- - Thursday, February 4, 2016


Liberty and freedom are man’s natural desires, but like everything else liberation is complicated, as man and elephant are learning in Myanmar, or Burma as it was called for centuries. Myanmar is making its way back into the real world after sitting it out in isolation for almost a hundred years.

What was foolishly called “the Burmese road to socialism,” which kept a lovely and remarkable Southeast Asian country in penury while its neighbors blossomed and boomed, is being paved over. Unfortunately, the military dictatorship is hard to shed after generations of corrupt officers sucking out what little lifeblood there was available.

Burma, to use its traditional name, has long been associated with the elephant, that most remarkable creature of the animal kingdom. The elephant holds a mystical place in Burmese culture. Elephants can go where even the latest earthmoving equipment is useless, in the pristine teak and rosewood jungles. In earlier years much of that timber was snagged out of the forest, and then smuggled out the country, principally to Thailand, where it is turned into some of the most beautiful furniture anywhere.

The brutal military governments of the past few decades have treated elephants much better than the human population. A strict labor code for elephants was drawn up by British colonial officers, and survives: eight-hour work days and five-day weeks, retirement at 55, mandatory maternity leave, summer vacations and good medical care. The government still furnishes elephant maternity camps and retirement communities. The respect for elephants and laws to protect them contrasts sharply with the exploitation of humans. There’s a logical, if harsh, practical reason. An overworked elephant cannot only become ill and unable to work, but becomes a very dangerous animal.

Decimated teak forests and a new law prohibiting export of raw timber have saddled the country with an elephant unemployment crisis. Hundreds of elephants have been thrown out of work, and the mighty creature has a work ethic which man in the rest of the world could admire. When they are not engaged in demanding physical activity elephants get fat and irascible. A frustrated fat elephant is not to be trifled with.

The future of 5,500 or so wrinkled Burmese pachyderms in captivity is a dilemma for government officials who are charged with looking after them. Daw Khyne U Mar, the nation’s leading elephant man, estimates that there are 2,500 jobless elephants, many of them in the jungles of eastern Myanmar, two and a half hours from the Thai border. That number puts elephant unemployment at 40 percent. Other than a circus or a logging camp, there are few places for these marvelous creatures to find work.

Unemployed elephants have a hard time. An adult elephant weighs 10,000 pounds and eats 400 pounds of food a day. Logging keeps an elephant healthy and in trim. Elephants working in Burma live to 60 years or more, while those well fed and tended kindly in zoos, on average live only a couple of decades.

Releasing aging work elephants into the forest with wild elephants is no solution because it carries the risk of taking disease to the wild elephants, and elephants foraging for food close to villages would ruin crops. There’s not a lot of space left in the jungles for the creatures. Many owners are trying to maintain their herds, sometimes at great personal cost, reflecting an affectionate relationship between man and beast. It’s a puzzle for both.

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