I am a geographer by training; this means, so I persuade myself, that I should pay close attention to those zones of the inhabited earth that do not show up on Google Maps. Among these zones are the tangles of elephant trails that wind their way through the Burmese teak forests, hidden from satellite view by cover of forest canopy and thick brush, shifting their position in yearly and seasonal cycles, too rough, narrow and quagmire-prone for motorized vehicles. If contemporary maps are to be believed, the trails stopped existing once modern cartographers traded in their boots and mosquito nets for software manuals and company subscriptions to the latest satellite imagery databases. Contemporary maps are not always to be believed. The elephant trails are still there. So are the trained elephants who trod these paths, carrying on their big necks and backs their human riders, called oozies in Burmese, mahouts in English (a loanword from Hindi).
These are Burma’s timber elephants, who to this day make up the center of the Burmese teak-logging industry, which produces some 80 percent of the world’s traded teak wood. The wood is purchased primarily by construction, furniture, and boat-building companies that prize its water-resistant resin. Teak grows best in forest soils unscarred by trucking roadways; elephants can go where roads cannot. The relative comfort and ease with which trained work elephants can move across sodden, monsoon-soaked landscapes also makes them optimal transportation during floods: in one famous incident during World War II, elephant convoys from Assam, a state in northeastern India that borders Burma, rescued hundreds of Indian, Burmese, and British refugees trapped at an upland river confluence near the Burma-India border. The area had flooded during heavy rains and was unreachable by boat, train, or truck. The British officers charged with running the operation took movie cameras with them; footage of the remarkable “emergency relief elephants” shows the animals and their Assamese mahouts fording a torrent of white-capped floodwaters on the approach to the refugees’ camp. The elephants can be seen using their trunks—remarkably sensitive and powerful devices—to gauge the stability of the submerged ground before progressing in the march. More recently, following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, elephants assisted in cleanup efforts in some parts of northern Sumatra and western Thailand, where the damage to local road infrastructure was so severe that wheeled relief vehicles could not be used.
Elephants have also participated in more underhanded, or subversive, pursuits. An elephant that can go where the roads cannot is an elephant that can move people and supplies in secret through the forest, across wet, mountainous borders, beyond the view of regular military patrols or modern mechanisms of surveillance. For millennia, elephants were used for warfare in this part of the world, and as transport vehicles they were crucial to both the British and the Japanese sides in the Burma theater of World War II. The postwar period, despite its increased mechanization, did not render the transport elephant obsolete. To the contrary, during the past half century elephants have proved instrumental in the country’s numerous ethnic wars, especially in Kachin State in the far north and Karen State in the east. In the 1960s, an ethnic rebel group known as the Kachin Independence Army—which in 2013 is still fighting what is in all likelihood the world’s longest currently running civil war—sent a secret mission across the remote and precipitous Patkai Range to India by elephant convoy, attempting to secure aid from ethnic Kachins in India. When the Kachins of India proved unable to help, the resistance fighters turned eastward, to China. Sympathetic groups there—Chinese Kachin and likely Party Communists distrustful of the ruling regime in Rangoon—proved more willing to cooperate, and loaded the elephants with weapons and other contraband in exchange for the jade, gold, opium, and teak native to Burma’s Kachin State. This trade kept up throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Meanwhile, the Karen National Liberation Army made similar use of elephants in the eastern hills, running Burmese gems into Thailand and manufactured goods back into Karen State. Smuggling by elephant provided a lifeline for rebel organizations like the KIA and KNLA, and kept Burma’s ruling military regime in continuous trouble.