Back from the jungles of Myanmar, Chief Executive Jeremy Hulme talks about SPANA’s impact on the welfare of working elephants and progress being made.
There is something wonderful about the smell of the jungle. And after rain, with the sun’s blazing heat, you can almost hear things growing. The unspoilt jungles of Myanmar are very special.
So it is always a great pleasure for me to walk up the track from the road to the elephant camps, with exotic butterflies and dragonflies flitting around, until you round a bend, and there – wow! – right in front of you, 20 or so huge elephants, going about their business. And their business is logging.
Most tropical rainforest in South East Asia contains teak trees. These are hugely valued, especially in the West where they are turned into furniture, decorations, even the decks of boats. Naturally, you get about one tree every two acres (one hectare) or so.
A good while ago, I was in Johore state in Malaysia. There they had no elephants, so to get at the teak the loggers used bulldozers and graders to cut roads and generate access to each tree. In the ensuing tropical downpours the topsoil would be washed away and an orange desert left behind. The animals that relied on this fragile ecosystem were the forgotten victims.
But using animal power, the elephant can thread her way between the trees, and the teak logs are pulled down hill with minimum damage to the environment. In fact a clearing has been created – the sudden light creates rapid growth, seeds form the parent tree get a chance to germinate, and in time another beautiful teak tree will arise. It’s as near to sustainability as you can get.
The animals have health needs, of course, as we all do – but they’re well cared for by their handlers who, as is customary across the country, have a real affection for animals. Besides, you should try getting an elephant to do something she doesn’t want to do!
Because they’re actually in their native habitat – and they get released after work at lunchtime every day – they stay pretty healthy. But surprisingly their skin is quite fragile and scratches and wounds take a long time to heal. But now, thankfully, they have SPANA to help.
Aside from the free veterinary care, we’ve also introduced an aid for them called a ‘swingle-tree’ (something that all Victorian ploughmen and carters would recognise), which helps to reduce friction from their harness. Of course it takes a little patience to convince the mahouts (‘oozies’ in Burmese) to try something so different – but I was able to watch one in action, and everyone, including Toe Chain (a coincidence?) the fifty six year old tusker who was doing the work, seemed to think it was a good idea. So, there’s progress for you!