ABOUT THAT ELEPHANT PHOTO… and other ethical dilemmas


Last week I posted a picture on Instagram of me sitting on top of an elephant in Myanmar, no clunky wooden tourist “saddle”, just his powerful shoulders supporting my 10 stone (and the rest!) frame.

100 or so people “Liked” it; one person complained. And obviously, as is human nature, that one complaint was all I took note of. Politely, but forcefully, the complainant said I was encouraging cruelty to elephants. I was encouraging the use of elephants in tourism. These animals were chained up. And so on and so forth.

Elephants have a thick skin; I do not. I pulled the picture. I felt judged.

Mostly though I felt very stupid.

Cruelty is cruelty, and ignorance can be no defence when you have access to information as we have growing up in the West. But I had been told that this was a training camp for logging elephants, and as logging was a practice that had been going on since the 1820s in Myanmar, it couldn’t – or so I figured – be bad. It might even be good. The animals were NOT chained, and I had seen no chains anywhere at all – but what if there were chains out of sight?

We had talked about the elephants – the head keeper and I. He had spoken good English and explained that the elephants were trained for logging, that they would be retired soon and allowed out into the wild at some point in the near future. Occasionally, he went on, an elephant would hear the call of a wild elephant, and escape. There were five different types of Asian elephants, some with no tusks, some with longer tusks, which were obviously in danger of being poached, their tusks smuggled over the border into China. Poaching was less of a problem here than with African elephants, but it was still a problem.

We’d talked about how intelligent the elephants were, how sometimes – he’d said – the elephants would use their trunks to tuck leaves into their bells, muffling them, so that they could wander around doing what the hell they wanted, with no pesky keeper to drag them down to see the occasional tourist or even be put to work logging. (I paraphrase that last bit, obviously). I stroked one elephant behind the ear – apparently they liked this.

But this complaint… it kept me awake that night, and subsequent nights. More questions haunted me over the next 36 hours. I obsessed over it. Was using elephants in timber logging and forestry right or wrong? Myanmar – or so the head keeper had told me – had more elephants in captivity as well as in the wild than anywhere else in the world, some 2000. Why was it wrong to train an elephant to work if it was also helping to protect it from poachers? Why was it wrong for some animals to work – horses, for example – and not others?

With no WiFi for the next 48 hours, it was impossible to find any quick answers. In the next couple of days, so remorseful about the elephant picture, so anxious that I had acted irresponsibly (yes, I know it’s not quite up there with the American dentist who shot the lion, or that time AA Gill killed a monkey in the name of journalism, but it felt wrong and I felt terrible) I questioned everything I saw, every picture I took.

That toddler I’d seen down on the beach, holding the puppy. How could I give money to the mother to feed the puppies and know that it was going to the puppies? More importantly how could I give it to her without making her feel judged? “Buy some of the shells she’s selling,” said my Myanmar friend. But that would mean encouraging the selling of shells that had been taken from the sea?

That fisherman with his six fish he’d just caught, their iridescent scales sparkling in the setting sun. Was it okay to take that picture? What if they were endangered fish? What if they had overfished this part of the ocean? What if I offended vegans out there? (I am vegetarian myself, and have never really eaten fish).

Later, smiling children served us food in a large restaurant frequented by local Burmese and a smattering of tourists. We chatted with them, one was 15, another 12, the former wanted to be a soldier, the latter, a monk. I tipped them – they had worked hard, and looked like they were enjoying themselves – but was that wrong? Had I encouraged child labour, or just helped a child from an impoverished family put food on his family’s table for supper?

A leaflet from Unicef I picked up in an ethical tourist shop back in Yangoon, Pomelo, urged tourists not to visit orphanages in Myanmar or give their administrators money. I get this, but guess what, my mother grew up in an orphanage in Kalaw in the hill country of Myanmar. I visited it on my last visit, donated food supplies and toys. The children laughed, and were at ease with the nuns who looked after them. (And as someone raised in a convent boarding school myself I can spot a climate of fear and guilt – I know what that feels like). Yes, many were not orphans, but their parents had made the sacrifice and sent them to the convent so they could be educated, so they wouldn’t be condemned to the life of hardship they had had themselves. Far from ideal, but possibly better than the alternative?

I broached the subject of the elephants with my Myanmar friends, but they didn’t seem to know or be that concerned. An ex-pat resident had told me already that Myanmar people are much less judgmental, and much more likely to go with the flow. There are so many problems to think about here that they can’t afford to be black and white about anything – that’s a first world luxury. Grey is the colour of a tougher reality – poverty, flood damage, political instability.

A jade mine that collapsed at the weekend, killing over 100 people made me question the ethics of buying jewellery – were there any ethical jade mines? No one seemed to know. The ex-pat friend suggested this was because “many Burmese people assume that if you’re stupid enough to work in a mine – notorious for their poor health and safety records – then you know what to expect.”

Grey, then; not black and white.

Grey is the colour of elephants too. And that, when it comes to the logging industry, reflects the current predicament with Myanmar, as distinct from Thailand.

I emailed the Myanmar branch of WWF, who responded saying that their focus is on Wild Asian elephants for now, and that their Myanmar operation being new and relatively small, they haven’t managed to check individual tourist attraction places converted from logging camps just yet, but hope that they are responsible operations.

I am yet to receive answers from the other groups I contacted, I will chase but I have found a few interesting articles, from which I have gleaned the following:

* Myanmar is home to around 5000 captive elephants, and after India has the second largest population of Asian elephants worldwide.

* 75% of the world’s teak comes from Myanmar and around 55-60% of the country’s 60 million people depend on forestry for their basic needs. It earned the military junta hundreds of millions of dollars a year, although very little benefitted the people themselves.

* Elephants are used to access the inaccessible parts of the forest – the alternative would be to build roads into the forest, which would obviously damage the natural habitats and endanger more animals.

* Unfortunately most elephants used in logging have to come from somewhere – and these come from the wild originally, unless born in captivity. If the current workforce was to be maintained, then according to the Myanmar Timber Elephant Project from whose website I gleaned most of the above statistics (a research body based at Sheffield university) by the end of the century its wild elephant population could become extinct.

Here’s where it gets really complicated. From 1st April 2014 the export of round logs was banned and total logging quotas were slashed. The plan, according to Time magazine’s report is to stimulate domestic milling and encourage the growth of a Myanmar carpentry industry, as well as protect the ever-decreasing forest (which went from covering 58% of total land in 1900 to 47% in 2010 according to government figures).

So what happens to the elephants that are no longer needed now that logging is reduced? TIME reported that 2,851 working animals belong to the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) while 2,700 belong to private firms in logging. While camps do exist for retired elephants, resources are tight (see enormous scale of problems listed above, and that is just the tip of the iceberg).

You can guess what the options will be. Set them free – and competition for supportive habitats for them will be rife because of deforestation, which in turn will bring them into conflict with humans as they come into villages in search of food; in India around 300 people are killed each year from marauding elephants. Many others will be slaughtered for their hides or precious ivory, says TIME.

“The fate of elephants who are no longer needed for logging is a big issue,” says Ye Min Thin, Communications Officer WWF Myanmar, “and it’s something we are concerned about specifically in how it will relate to wild elephant populations and how it has the potential to increase human/elephant conflict and competition for food and habitat”.

An equally dangerous scenario – they could be smuggled over the border into Thailand and used for tourism. A second article published later in the year by TIME focused on the growing problem of elephant trafficking. Poachers in Myanmar coax the elephants into jungle pits, kill the older relatives and torture the more valuable younger ones until they submit, then lead them over the border to Thailand to entertain tourists.

I don’t know whether using elephants for logging is right or wrong. My Irish grandfather, Edward Rossiter, in WWII led an expedition of Brits and Burmese through the jungle into India and away from the Japanese, and I am sure he and his team couldn’t have done it without the help of elephants. (While writing this blog, I came across a wonderful story in National Geographic of man working with elephants centred on one James Howard “Billy” Williams, the son of a mining engineer in Cornwall).

Nowadays, at a well-run logging camp, elephant calves start being trained between the ages of five and 17, during which time they are used for light work duties only. Aged 18, they work five hours a day during monsoon season and the cooler season only. The rest of the year they forage unsupervised in family groups. At 55 they are retired, still cared for by their oozie (Burmese for head keeper) who keeps a detailed log book on their health. They can live up to 70 years old; some captive born females continue to give birth to calves right into their late 60s.

I certainly didn’t witness any cruelty at the logging training camp I visited, but I can’t seem to get any answers from any official body just yet as to whether it was the genuine article, or whether its revenue was now mostly derived from tourism and therefore it should be avoided.

And if it was just for tourists? Edwin Briels, General Manager of Khiri Travel in Myanmar, an agency specialising in sustainable tourism, had this to say: “Luckily now, some elephants and their mahout and family have found income in elephant camps. A very good example is the Green Valley Elephant Camp that takes care of some of the retired elephants from the ministry of forestry.” (The picture on this blog is taken from their website)

What about the camp that I visited? “I don’t know how they treat the elephants but I do hope they get income to feed their elephants and themselves as starvation because of poverty doesn’t help any elephant either.” says Briels. “I heard from the owners of Green Valley elephant camp how much the elephants eat and the costs of medicine. I am not sure how the mahouts near the camp you mentioned live well, or if they come to work in brand new BMW, but I think that their business won’t be very lucrative to be honest, knowing the small number of tourists visiting Myanmar.” (How big a concern is poverty in Myanmar? Read this article in the Irrawaddy – 13 million people or 26% of the population live below the poverty line)

I definitely didn’t see a BMW.

All power to the person who originally commented on my Instagram post – it made me want to find out more, and that can only be a good thing, even if it is inconclusive. No sane person would want a picture taken on the back of an elephant at the cost of that elephant’s suffering – least of all me. I certainly won’t be sitting on any ever again. I suppose if there’s any moral to this story, it’s that old maxim: better safe than sorry. Listen to your instincts, and if there is any doubt whatsoever, don’t be a part of it.

As another observer (on another Instagram picture I had posted of a close-up of an elephant’s eye) so wisely said, (and I’m paraphrasing as I took the original post down): “There is pain not judgment in this elephant’s expression. This is their gift to us; we should give them respect in return.”

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