This photograph was found in a part of four photograph albums named Burma, Penang, and China in the 1920s: Four photograph albums. It was made by George Wesr Philleo in 1917 and 1924. Each photograph in these albums originated from either Burma, Penang, or China however, this photograph specifically comes from Burma. This picture depicts a worker riding on top of an elephant who seems to be transporting logs. The terrain is bumpy and there are three people in the background of the picture observing. The elephant is transporting the log using its trunk and seems to be ridden using a saddle of some sort which is hooked around its front.
Illustrated in this image is a photo of a handler riding an elephant who is seemingly carrying a log. This seems to be a working elephant and upon further research, these are known as Timber Elephants. According to the Myanmar Timber Elephant Project, these are semi captive elephants who are used to extract Myanmar timber in the mountainous areas. This is important because at the time, Burma exported at least 75% of the world’s teak and was depended on for forestry. This image captures what the day-to-day life was for locals in the area because it was so common to utilize these elephants for logs. Even though the machinery industry was increasing at this time, Burma decided that utilizing these elephants was more efficient due to its mountains. These elephants were known to reside in forest camps where elephants were free to roam yet still significant to its logging industry. Known as timber elephants, their main job was to push logs and extract timber. This photo seems to be important towards Burma history because they are known for their logging industry and these elephants play a big role in that. Their rocky terrain leaves it challenging to operate heavy machinery and instead replaced with elephants that were trained to drag logs from one location to another.
The role of elephants in Burma, now known as Myanmar, was not always used as a means of transportation or for the work industry. They were once looked up to and regarded as sacred. White elephants represent royalty in Myanmar and their traditional belief was that they symbolized power, peace, and good fortune (Wion, 2023). Though not exactly shown in the image, elephants were very respected in Myanmar. We have covered religion in Myanmar briefly in lecture and while that was talking about Southeast Asia as a whole, this shows the in depth specifics in regards to Myanmar. The elephant itself plays a huge role in Buddhism and is regarded as wise. They are believed to be powerful beings that could evoke a clear state of mind. About 87.9% of the Burmese population are Buddhist which means that the majority of their population are well aware of the significance of the elephant. This respected animal has done a lot for the country of Myanmar and its elephants are treated as such. Elephants in these forest camps live twice as long as elephants in zoos. They are treated humanely and allowed to roam freely through the jungle. There are strong elephant labor codes that prevent the overuse of elephants and are given heavy medical care.
From this photo, I can take away that logging is a big industry in Burma. However, this raises some concerns for the future of the location. Deforestation is a big problem in many places where industries are large and areas are not protected. According to Big Think, Myanmar had a problem with its shrinking forests. Forests originally covered 63% of Myanmar however, only 38% of their forests have good forest cover after deforestation. Due to this, the Myanmar government restricted timber exports in order to save and preserve its forests. Though this action was good for the environment, it was not as good for the elephants. Due to decreased logging, not as many elephants were needed which led to them being sold or easily irate. Government owned elephants were still allowed to work but ones owned privately had to be sold. In the past, these elephants were treated well but after the logging industry decreased, some got sold to Thailand who did not treat these elephants as well. Instead of being semi-captive, they were used in tourist traps where they were used for tourist rides. Instead of seeing what this photograph portrays of a working elephant, some of these animals got fat and easily triggered which is not good for the elephant’s health.
Davis, Matt. “The Surprising Lives of Myanmar’s Logging Elephants.” Big Think, 19 Apr. 2022, https://bigthink.com/the-present/surprising-lives-of-myanmar-elephants/.
“Myanmar’s Extensive Forests Are Declining Rapidly Due to Political and Economic Change.” Smithsonian’s National Zoo, 21 June 2017, https://nationalzoo.si.edu/news/myanmars-extensive-forests-are-declining-rapidly-due-political-and-economic-change.
Sharma, Mukul. “Myanmar Junta Claims White Elephant as Good Omen, Legitimacy for Its Rule.” WION, 4 Jan. 2023, https://www.wionews.com/world/myanmar-military-asserts-white-elephant-as-good-omen-for-its-rule-549489.
“Timber Elephants.” Myanmar Timber Elephant Project, https://elephant-project.science/timber-elephants/.