sceptically amused upon reading in Evans (1910) about an eye ointment containing many bizarre ingredients, including spider web; some years later he was chagrined upon learning that Swiss scientists had just discovered antibiotic properties in spider web. (Still, modern medicine is in most cases superior, with traditional medicine best playing a valued support role.)

The Myanma Timber Enterprise is currently conducting four research projects pertaining to either scientific animal husbandry or veterinary medicine (Mar, 1995a). First, there is a project using radioimmunoassay of serum progesterone to study the elephant’s estrous cycle with an aim to improving the management of breeding; this work is being conducted under a grant from the IFSS with the support of the Metro Washington Park Zoo (Portland, Oregon, USA). Second, a project is studying elephant semen in order to assess its characteristics when used in both natural mating and in artificial insemination; scientific support and funds were given by the IFSS. Third, there is a project to establish a captive breeding program in the Bago Division, using natural mating; collaborating institutions are the Metro Washington Park Zoo and the Smithsonian Institution. The fourth project is the MTE-Smithsonian database described above. (See “Registration,” page 106.)

Two groups of elephants in Myanmar do not receive adequate veterinary care. First, many elephants in troubled areas get absolutely no veterinary care except for traditional medicine. Second, while MTE and LBVD veterinarians will upon request treat privately-owned elephants, many animals must lie beyond their reach and resources.

Myanmar’s privately-owned elephants are likely future recipients of treatment by the Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department (LBVD). Unlike most livestock departments in the region, the LBVD does not perceive the elephant as a commercially insignificant relic of ancient times but rather as a central element in Myanmar’s cultural heritage {Hla, 1995}. The LBVD is obviously highly motivated and competent, although possessing relatively little specific expertise in elephants; they presently treat privately-owned elephants whenever possible. Since the LBVD seems very interested in expanding their efforts, future possibilities should be explored. The LBVD has a close relationship with the MTE, all their veterinarians being colleagues, so cooperation and transmission of expertise should be easy. With some outside support, the LBVD, probably in tandem with the MTE, should be able to extend to privately-owned elephants the same excellent care now enjoyed by the MTE’s elephants.


Capture was legally banned in Myanmar as of 1995, a decision which spells a decided shift from exploitive 19th-century attitudes to modern conservation values. Mar (1996) writes, “The long-term survival of the elephant is crucial to Myanmar’s ecosystem, and the Ministry of Forestry ... has laid great stress in implementing a combined management program incorporating both the wild and domestic elephant populations.” The 1995 ban on capture was a commendable and farsighted act which must be applauded wholeheartedly, particularly considering the challenges and the higher costs which a lack of captives will entail.

One higher cost will be to find a new source of recruits to compensate for the loss of wild captives. Mar (1992a) states, “The timber elephant population is normally augmented by capture of wild elephants, but the availability of appropriate-sized wild elephants appears to be declining .... Captive breeding has become the alternative to replenish the declining population of timber elephants.”

The MTE’s demand for elephant extraction power will remain constant, but to increase captive births will require more time for elephants to mate (and for cows to safely gestate and lactate), thus cutting into work time. In the short term any successful breeding program will invariably cost the MTE lower profits through lost elephant-hours skidding logs. In the long term, however, a finely-tuned breeding operation would surely prove to be a cost-saving measure by obviating the need to expensively buy or expensively capture elephants.

Recruitment in colonial days

The British started their forestry ventures in 1856 after the annexation of lower Burma. Where did the teak firms get their initial stock? Where did they subsequently get the replacements needed to fill the gap between low captive births and the high number of work elephants required? The question of the original stocking of teak firms is particularly fascinating considering that even by the acme in the 1930s (when Williams said there were 6,000 elephants working for teak firms), logging teak at massive scale for export was a modern aberration with a brief history of 60 or 70 years, approximately an elephant’s life span or the active working years of only two generations of elephants.

Evans (1910) remarks there is “a source of supply of more or less trained elephants” which comes from the Karens, Talmes, and “Laos” (by which he meant people from the country today called Thailand). Referring to mountainous eastern Burma down to the Chao Phraya River basin of central Thailand, Evans says, “In this somewhat sparsely populated and little cultivated country, intersected by rivers and mountain chains, the elephant finds a congenial home, and it is in this country, inhabited by a shy and retiring people, that a number elephants are bred in captivity.” Some chiefs owned as many as one hundred elephants, having a particular penchant for young tuskers of five or six years. Hundley (1922) wrote, “The Sgau Karens have handled elephants for generations, and numbers of calves have been born to their herds.” He noted that many captive-born animals were ultimately either bought or hired by the timber firms.


A brief synopsis of recent capture remains germane, despite the 1995 ban, because the impact of past capture still shapes the composition of today’s domesticated population. (A steady flow of cheap wild captives in the past possibly still shapes the perceptions of many administrators as well.) If breeding efforts should prove inadequate, a distinct possibility unless sacrifices in productivity are accepted, pressure will undoubtedly rise to return to capture as a means of recruitment. In any case, a complete halt to capture is unlikely so long as increasing man-elephant conflict can be used to argue for capture as a wildlife management technique to counter crop raiding, to protect human life, and even to save the lives of ‘doomed’ wild elephants. (These three arguments to justify capture were often voiced in northeast India following a ban on capture.)

To modern eyes, capture in Myanmar has until very recently undoubtedly involved much cruelty (although it would hardly have seemed that to the perpetrators). Describing a training crush in a pre-war mela-shikar capture by the Hkumti-Shans, Hunt (1967) says, “It had not been a pleasant experience. An elephant born in captivity is brought up amongst human beings and its training is humane from the day it begins; but a wild beast parted from the herd and its mother must suffer agonies before its will is broken.” The “agonies” visited upon elephants invariably stop to be replaced by titbits and words of praise immediately upon an animal submitting or learning a behavior. Unfortunately, particularly with older elephants, the animal’s body is all too often broken before its will.

Past capture

Capture at a vast scale has long been practised in what is now Myanmar. A major elephant capture center long existed in Pegu in lower Burma; Olivier (1978b) says, “Before 1658 elephants were being exported to South India and to Gujarat in north-west India. After 1650 many of them went to Ceylon as well.” In fact, by 1650 trade in elephants - which surely depended mostly on catching wild elephants - had an already ancient history. Records from as early as the 5th and 6th centuries BC show that Sri Lanka received elephants from the ruling monarchs of both India and Burma (Jayewardene, 1994c). During the 12th century AD, as recorded in the Culavamsa, a Burmese king, King Ramana, banned the export of elephants and, according to Jayewardene, he likewise put an end to the ancient custom of giving an elephant to every ship that bore presents to the king [of Sri Lanka].” The Sinhalese-Burmese trade, just like the Sinhalese-Thai trade, was always strong because all three countries practiced Theravada Buddhism. Extensive early exports to India are also indicated.

Burma maintained a government Kheddah Department until 1912 (Olivier, 1978b). Between 1910 and 1927 there were 7,000 elephants captured; between 1910 and 1972 some 14,149 were captured (Anon., 1982a). (About 450 were released but many of those probably died soon from injuries.) Sukumar (1992) says, “Nearly 17,000 elephants were captured during 1911-1982 in Burma.”

A comprehensive Elephant Control Scheme was implemented in 1935 (Yin, 1967). Some areas were declared elephant sanctuaries while others “were classified as areas in which the extermination of elephants was desirable in the interest of the country’s development...” Besides crop protection and the destruction of ‘rogues’, the Scheme was also intended to ensure a regular flow of captives to the market. A theoretical total of 4,000 wild elephants was considered ample to generate sufficient captives to satisfy market demand, and thus Burma was deemed to be carrying “a surplus stock” of 6,000 wild elephants. Consequently, between 1935-36 and 1940-41 in Burma (including the Shan States) some 3,229 wild elephants were killed while another 1,286 were captured in kheddahs, with a few undesirable animals being released. (Oddly enough, the Elephant Control Scheme survived until at least as late as 1982, according to Anon. [1982a], although by that time there was no systematic extermination but only “regular and controlled capture.”)

Such a massive offtake must surely have had staggering impact on the wild population, especially in the favored capture areas.

Recent capture

After a hiatus during World War II, capture resumed as normal in Burma with 2,380 animals captured between 1945-1962 (281 released) and 1,533 captured between 1962-1972 (50 released), according to Forest Department statistics which unfortunately include neither the mortality rate nor the numbers captured by different methods (Anon., 1982a). Between 1945 and 1967 a total of 2,556 wild elephants were caught by kheddah alone (142 elephants a year on average) and 317 released, with a 12.4% mortality rate (Gale, 1974). Between 1970 and 1993, a total of 2,122 elephants were caught and 83 released, with an 18.6% mortality rate (Aung, 1994).

· See Table 11, page 117, for capture figures from 1980-81 to 1994-95.

A March 1996 press report in Bangkok quotes the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper, as saying that eight wild elephants were captured by the Forest Department using “six tame animals as lures,” and that, “Wild elephants that have been trampling over Burmese farms are being captured and turned into useful members of society that can help with logging....” Although the details are not necessarily to be taken as accurate, such a semi-official report indicates that at least some government condoned capture still occurs.


By the early 1980s many scientists were extremely concerned about the impact of a heavy offtake on wild elephants. Mar (1995a) says the official maximum allowed offtake was set at 200 a year from 1974-75 to 1980-81, 150 a year for 1981-82, 120 a year for 1982-83 to 1989-90, and 60 for 1990-91. None of these quotas were ever met. (See Table 11.)

Taking 1981-82 as a typical year, the annual capture quota was for 150 elephants to be caught in eight areas by 23 teams: 14 kheddah operations, 6 mela-shikar operations, and 3 drug immobilization operations (Anon., 1982a). All capture was done by private parties except for the drug immobilization teams of the State Timber Corporation. Only 80 elephants were captured.

Even though captures consistently fell short of the official maximum sustainable offtake (a number based on a probably grossly overestimated wild population), one international study (Anon., 1983b) noted that the number of captures was “still excessive because the offtake is not in fact evenly distributed over the population as a whole, but is taken from the most accessible portions of the population.” A government source, the Working Peoples Settlement Board (Anon., 1982a), acknowledged the regional bias and stated, “It is better to fix the offtake on the exact population area by area, though this would need a thorough census.” The WPSB also noted that, “Given the continued official offtake and the large but unknown illegal offtake the [wild] population is almost certainly in decline.” A decade later, Sukumar (1992) was still able to state that, “Although quantitative data are scanty, it has been suggested that offtake is higher than the annual rate of growth of the elephant population.”

All such pessimistic assessments owed much to Caughley (1980), the first scientist to analyze the population demographics of both wild and domesticated elephants in Burma. Caughley’s key conclusions for the wild population were that the maximum sustainable offtake was 2.5% of the wild population and that, “The current capture rate of about 120 elephants per year from the wild population [far below the quota of 200] is probably above the maximum possible yield.”

Capture methods and mortality

A flurry of studies in the 1980s soon showed that mortality rates in capture were quite high. Government figures (Anon., 1982a) state that between 1972-73 and 1981-82 some 1,171 elephants were captured at the cost of an all-method mortality rate of 20%, with deaths varying significantly according to the method employed. The 643 kheddah captures produced the highest mortality rate of 24.7%, the 231 drug immobilizations had a rate of 20.8%, but 297 mela-shikar captures produced a mortality rate of only 9.4%.

Between 1970-71 and 1992-93 there were 2,122 elephants captured with 83 releases and 395 deaths Aung (1994). The 1,042 kheddah captures resulted in a mortality rate of 30.1%, 621 drug immobilizations a rate of 9.7%, but 459 mela-shikar captures had a mortality rate of only 4.6%.

The available data on mortalities in capture gives only the numbers of deaths, whereas knowing both the sex and approximate age of dead elephants is essential in ascertaining which classes of elephant are particularly vulnerable. It is safe to assume, however, that older elephants will resist rough breaking more than younger ones and that males will resist more than females, and thus older animals and males always bear a disproportionate share of capture deaths.

Numerous causes have been offered for capture deaths ranging from septic rope burns to, however implausibly, parasites; but a frequent compounding factor, according to the WPSB (Anon., 1982a), was “the rough and brutal handling which the sometimes unskilled labour might have meted out to the unfortunate animals.”

Of the three capture methods only drug overdoses cause many deaths at the time of capture. Nearly all other deaths come during the first month or two of rough breaking. What kills elephants is nearly always the sort of post-capture care accorded, not the capture method itself, although certain kinds of post-capture treatment are often associated with particular capture methods.


Kheddah capture clearly was and is the most destructive of the three capture methods. A particularly gruesome year, 1970-71, brought 64 deaths out of 136 elephants captured or a mortality rate of 47% (Aung, 1994). Official figures cited by the WPSB show one kheddah operation in 1975-76 with 9 deaths out of 18 animals captured (Anon., 1982a). Such staggering official mortality figures for kheddah might even have been low. Blower (1982) wrote, “It seems that losses in the kheddah operations are as high as 60%.” Of a disastrous kheddah in 1982-83, John Blower said that only 2 out of 14 elephants survived (Pers. comm., 1985).

Three sources give average mortality rates for kheddah over periods of many years, with some overlap. For the years 1945 to 1967, Gale (1974) gave a mortality rate of 12.4%. For the years 1972-73 to 1981-82, official figures cited by the WPSB show a mortality rate of 24.7% (Anon., 1982a). For the years 1970-71 to 1982-83 plus the year 1991-92, there were 1,042 kheddah captures resulting in a mortality rate of 30.1% (Aung, 1994) These figures possibly indicate an increase in the mortality rate over recent years, possibly because of less supervision by government officials. After a halt since 1983-84, in 1991-92 kheddah was allowed once again; 55 elephants were captured at the cost of seven deaths, or a low mortality rate, relative to earlier years, of 12.7%, which suggests that the captives were considered important enough to be carefully supervised (Aung, 1994).

The nature of kheddah

High casualties clearly owe little to the physical aspects of kheddah but much to the practice of not immediately releasing unsuitable elephants and much to the crudity of the rough breaking.

A safe kheddah will as soon as possible release all elephants of certain classes prone to high mortality rates: older bulls, pugnacious cows, pregnant cows, infant calves and their mothers, etc. (As an indigenous system of sustained use, many Asian cultures have had strong taboos prohibiting the retention of certain vulnerable classes of captive elephants, most often pregnant cows and cows with nursing calves.) In the 1930s, according to Ferrier (1947), animals over 20 or 22 years became so highly stressed they were “almost invariably released at once.” Ferrier added that, “The older the animal the more it resents captivity, and the greater the probability of its dying of a broken heart.” Quickly releasing unwanted or prohibited kheddah-captured elephants is a fine ideal but an ideal which is easier said than done. Cutting out and releasing an angry bull (or even an angry cow) requires masterly expertise by both khoonkies and men. When lacking such skills or when unsupervised, many catchers will shoot problem elephants as a matter of course, the justification being that there is too little manpower and too few khoonkies to do otherwise. (John Blower said that in the early 1980s kheddah operators often killed captured bulls for their tusks [Pers. comm., 1985].)

Immediately upon the falling of the stockade gate there is an inexhaustible demand for mahouts and khoonkies to subdue and break all of the captives sufficiently to be able to walk them to the point of sale. Demand is equally high for unskilled labourers to gather food and haul drinking water. The bulk of manpower and food is naturally devoted to the younger, more compliant, and more valuable elephants, leaving the older, more stubborn, and less valuable animals bereft not only of food and water but also without the training needed to be able to walk them to it. When the training of problem elephants finally does begin, they are usually subject to a ‘make or break’ attitude by the mahouts, who stoically anticipate many deaths. The catchers are particularly impatient because after months of arduous work away from their families they are anxious to sell the well-habituated younger captives and go home. This pattern is typical of unsupervised large-scale kheddah - and quite unlike either mela-shikar or drug immobilization - largely because of the large number of elephants captured simultaneously. (Very small tribal kheddahs, such as the 7- to 9-man teams conducted by the Karen, are invariably much safer.)

Kheddah in Burma

The above dangers are common to unsupervised kheddah anywhere in Asia, but certain legal and managerial complications are unique to Myanmar. After independence from the British, the newly-formed Burmese government, after consultations with Forest Department officials, began to allow private parties to capture wild elephants upon the issuance by the Forest Department of a “Licence to Capture Elephants” or “Form I”. (The following discussion comes from studying Form I and from information supplied by Dr. Khyne U Mar [Pers. comm., 1996].) Essentially, the MTE, at the time still called the State Timber Corporation (STC), would inform the Forest Department of how many recruits it wished. Then, based on the results of yearly questionnaires filled by officials in each kheddah compartment, the Forest Department would “estimate or ‘guesstimate’ the population of wild elephants, select capture areas, and decide the number of captures.” Licences would then be given to private kheddah operators for nearly double the number of elephants requested by the STC.

After capture, the STC/MTE selected the best elephants for itself, before 1963 getting its elephants for nearly free.) The licensees then paid extremely low royalties (see Table 10) on the remaining, picked-over animals; the sale of government rejects constituted the catchers’ dubious profit. The licensees were always anxious for a return on their investment, having shouldered the considerable cost and risk of building the stockade and training the captives.

Licensing private parties was a system which did procure elephants for the STC/MTE at the lowest possible cost, but licensing encouraged abuse because profits were low and inspection was difficult. Many captures were either unreported or under-reported, with many elephants whisked off to be sold in Thailand or other areas beyond government’s reach. Form I forbids the capture of (or, with kheddah, demands the release of) elephants heavy with calf and “any malformed, diseased, or seriously wounded elephants,” all of which are to be set free immediately. Unfortunately, some greedy kheddah contractors keep and try to sell such hopelessly unsuitable animals, no matter how high the death rate.

For reasons of widespread misconduct, the government stopped kheddah by private oper-ators, with 1982-83 being the last year. Kheddah was allowed again in 1992-93, but with a quota of 100; even then, only 55 elephants were captured (Aung, 1994).

Table 10: Royalties paid for captured elephants, Myanmar 1

Height at shoulder

Kyats/foot 2

Below 5’


5’ to 5’11”


6’ to 6’11”


7’ to 7’11”


8’ and up


1 As found in “Licence to Capture Elephants (Form I),” issued under Rules 3 and 13(a) of the Burma Wild Life Protection Rules 1941.

2 Royalty fees paid by licensees for May 1993 and after; earlier rates were about half the above.


Mela-shikar had by far the lowest mortality rate, 9.4%, between 1972-73 and 1981-82 (Anon., 1982a). Aung (1994) states that between 1970-71 and 1992-93 some 459 mela-shikar captures resulted in a mortality rate of only 4.6%. Nonetheless, one cannot help but suspect that with better supervision even the low 4.6% rate could have been easily reduced by the early release of particularly recalcitrant elephants.

Mela-shikar is intrinsically safe for three reasons. First, mela-shikar is inherently selective, being a rifle compared to kheddah’s shotgun; mela-shikar normally targets only carefully studied and selected individuals, nearly always younger and thus more pliable animals. (It is important to note that capturing young elephants is good because it lowers death rates but bad because excessive capture can negatively effect the reproduction of the remaining wild elephants a two decade or two in the future.) Second, mela-shikar also brings few deaths because relatively few elephants are caught at one time, leaving sufficient manpower to feed, water, and quickly but safely rough break the captives. Third, mortality will be low in mela-shikar because, unlike much kheddah, all personnel will be highly skilled at mahoutship and training.

One unfortunate limitation of mela-shikar in Myanmar is that it is circumscribed geographically, being practised only in parts of the northwest, bordering Assam. Another limitation is that mela-shikar’s leather noose has been largely superceded by a ‘chemical noose’, drug immobilization, at least in wildlife management.

Drug immobilization

Burma’s first drug immobilization capture (using M-99) was in 1967. The method has been employed ever since to capture wild elephants and also to subdue marauding domesticated elephants, mostly bulls in musth. Since 1982-83, drug immobilization has been the only method used to legally capture wild elephants except for some kheddah in 1992-93 (Aung, 1994).

Drug immobilization is highly selective, like mela-shikar and unlike kheddah. Of recent drug captures, Nooteboom (1992) says, “Only the young animals are kept while the others are released back into the forest.” As with mela-shikar, the preference for young animals can damage the source wild source’s reproduction when the captives’ generation reaches breeding age.

Between 1972-73 and 1981-82 some 231 elephants were captured using drugs, with a mortality rate of 20.8% (Anon., 1982a). Aung (1994) states that between 1970-71 and 1992-93 some 621 drug immobilizations resulted in a rate of 9.7%; a table shows that between 1986-87 and 1992-92, only 16 elephants out of 210 drug captures died, or 7.6%, more deaths than necessary but still a vast improvement.2

In none of the data is the cause of death given, making it impossible to separate deaths from drugs (overdoses, inappropriate drugs, etc.) and deaths from bad post-capture treatment. Because all drug immobilizations were conducted by government officers, it would make sense to assume that drug-caught elephants received better than average post-capture care, suggesting but not proving a high incidence of overdoses.

Drug immobilization, wrote Gale (1974), “has been established not as an alternative but as an adjunct to the traditional methods of kheddah and mela-shikar.” McNeely (1980a) suggested devising and implementing “an improved capture programme, possibly based on the use of tranquilising drugs and the traditional mela-shikar capture system.” The biggest practical problem with drug immobilization, according to Dr. Khyne U Mar (Pers. comm., 1996), is that much like mela-shikar it requires highly skilled personnel and much time.

Lack of supervision

A biologist (Blower, 1985a) who spent three years surveying wildlife in Burma in the early 1980s wrote: “The management of already captive elephants and their initial training should be improved; there is much ‘wastage’ which results from maltreatment....” Much of the maltreatment would not occur if licensees were closely monitored. High mortality rates in recent years have come mostly from a lack of strict government supervision during the rough breaking phase.

During colonial days in India it was discovered that supposedly unavoidable high casualties, long held sacrosanct particularly for kheddah capture, could be cut to almost nothing under strict rules and supervision. The pioneer was undoubtedly A.J.W. Milroy, a strict disciplinarian who firmly believed that beyond saving elephants’ lives, humane training also produced better workers (Milroy, 1922). While Conservator of Forests in Assam in the 1920s, Milroy (1927) instituted strict capture rules by which “the training casualties, which have been known to be as high as 48%, have been reduced to less than 1%....” Writing of Assam in 1949, Gee (1949) said, “Twenty elephants were caught by a particular elephant catching company during the last season, twelve in the stockade and eight by mela shikar ... All completed their training without mishap, and were duly sold.”

Capture in Burma, including rough breaking, used to be closely monitored. Immediately after World War II, Ferrier (1947) wrote that, “Keddah operators who have a large proportion of deaths among their captives are ‘blacklisted’.” Blower (1982) wrote, “In former times the kheddah operations for the capture of wild elephants were very carefully supervised, but it is now left to independent contractors who go out into the jungle without any supervision and have to produce so many elephants....”

Aung (1994) raises several critical questions concerning kheddah capture, including the level of experience of the capture team and whether there is adequate supervision by veterinarians. (While a veterinary presence is desirable, the basic need is simply for on-site officials with sufficient knowledge of elephants to spot abuse and sufficient power to stop it immediately.) Aung even asks: “Should the Forest Department be allowed to capture elephants by the Kheddah method?”

Illegal capture

Illegal capture has long been and still remains common in remote areas where there are both wild elephants and traditional elephant-catching peoples. Illegal capture is by either kheddah or mela-shikar, depending on region. In the early 1980s a government report (Anon., 1982a) referred to a “large but unknown [illegal] offtake.” MTE data shows 102 recorded cases of illegal capture between 1982 and 1995 (Mar, pers. comm., 1996), and that is probably the tip of the iceberg. Illegal capture must be particularly rife in enclaves along or near the Thai border. Aung (1994) mentions widespread illegal capture in remote areas, including the states of Mon, Rakhine, and Kayin and in the Sagaing division; he states that “we need a systematic programme to prevent poaching and illegal offtake.”

Illegal capture, which by definition lacks official post-capture supervision, undoubtedly produces some very high mortality rates. Although not necessarily to be believed, a 1994 story in a Bangkok newspaper reported that Karens (who are usually quite kind to elephants) had captured six or seven wild elephants in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province by pit capture, a very destructive method, and then hustled them into Myanmar. Also found along the Thai-Myanmar border is the most horrible form of illegal capture: to shoot a cow elephant in order to catch her calf.

· See “The market,” page 124, for illegal sales to Thailand.

Breeding and the MTE

Managers long accustomed to a regular supply of inexpensive wild-caught elephants - as is the case with the MTE - will tend to ignore captive breeding. Evans (1910) blithely, even smugly, wrote, “As long as a sufficient number can be procured by capture, it would be absurd to attempt to breed them.” But Evans was clearly flustered when in boom times the teak firms desperately needed elephants but the few decent animals available cost so much that “prices hitherto considered exceptional have now become, for the time being at least, ordinary rates.” Evans’s gripes ramble on: “the supply appears to be insufficient; for years prices have been on the rise,” and “purchasers of late have had to go far afield,” and “it would appear highly desirable to ... reduce these abnormal prices.” Such complaints express the inevitable price of believing that “it would be absurd to attempt to breed them.”

Past breeding

Breeding by teak-logging enterprises is nothing new. Sixty years ago, at least one teak firm escaped the high prices in periods of peak demand by breeding its own elephants. Williams (1950) remarks that for years his firm had, at considerable cost and inconvenience, purchased elephants:

When, however, the Bombay Burma Corporation had built up considerable herds of elephants, it realized the importance of the elephant calves born in captivity. These could be broken in and trained much more easily than captured wild elephants. Finally, when the Corporation’s herds had nearly reached a strength of 2,000 animals, it was found that births balanced the deaths, and that new supplies of elephants were required on rare occasions. The kheddaring of wild elephants, on any extensive scale, thus came to an end, as it was unnecessary.

Other firms were not quite so assiduous but still hosted reasonable numbers of captive births. One of Burma’s smaller private teak firms, Steel Brothers and Co., which owned 1,507 elephants of which at least 365 were captive born (Hundley, 1935). Ferrier (1947) writes that, “In normal times the large timber firms were able to replace about 50% of their elephant deaths by calves born to their herds....” Williams (1950) estimated that some 70% of Burma’s 6,000 logging elephants before World War II were born in captivity.

The goals of breeding

Past breeding in Myanmar, just as all over Asia, has been almost entirely haphazard and unplanned. One fascinating set of decisions presently facing the MTE is the explicit goals of its new policy to breed rather than capture elephants. Mar (1995b) gives three objectives: to meet the MTE’s demand for new recruits, to explore the parameters of domesticated elephants in Myanmar, and “to implement desired characteristics such as tuskness, tractability, good mothering ability, reliability, etc.” Of artificial insemination, Mar (1995a) says that one advantage is “its potential for maximizing genetic variability.” Mar et al. (1992) state that the need for captive-born calves “emphasized the importance of selecting the best sires for successful natural and artificial breeding in Myanmar elephants.” The question is, the “best sires” for what purpose?

From a wildlife management perspective, captive breeding is not as simple as it might seem. Frankel and Soule (1980) point out that, “It can be convincingly argued that domestication is an insidious and corrupting force in every CP [captive propagation] programme and that it is impossible to avoid selective breeding by the humans who manage such programmes.” Frankel and Soule recognize at least four kinds of selection that are likely to influencedummy for Table 11the genetics of captive bred animals: selection for increased productivity, selection for perfect type, selection for tractability, and the practice of ‘non-selection’.

- Deaths -2

- Births -3

- Captures -4

Change in population 5

- % of deaths by age class-

% of births

% of


Total elephants

No. of deaths


Full Grown

Trained Calf

Calf At Heel

No. of births


Breeding Females

No. of captures























































































































































































































1 Myanma Timber Enterprise data as cited by Dr. Khyne U Mar (Mar, 1995a; Mar, 1995b).

2 Deaths are listed, then given as a percentage of the total population, and then of three age groups: Full Grown elephants (18 years and over), Trained Calves (5-17 years), an Calves At Heel (under 5 years).

3 Total births are listed and then expressed as a percentage of the total population. For 1991-92 through 1994-95, births are listed as the percentage of calvings amongst Breeding Females, which are simply cows of 18 years and over.

4 Captures are listed and then expressed as a percentage of the total population; quotas are the official maximum offtake.

5 The change in the population is expressed in relation to the year before, first in changes in numbers and then as percentage increase or, lately, decrease of the total population.

Practically speaking, prospective breeding programs in Asia, including Myanmar, are faced with three basic choices or directions: breeding to preserve local wild genotypes, breeding for ideal type (probably for physical conformation but possibly for temperament), or breeding for sheer numbers. Normally, the wildlife biologist naturally prefers to preserve wild genotypes, the animal husbandry expert prefers to produce ideal specimens, and the business manager prefers to produce high numbers. Some goals might possibly be advanced simultaneously, but ultimately very complex and difficult trade-offs are unavoidable, short of running strictly separate programs. Breeding for sheer numbers, for example, would be easy with a few exceptional breeding bulls: potent, good with cows, tractable with mahouts, easily trucked, etc. The drawback of a ‘super sire’ strategy is that, besides the danger of future inbreeding, a small number of sires makes difficult the preservation of local genotypes. Some hard and percipient thinking about the long term future is clearly needed in Myanmar, especially because goals in breeding are likely to pose potential conflict between economic concerns and effective conservation.

Biological factors

Caughley (1980) concluded that while the mortality rate of “timber elephants” was quite low (“not that much different from wild African elephants”), there were only about 5.3 births per 100 cows whereas to maintain a stable population would require 8 births per 100 cows. Of 283 females of breeding age in his sample, the average intercalving interval was 18.9 years and the average cow dropped only 1.44 calves in a lifetime. The lingering doubt about Caughley’s conclusions is that he uses superb methodology to analyze, as he himself acknowledges, incomplete data, his sample being 714 elephants in a table in Gale’s 1974 Burmese Timber Elephant. (Gale’s data is sizeable and accurate but simply lacks some of the required parameters.)

Nonetheless, Caughley’s findings are totally plausible, particularly his conclusion that the mortality rate for all age classes is not particularly high and that the problem lies with a low birth rate. If the 1980 birth rate was about five calves per hundred where eight were needed, then the birth rate needed to be increased by only 60% to create a stable population. Caughley optimistically concluded that, “If the calculated birth rate is about right it implies that for little extra trouble or effort the timber elephants could be converted into a self-sustaining population.”

A “self-sustaining population” is precisely the goal of the MTE’s new policy. Speaking of today, Dr. Khyne U Mar (henceforth ‘Dr. Mar’) agrees with Caughley that part of the reason for the MTE’s decline in numbers is a low birth rate, but she further believes that the high mortality rate of Calves At Heel (23.5% of all deaths) plays a major role in the shortfall between births and deaths (Pers. comm., 1996).

Sex ratio

For 967 calves born between 1948 and 1964, the male-female sex ratio was 0.97:1 (Gale, 1974).

Upon analyzing 278 calvings from 269 MTE cows between 1991-92 and 1994-95, Mar (1995a) found that 131 were males and 147 were females, for a sex ratio of 0.89:1. This 0.89:1 sex ratio at birth is significantly higher than the 0.74:1 sex ratio of the total population in 1993-94 and much higher than the 0.61:1 sex ratio of the Full Grown elephants, seemingly indicating a higher mortality rate for males which starts early, continues into maturity, and possibly lasts throughout life. Dr. Mar (Pers. comm., 1996) argues that while the undeniable female bias amongst Full Grown elephants seems to suggest a higher death rate for males at earlier ages, “the reality is that more females died in the Calf At Heel and Full Grown classes.” She states that the sex ratios for Full Grown elephants for three recent fiscal years (1992-93, 1993-94, and 1994-95) were 0.6:1, 0.6:1, and 0.6:1, respectively; Trained Calves were 1:1, 1:1, and 0.96:1; and Calves At Heel were 0.84:1, 0.82:1, and 0.85:1,

Much of the male-female imbalance can be ascribed to the biased sex ratio of captured elephants entering the population; of 1,171 wild recruits between 1972 and 1981, for example, over two out of three were females.

Birth rate

The present birth rate would seem to be better than the rate at the time of Caughley (1980). Table 11 shows that in four recent years the calving rate for MTE elephants was surprisingly high; whereas Caughley showed a birth rate of 5.3% for breeding females in 1979, for nearly 1,000 MTE Breeding Females (all cows over 18 years old) during the years from 1991-92 to 94-95 the calving rates were 8.3%, 6.8%, 7.3%, and 6.0%. This average calving rate of 7.1% over four years nearly approaches (indeed, one year even surpasses) Caughley’s rate of 8% to be self-sustaining. Caughley noted that, “Although mating is not actively discouraged it is also not greatly encouraged.” The MTE’s current birth rate seems to need to be nudged, not jolted, upward, a task which should not be that difficult with, to paraphrase Caughley, “a little active encouragement.”

Dr. Mar estimates that for every 140 calvings there is a twin birth {1995}.

Mortality rate

Unfortunately, mortality figures seem to present a dark side. First, perusing Table 11 shows that a peak of deaths seems to have occurred around 1990; while from 1980-81 to 83-84 the average mortality rate was only 2.58% of the population, the years of 1989-90 to 1991-92 brought an average mortality rate of 4.05%. Second, whereas from 1980-81 to 1986-87 births outnumbered deaths, recently births have fallen well below deaths. Examining annual mortality within age classes suggests that Calves at Heel (calves under five years) experience a particularly high rate, as high as 11.10% of the group in 1984-85. For the 15 years covered in Table 11, the average annual mortality rate for Calves at Heel was a seemingly high 8.7% a year.

Perusal of the wildlife literature, however, suggests that compared to wild elephants the mortality rate among MTE calves is not particularly high. Sukumar (1992), for just one example, says of his wild elephant study area in south India: “From birth to 5 years the annual mortality was only 4-5% in female and 8-9% in male elephants.” (The sex ratio of mortalities amongst MTE’s Calves At Heel is available only for 1993-94, in which ten females and nine males died.) The death rate of MTE calves, however high it might be compared to other age classes, is probably roughly in line with that of wild calves.

Part of the MTE’s calf mortality rate must simply be nature taking its toll as curious and adventurous young animals explore a dangerous world. Calves At Heel are vulnerable to most of the dangers facing wild calves: falling down hills, eating poisonous foods, suffering gastrointestinal diseases, and being bitten by snakes (which are seen as playthings until mother teaches otherwise).

Dr. Mar notes, however, several unnatural causes to which she attributes many of the MTE’s calf mortalities (Pers. comm., 1996). For calves under one year, she points to malnutrition arising from insufficient milk production by their back-at-work mothers. Other threats beyond unavoidable natural dangers include exhaustion in infants trying to keep up with their working mothers, negligence of mahouts in hand-feeding calves that cannot nurse, and sibling competition for milk which results in malnutrition or even injury to the younger calf. For older calves, she believes that deaths in training might be decreased by beginning training earlier; she suggests that the present policy of beginning training at the age of four or five (or when calves reach a height of 5 feet) is counter-productive because five-year olds, especially males, can be aggressive and dangerous, which invites repercussions from mahouts. Also, reduced food intake due to stress might retard growth and damage health at a particularly sensitive age. Furthermore, training older calves takes more time than training at an early age, thus bringing more injuries to older calves.

It would appear that in addition to the natural hazards faced by wild calves, domesticated calves must also face hazards specific to domesticity, at least as currently practiced by the MTE. Dr. Mar (Pers. comm., 1996) believes, however, that the MTE’s high calf mortality rate can be reduced “with adequate care of both mother and the calf.”

Non-cycling cows

Except for two hot weather rest periods, Full Grown cows of the MTE are worked very hard all year around. (See “Work performed,” page 127.) A study by Dr. Mar using radioimmunoassay to analyze the blood of seven working cows for progesterone, a sex steroid, found that six out of the seven were so overworked and so poorly nourished that their depleted body reserves were too low to be able to synthesize the sex steroids needed to trigger reproductive function (Pers. comm., 1996). These six cows were simply not cycling (coming into estrous), and Dr. Mar compares them to women athletes, such as marathon runners, whose reproductive physiology has simply shut down. (The condition is worsened if the working cow is also lactating.) As a consequence, MTE cows have fewer and fewer calves as they grow older, and “The prime reproductive age is between 12.5 and 19 years, which is the transitional period between Trained Calf and Full Grown.”

Dr. Mar says that the number of cows which died in four recent years was much higher than bulls, a rate she attributes partly to the already considerable burden of gestation and lactation being exacerbated by overwork. A broadly parallel depleted condition exists for bulls but, though equally lamentable for individual elephants, in management terms a diminished reproductive capacity in males matters less than with females because in most captive breeding programs fewer bulls than cows are needed.

Human factors

If overwork is causing reproductive shut-downs and even the deaths of fundamentally healthy cow elephants, then management decisions are clearly distorting elephant reproductive patterns.

Hot season rest camps and musth

Rest camps have long been the primary venue for breeding, even though their raison d’être is not to breed elephants but rather to spare them the season’s scorching heat and to disperse them so as to fully utilize scarce food and water. Caughley (1980) makes some interesting observations about the efficiency - or lack thereof - of hot season rest camps as breeding facilities. He first makes the obligatory and totally correct observation that birth rates are highest where wild elephants are present. Out of 278 MTE calvings between 1991 and 1994 it was determined that 117 were sired by captive bulls, 75 by wild bulls, and in 86 cases paternity could not be determined (Mar, 1995b).

Caughley suggests several negative factors that might obstruct successful mating, “factors which are designed to increase the peace and efficiency of the rest camps.” First, the elephants are very widely scattered. Second, the camps often contain elephants of only one sex. (Dr. Mar [Pers. comm., 1996] says that rest camps do in fact contain both sexes; working camps normally consist of six or seven elephants, with two bulls.) Third, the hot season coincides with the majority of the bulls’ musth and bulls in musth are “restrained from friendly encounters with females....”

The hot season of March, April, and May is, according to Gale (1974), the peak period for musth, which most people believe to be true for northern Thailand also. Dr. Mar agrees that “the musth period is not optimal for breeding,” but after examining ten years of records she believes that musth is scattered throughout the year, which is certainly the reality facing any breeding program. In any case, Asian elephant bulls in musth, quite unlike African elephants, generally have little interest in breeding and, further, even cows in estrous are often very apprehensive and skittish around musth bulls.

Mahouts’ attitudes

In practice, probably not only musth bulls but rather bulls in general are restrained from mating by their mahouts (or the mahouts’ immediate bosses). Mar (1995a) writes, “Breeding has been discouraged because pregnant elephants caused a considerable loss of income to the mahout and some mahouts did not want to give attention to two animals at a time.” Mahouts in Thailand also often feel that bringing elephants together to breed makes their jobs harder, even during a rest period, and many mahouts simply do not want to be bothered with a calf. In one civil service situation in Thailand, many mahouts actively avoid breeding because if their cow becomes pregnant she would be taken off of skidding for two years or more, and the mahouts simply cannot afford to forego the various pay supplements earned while logging. Such situations illustrate how mahouts’ hidden agendas can subtly subvert management policies.

Work versus reproduction

Conventional wisdom would have it that there is a delicate balance or even a degree of direct trade-off between the number of calves born and the number of tons of teak skidded, and such a conflict would seem to be present in Myanmar. McNeely (1980), writing of “prime working elephants” in Burma, drew a correspondance between “the low rate of reproduction in captivity” and “symptoms of overwork and its inevitable concomitant, poor nutrition.” As an amusing proof of cause and effect, a vast and accidental yet entirely convincing field experiment occurred in pre-war Burma; Ferrier (1947) remarks that “after working our elephants comparatively lightly during the timber slump of 1932/34 an unprecedentedly large number of calves were born in 1934/36.”

After examining elephant deaths by month, Dr. Mar discovered a disturbing increase in deaths following the hot season rest period (Pers. comm., 1996). She is doubtful that elephants are being giving sufficient rest and recommends that “rules and regulations should be updated to prevent overwork in the Full Grown class.” If overwork is severe enough to cause deaths, then overwork is bound to have even more widespread effect on delicate reproductive systems.

Presently in Myanmar, many if not most of the MTE’s Full Grown working cows are failing to cycle naturally as a result of work-induced stress and poor condition. The challenge facing the MTE is to increase the birth rate without cutting into the elephants’ work time and failing to meet production quotas.

Dr. Mar (Pers. comm., 1996) believes that the MTE need not be overly concerned about lost breeding potential in overworked Full Grown cows so long as the MTE actively encourages the mating of female Trained Calves between 12.5 and 19 years of age, “the prime reproductive age.” (One third of all Trained Calves are cows of reproductive age.) She believes that before becoming fully-employed adults at twenty, young cows should, first, be encouraged to breed at the earliest possible age, and, second, should be encouraged to breed with the shortest possible intercalving interval. She states that if half of the Trained Calf cows of reproductive age could be bred, they would produce 150 calves a year.

Depending on a flow of calves from the accelerated breeding of very young cows can, however, be seen as an artificial mechanism to maximize work output from the whole population at the biological cost of one sub-group. One concern must be the likelihood, even the probability, that a continual cycle of gestation and lactation at such an early age might stunt the growth of young cows, which naturally grow until about twenty years. Breeding only young cows is clearly unnatural when compared to wild elephant reproduction patterns, and it is hard to imagine a wild elephant population that could sustain itself with virtually all births coming from cows under 19 years of age.

Dr. Mar believes that the practice of breeding young cows is not harmful and does not stunt growth. Once the pregnancy is recognized, roughly half way through gestation, pregnant cows are rested or given only light work, and thus have much time to forage; total rest or light work continues until the calf is one year old. Dr. Mar says that most young cows of the Trained Calf class, somewhat surprisingly, become pregnant again within a year of dropping a calf and can tend to the first calf until the second is born. (A resultant problem is sibling rivalry for milk.) She strongly believes that the one year of light work or full rest presently given should be extended to two years, both for reasons of physical health and for the teaching which the mother will impart to her calf. Dr. Mar also believes that a nursery is needed for older calves and that extra manpower is need to hand raise the two-year olds.

This situation is a textbook illustration of the sort of ethical dilemma which often confronts the conscientious veterinarian-administrator serving as an intermediary between the well-being of elephants and the business goals of senior managers. Two legitimate ethical sets can come into conflict, the veterinarian’s duty to safeguard elephants and the administrator-veterinarian’s duty to maintain a large elephant population capable of performing a fixed amount of work for a legitimate, time-honored business enterprise.

Possible solutions

Most scientists seeking to increase a population will by training and temperament conduct exhaustive analysis of natality and mortality rates, sift data on age groups, etc., and then devise arcane strategies to nurse improved performance out of a complicated biological engine. When examining managerial options, however, the Gordian Knot - a shortfall of calves - can be cut at any moment by simply reducing work loads for some animals, accepting the subsequent financial losses, and improving several straightforward aspects of physical care, such as greater social proximity, nutrition, etc. In a closed system, one with no outside recruits, the mechanics of balancing work and reproduction would suggest that sometimes in order to produce more elephants to do work for you in the future, you must first make the sacrifice of having fewer elephants working in the present.

Suppose, as a socio-biological thought experiment (human sociology and animal biology), that for three or four years the MTE simply removed from the work roster a sizeable number of suitable cows, including non-cycling Full Grown cows, especially proven dams. To improve biological conditions, the chosen cows are put out to graze for six months to get them into good condition, whereupon they are put alongside proven bulls. Once pregnant and delivered, these cows are given much time with their calves and only the lightest of work, just enough to maintain control and fitness, and even that only after the calf is quite robust. (An incidental bonus of decreased work would be to reduce the deaths of very young calves trying to keep up with their mothers through all sorts of weather and terrain.) Given such ideal biological conditions, there would be every reason to expect a bumper crop of calves.

The sociological factors of breeding are, in fact, mostly economic factors. The biological scenario above could easily be explored in financial terms, even computer-modelled, by MTE veterinarians and accountants, an effort which would surely prove worthwhile. (In fact, the broad picture could be sketched out by a few people in a few hours.) Since MTE elephants eat for free in the forest, the primary cost of breeding is four years of the mahout’s salary (about US$600, at US$150 per year) plus the mahout-elephant duo’s share of organizational over-heads. The MTE’s direct financial outlay to produce a calf is obviously quite low, the largest cost being three or four years’ of lost income from logs not skidded by the mother (a figure easy enough to calculate). Costs in breeding a calf are probably less than buying an elephant.

The hidden catch is, of course, that these cheap-to-produce calves would not enter the work force for twenty years. No manager is likely to sacrifice his own pressing production quotas to breed elephants which will benefit only the stranger doing his job twenty years in the future. If elephants were like oxen or horses and could do an adult’s work from the age of three or four, managerial attitudes toward the breeding of domesticated elephants would be very different.

Two parallel and complementary avenues exist to increase the MTE’s birth rate: first, to improve the elephants’ physical health and their social environment, and, second, to alter the behavior of the people who handle elephants.

As for improving the elephants’ physiological and social conditions, beyond simply given more rest and feeding time, the prime need is to increase social proximity generally and in particular to promote mating opportunities. Young elephants, particularly males, should be given more opportunities for adolescent sex play, so that more of them will become sexually adept adults. A program to seek out proven bulls would be fruitful. Dr. Mar (Pers. comm., 1996) suggests other means to improve conditions for captive breeding including the establishment of special “nursing camps” to relieve mothers of a first calf when a second is born. Her most earnest idea is simply to reduce deaths amongst Calves At Heel. In practice, the possible tools for increasing births are legion.

As for altering human behavior, Dr. Mar suggests financial incentives for mahouts whose cows deliver healthy calves and for training teams with low casualties, as well as monthly pay supplements for mahouts caring for nursing cows; she also suggests improved general social benefits for mahouts. Another possibility would be to give bonuses to mahouts whose cows conceive or whose bulls sire a calf. Training courses and orientations for mahouts, veterinarians, and managers would be useful. Just as with the purely biological factors, the possibilities for improvement of personnel are endless.


Prices in Myanmar still reflect the traditional preference for bulls, then cows, and finally calves. As a legacy of British influence, the ‘foot’ remains the standard for setting prices in Myanmar, as throughout many ex-colonies. Even in never-colonized Thailand, until recently, especially in the north, a strong Burmese presence caused elephants to be ‘sold by the foot’ or khaay pen fut. Although initially seeming odd, the sliding scale of valuing elephants at a fixed rate for each foot of shoulder height (although subsequently adjusting for age, sex, health, temperament, training, etc.) is an effective means to roughly but objectively value the animal relative to its future earning potential. The low price for shorter, and thus younger, animals reflects the time and care needed to raise them to maturity and profitability. Selling by the foot demonstrates that domesticated elephants in Myanmar remain a market-driven commercial commodity, much like the teak logs they skid.

Gale (1974) gives a table showing the prices of elephants as sold by the foot at the time he wrote. In 1982, prices were 3,000 kyat for a calf under 4’6,” 7,000 kyat for one between 4’6” and 5’5”, while larger elephants sold at about 2,400 kyat per foot run of their height (Anon., 1982a).

Presently, there are effectively two sets of prices, first, the royalties which, before the recent ban, licensed capture contractors paid to the government for captured elephants, and, second, the prices in the private market. The royalties paid by licensees have little to do with market value but they are a good guide to relative value by age. Royalties are best discussed in the context of capture.

· See Table 10, page 113, for royalties paid by licensed catchers.

The price in the private market for a well-trained and good tempered elephant under 30 years is about 100,000 kyats (US$1,000) per foot, plus or minus 20,000 kyats according to the animal’s sex, temperament, etc. (Mar, pers. comm., 1996). (Prices have to be considered at the 1995 black market rate, 100 kyats per US dollar, to be realistic.) A fit 20-year old elephant of eight feet thus sells for a base rate of US$8,000. Animals still under the age of 40 will cost 10% to 20% less. Calves fetch very low prices, and intelligent tuskers of good temperament fetch very high prices.

The traditional price norms do not apply to certain classes of elephants if they live near the Thai border or can be moved there. Especially for calves, the influence of the Thai market distorts the price in Myanmar.

The market

For centuries Burma was probably a net exporter of elephants, having forests teeming with wild elephants near seaports ideally situated to send elephants to India and Sri Lanka. Until 1874 Burma regularly sent, by ship from Moulmein, all of the elephants used in the Madras presidency (Sanderson, 1879). But the advent of colonial-era teak logging caused such internal demand for elephants that, especially in peak years, Burma finally became a net importer of elephants. Of the Bombay Burma Corporation’s elephants, Williams (1950) said that most were captured wild in Burma but, “Some were bought - mostly from Siam, but a few also from India.” Gale (1974) says that large numbers were bought from Thailand, some newly-captured wild elephants and some having been stolen there.

“Nowadays the illegal trade in live elephants, ivory and elephant hide to neighboring countries has become a very serious problem,” states Htut (1996). The sizeable illegal trade in elephants from Myanmar to Thailand must produce a lingering deleterious effect on wild elephant population structures in Myanmar, particularly in favorite capture areas. Some elephants sold to Thailand have been captive-born in Myanmar, but most are wild elephants which have been illegally captured (or legally captured but then illegally siphoned off). Blower (1982) wrote that “a number of elephants are drained off illegally and smuggled out to Thailand where they fetch much higher prices than in Burma.” Blower told the author in 1987 that three out of ten elephants captured by licensed private teams were not reported to the government. Between 1982 and 1990, MTE annual reports show that eight stolen elephants, six belonging to the MTE, were known to have been smuggled into Thailand (Mar, pers. comm., 1996).

Thai buyers lack the connections to directly contact Myanmar sellers so business is usually conducted through a local Thai broker or middleman who keeps a good share of the money changing hands. Buying cheaply, he then sells the elephants to Thais for about 70-80% of the price of a similar animal with legal status in Thailand. (Sellers sell cheap, happy to be making more money, all in hard currency, than selling in Myanmar.) The Thai broker is usually sufficiently well-connected locally to discourage anybody else from selling or brokering elephants across the border. Brokers are said to be able to clear in advance official interference on the highway to anywhere in Thailand as the immigrants are trucked to their new homes.

Disturbing market preferences in Thailand have undoubtedly caused a shift in the age composition of the elephants sold out of Myanmar. Until recently the Thai market was a traditional market wanting mostly mature elephants to work in logging, but that need has perhaps declined since a total ban on logging in 1990. (Many elephants are still working in illegal logging; some have come from Myanmar but most were probably bought and moved from low-employment areas in Thailand.) Presently a much higher proportion of smuggled elephants are infants or juveniles. One Thai mahout-owner highly conversant with the trade feels that about 50 young calves come from Myanmar each year. The influx of calves proceeds from two separate but mutually reinforcing causes, one in each country.

In undeveloped Myanmar, the traditional preference for working adults prevails. Calves, especially very young calves, possess little value since they can do no useful work as is clearly illustrated by the continuing practice of buying and selling them ‘by the foot’. Evans wrote in 1910 that, “Owners, especially of working elephants, have been known to give away calves owing to the expense attending their keep and the remoteness of the prospect of some other return upon their outlay.” Nobody in Myanmar would pay the price of a fit adult to buy a calf simply because the calf was ‘cute’ - but that has become standard in Thailand.

In modernized Thailand, high demand for calves at tourism and entertainment venues ensures that very young animals - dangerously young, in fact - fetch prices higher than many adults. The author on three occasions in 1994 and 1995 in Thailand saw newly arrived calves of about two years of age, all purchased at the Myanmar border for between 125-150,000 baht (US$5-6,000) with the specific intent to teach them simple circus-type behaviors and then resell them within months for a value-added price of 200,000 baht (US$8,000).3

· See “Trend to preference for young calves,” page 205.

Such ‘value-added’ profits are possible only because it is very easy to transport and acquire legal papers for calves in Thailand. (The Myanmar side of the border is similarly porous but much harder to characterize.) The Thai police and other officials, none of whom have any conception of CITES except for Royal Forest Department (RFD) staff, are not upset by the illegal trade. Selling elephants and other livestock across the border - in both directions - is a normal and time-hallowed business. Thai soldiers and police at the border are preoccupied with marauding guerrillas, swarms of illegal immigrants, and smuggled drugs and weapons. Furthermore given human nature, most Thai officials seeing a smuggled elephant led away by its new Thai owner will think, “Lucky fellow, getting a fine elephant cheap out of Burma.” Technically, the RFD should enforce CITES, but that is clearly impossible because the RFD’s work is in parks and protected areas, not along the back roads and crowded highways over which the animals are transported. Livestock Department checkpoints do not normally inspect calves which are camouflaged by a phoney mother (any cow with proper papers).

The problem of Myanmar elephants smuggled into Thailand cannot now be stopped at the long, mountainous, porous, and tumultuous border. Elephants are a commodity which commands far too enticing a price differential for conventional law enforcement to be able to physically halt the trade. The only realistic way to discourage illegal trade in elephants (and thus illegal capture in Myanmar) is to stifle demand in Thailand by implementing stricter registration procedures, including rigorous inspections and the right to levy steep fines or confiscate illegal elephants. Such stringent law enforcement would seem most unlikely, but successive Thai governments often surprise with their ability to almost overnight successfully implement laws or policies for long deemed impossible: metered taxis, helmets for motorcyclists, and even VAT. With sufficient political will, much of the illegal trade could be eliminated.

Until recently, according to a wire service story, Myanmar was still selling elephants to Europe through “the hands of a well-known Dutch wildlife trading company,” with some 22 animals sold in 1989, three of which reache the Whipsnade Zoo (Beaumont, 1990). London Zoo received some elephants in such poor condition that one subsequently died; the zoo said “it would take no more Burmese elephants after keepers were refused access to timber camps to check whether the animals were captive-bred as claimed.” Seven elephants reaching Holland in 1990 created a furore; the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency castigated Dutch authorities and asked the European Community Commission (the entity responsible for administering EC regulations and CITES) to implement a complete ban on elephants from Myanmar. It can only be assumed that such illicit sales ceased with the above incidents.


The elephant plays a pivotal role in Myanmar’s timber industry, and the timber industry in turn plays a crucial role in the national economy. Mar (1992b) says, “Timber production, which is the second largest source of Myanmar’s export earnings ... is still dependent to a large extent on elephant logging.” Logs and sawnwoods constituted 32% of all foreign exchange earnings in 1989. In 1991 forest products garnered 1,131 million kyat or US$198.5 million (Anon., 1995a). In 1992-93 some 450,600 cubic meters of teak alone was harvested (Gyi and Tint, 1995).

Myanma Timber Enterprise elephants

Logging remains Myanmar’s primary source of employment for elephants, and the Myanma Timber Enterprise is by far the largest employer. In 1995, the MTE employed 4,070 mahouts, including foremen. Adult animals at work are assigned two mahouts whereas younger animals will have only one man.

The elephants

The MTE firmly believes that humane treatment is ultimately more productive than cruelty or coercion. Mar (1996) says, “Experience of rearing calves born under captivity endorses the fact that the elephants born under captivity are more intelligent, less aggresive, easier to train, more tractable and are of a more reliable temperament than those captured from the wild.”

The MTE divides its elephants into three categories by age: Calf At Heel (under 5 years), Trained Calf (5 to 17 years), and Full Grown (18 years and over). Calves are normally weaned when five years old, and it is only then that they undergo serious training: being taught to stand still, kneel, lift a foot to receive fetters, etc. (In neighboring northern Thailand, the training of government elephants traditionally begins far earlier at the age of about three.) Mar (1995a) writes, “Calves could be weaned as young as two and a half years of age, but a calf that loses its mother before the age of two is unlikely to survive even if protected and cared for by others in the family unit.”

Trained Calves under 12 years are taught only basic command words and made familiar with fetters and dragging harness; after 12 years, they are taught the basics of how to skid or aung but are given only light work, mostly serving as baggage elephants (charmingly called ‘travelers’ in colonial days). Skidding logs begins only at 18, though even then the animals are gradually eased into heavy work.

All MTE elephants are retired at the mandatory age of 55 even if perfectly fit. (Thailand’s FIO retires its elephants at 60.) Mandatory retirement is a noble promise of many forest departments, but a promise very rarely honored; all too often ageing elephants are simply made to work up to the limit of their strength until totally useless. The MTE deserves handsome praise for actually delivering the promised reward for decades of hard service.

Work performed

Elephants are graded into five classes of capacity for work so as to ensure that they are not overworked; First Class elephants, for example, are between 30 to 45 years of age, “stout and healthy,” and have a haulage capacity of more than two tons. (The rule of thumb is that a healthy elephant can skid half of its own body weight.)

A typical work day begins well before dawn so as to avoid the afternoon heat. The elephant is bathed, harnessed, and waiting at the work site when the sun comes. Adult elephants normally work only four to six hours. As younger elephants transition from Trained Calf to Full Grown, their work time and loads are regularly increased. While an apprentice might work for two days and then have five days off, for a fit Full Grown elephant the normal pattern is to work for five days followed by two days off (Mar, pers. comm., 1996). Full Grown elephants will work about 160-170 days a year.

The work year for MTE elephants comes to an absolute stop on February 15, no matter what the weather, to enter a hot season rest period; the next season’s work normally begins on June 15 but the rest period is extended if the rains fail or if temperatures exceed 100°F (38°C). A second rest period of three weeks is given in October, when the weather is also very hot. Beyond the need to rest the elephants and to spare working them in the intense heat, the hot season hiatus is also necessitated by sparse water and fodder. Breeding is only a secondary consideration and an almost accidental occurrence.

The average MTE elephant skids about 150 log tons per year, 120 hoppus tons if hardwood and 180 hoppus tons if teak. In a view confirmed by other observers, Han (1983) says, “Privately-owned elephants extract even more - about 250 to 300 tons.” If government-owned elephants skid 150 log tons per year while privately-owned elephants are skidding up to 300 tons, the inescapable implication is that privately-owned elephants are overworked.

Because of Myanmar’s heavy dependence on logs being floated to depots, elephants are absolutely irreplaceable in arranging logs in stream beds. Describing an elephant being used to aung (to clear a log jam) in a stream in spate, Smith (1930) says: “Pushing here and pulling there, he [virtually always a tusker] seems to be able to sense which is the key log and he stands clear when the pile starts tottering, ready to fall.” Han (1983) notes that aunging is done by elephants “at considerable risk to themselves and their riders.” Besides the very dangerous aunging, there is also yelite, the safe job of moving stranded logs back into the deeper channels of a stream.

Elephants, buffaloes, and machines

Before World War II there were 7,000 elephants and 10,000 buffaloes engaged in the timber industry, but the tonnage extracted was only about 50% of today’s rate (Anon., 1982a). In 1981-82 a combination of elephants, buffaloes and machines transported over one million tons of teak. Mechanical haulage is clearly playing an ever larger role in Myanmar, and elephants are used increasingly less for general haulage and almost entirely for short hauls over difficult terrain, always their strong point.

The declining use of buffalo, as shown in Table 12, would seem to have occurred because as new roads have opened level areas to mechanical haulage, the buffalo has become relatively less efficient than the elephant. Buffalo are at their best on flat land and cannot compete with elephants on hills and rough terrain. Also, buffalo-skidding, even in pairs, requires that logs be cut much smaller than for elephants, thus lessening the value of the wood.

Table 12: Working draft animals of the Myanma Timber Enterprise, 1982-1995



Elephants at work




Hired 3



1982-83 4














































































1 Myanma Timber Enterprise data as cited by Dr. Khyne U Mar (Mar, 1995a); also Anon. (1982a).

2 All MTE-owned elephants, whether working or not.

3 MTE uses the term ‘hired’ but the work is at piece rate under contract.

4 The figures for 1982-83 and 1983-84 show 84% of the total elephants at work, whereas from 1985-86 onwards that rate is much lower (56% in 1994-95), a shift obviously reflecting a changed definition of ‘at work’.

Privately-owned elephants

Many of Myanmar’s privately-owned elephants (besides those hired by the MTE) must work at logging. Anon. (1994b) says, “Since 1990, Myanmar greatly expanded the number of short-term ‘purchase contracts’ issued for timber exploitation in the border areas with Thailand, with nearly 400 contracts active in early 1993.” Frequent problems caused Myanmar to cancel these contracts as they expired, but the vast scale of the work for privately-owned elephants was evident. The same source says that recently the private sector has become involved in logging softwoods for domestic use, implying many elephants involved in non-MTE logging.

It is difficult to overestimate the usefulness of elephants in a traditional society. Elephants remain uniquely valuable in carrying both goods and people, especially when roads are impassable during the rainy season. Little is known about the types of work done by elephants in Myanmar other than logging, but elephants undoubtedly do many traditional jobs such as construction, road work, agriculture, etc. The elephant is by far the largest and most powerful draft animal; it is also by far the most versatile because its trunk, forehead, feet, and whole body combine with its intelligence to make it the only general utility draft animal.


The MTE in the 1993-94 fiscal year owned 2,873 elephants, or 51.3% of Myanmar’s 5,591 registered elephants; and the Forest Department owns about 100 elephants. All the remaining elephants are in private hands.

Myanmar’s privately-owned elephants are the forgotten half of Shangri-La, with next to nothing published about them in English. This void has arisen because most researchers, whether Burmese or foreigners, naturally gravitate to the MTE, where the elephants are easily contacted and controlled and where the foreigners will find well-educated, English-speaking local counterparts. The attraction is understandable but it leaves a pressing need for research on all aspects of Myanmar’s privately-owned elephants: anthropology, economics, veterinary medicine, etc.

A critical need is to determine how many privately-owned elephants belong to the mahout-owners and how many to non-mahout owners. (One man in 1995 owned 70 elephants and must have employed nearly twice that number of mahouts; he was said to make very good money.) A parallel need is to determine the number of elephants owned by tribals relative to elephants belonging to ethnic Burmese.


Myanmar’s isolation and relatively intact environment have ensured that the quality of mahoutship has remained universally high and as skilful as any point in the past. (One sad and notable loss, as throughout the region, is a sophisticated palace tradition which vanished over a century ago.) Mahoutship in Myanmar encompasses four or five tribal traditions which share some hands-on techniques but diverge widely culturally in other techniques. Indeed, the Karen are such a large and scattered group as to probably have many regional variants.

Being a mahout (an oozie, in Burmese) is an inherently dangerous business. One elephant killed nine mahouts in its lifetime in northern Thailand (Wood, 1982), and similar stories are legion for old Burma. Dr. Mar {1995} says that presently there are 10 to 20 deaths amongst MTE mahouts annually. Taking the figure as 20 deaths (if that is high, then also include crippling injuries) and 4,000 mahouts, it seems that a mahout has a one in two hundred chance, or 0.5%, of being killed in any given year. The odds are in fact even worse because most of the risk falls on the mahouts of the most troublesome one-third or so of the elephants. Assuming that the average mahout works for forty years (from age twenty to sixty), it would seem that over a working lifetime a mahout in Myanmar faces one chance in five of being killed by an elephant, surely one of the world’s most dangerous routine jobs. (If such human mortality rates are being suffered in Myanmar, where mahoutship remains excellent, then rates must be much higher in countries such as Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka, where mahoutship is deteriorating rapidly.)

The MTE presently has problems attracting mahouts and then maintaining their morale because the wages it pays are so low (Mar, pers. comm., 1996). Whereas a mahout in private employ will earn about 35,000 kyats (US$350) a year, an MTE mahout earns only 14,500 kyats (US$145) a year or well below half.

Cultural dimensions

Nearly all mahouts belong to one of five tribes or ethno-linguistic groups: Karen, Shan, Kachin, Kadu, and Bama {Mar, 1995}. Hunt (1967) also refers to a group called the Khanung. Hundley (1922) refers to the Sgau Karen as excellent keepers (“the most expert elephant man”) and as enthusiastic elephant breeders, and Evans (1910) writes of various branches of the Karen, Talmes, Lao, and Shan. The Karen and Shan are found primarily in mountainous areas of the east, even into Thailand. The Bama are the largest ethnic group in Myanmar (indeed, from this group the country acquired its colonially-invented name of ‘Burma’); Bama mahouts are found mainly in the lower areas ofthe east. Unlike many neighboring countries where tribal peoples are a small minority, in Myanmar the Shan and Karen, for whom the word ‘tribe’ is not strictly correct, in early 1980s constituted 16% of the national population (Osborne, 1985).

Ferrier (1947) says, “The capturing of wild elephants in pre-war years was entirely in the hands of Burmese, Karen and Shan professional elephant catchers....” The Shan and especially the Karen also practised concerted captive breeding.

The sparse written information on the techniques and beliefs of elephant-keeping tribes is comprised largely of incidental snippets found in popular writings. In Myanmar (as elsewhere in Asia) there is virtually no anthropological literature treating the man-elephant relationship. The unique traditions of various tribes or peoples is a fascinating subject badly in need of research; beyond academic interest, such knowledge would be invaluable in management.


Myanmar’s 6,000 or more domesticated elephants comprise the world’s largest national population, nearly double the size of either India or Thailand’s far more troubled populations. In the starkest conservation terms (saving a minimum number of living specimens), Myanmar’s elephants are for many reasons even more important than suggested by their overwhelming numbers. First, two out of three of Myanmar’s elephants are either owned or employed by government and therefore easily targeted for research and care programs; the Myanma Timber Enterprise’s nearly 3,000 elephants constitute the world’s only ‘mega-population’ under unitary management. (Indonesia’s 600 elephants are the only other large government-owned population.) Second, unlike neighboring Thailand and India, Myanmar still has sufficient forest to provide food and habitat for large numbers of domesticated elephants. Third, healthy forests ensure that virtually all of Myanmar’s fit elephants are fully employed in traditional jobs such as logging, transport, and village work; their owners thus have every incentive to continue to keep elephants. Fourth, standards of mahoutship remain quite high in the absence of the corrupting forces that inevitably follow development.

“Myanmar has been traditionally rich in natural resources, as we have never exploited them selfishly; but have laid more stress on conservation above exploitation, always taking into account the well-being of future generations,” said the Minister of Foresty, Lt. General Chit Swe, at a conference on teak (Swe, 1995). Elephants, like the trees which they skid, take many years to reach maturity, and thus to maintain a healthy domesticated elephant population is very much like managing a forest for sustainable yield, requiring long-term planning followed by much patient waiting. All of this Myanmar has done with its forests at the cost, said Swe, of “great economical sacrifices.” Myanmar has similarly shown great sacrifice in deciding to no longer draw on its ‘capital’ of wild elephants. Perhaps with a similarly high degree of sacrifice, Myanmar could also bestow such enlightened, conservation-minded management to its domesticated elephants.

The MTE elephants are a well-managed, classical 19th century teak logging operation, the prime goal of which is to get the most work out of the elephants while doing the least damage to them. While management is intrinsically good, commerce is the operative motive and there is no active conservation policy in a modern sense. Being such an efficient and smooth-running operation results in a degree of institutional lassitude, especially amongst senior business managers; except in response to particular problems, there is little impetus to change a system working so well.

The MTE’s not quite self-sustaining birth rate coupled with the 1995 ban on capture will force the MTE to improve the breeding of its elephants, at which it is already actively working. Most of the key ingredients have long been known: reduce the work loads of breeding elephants, increase social opportunities, motivate mahouts, etc. While an initial loss in productivity would be inevitable, within years a progressive scientific management program incorporating improved breeding and improved health should pay for itself by simply being more efficient.

The MTE could enlarge the research needed to promote breeding and with absolutely no preconceptions begin to study, describe, and analyze the current management system from top to bottom. This vast endeavor, and the vanished heritage it alone perpetuates, has never been adequately studied. Research efforts for new management techniques should be universal: nutrition, ergonomics, energetics, harness, skidding hardware, training elephants, training mahouts, etc. Myanmar has a wealth of sophisticated traditional elephant-keeping talent which coupled with international support and expertise could produce superb results, possibly even yielding information and techniques which could help the West maintain its own beleaguered populations.

Privately-owned elephants and their mahouts and owners are poorly known and thus should be studied and supported. Myanmar is the dusty attic of elephant keeping in Asia, and it should be inventoried. (It is pleasant to envision a horde of diverse researchers - rural economists, demographers, linguists, elephant trainers, veterinarians, anthropologists, etc. - combing the backwoods of Myanmar studying tribal cultures.) Three government agencies (the Myanma Timber Enterprise, the Forest Department, and the Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department) collectively have the potential to quickly extend excellent care to privately-owned elephants, but considerable money would be needed to increase and train personnel and get them into the field.

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