Photo exhibition complicates human-elephant relationship

The Anglo-Burmese wars are usually remembered for their casualties – human lives and Burmese independence. But the British Empire’s colonization of Burma also had a creative effect that is easily overlooked. That is, unless you are an elephant.

Humans and elephants in Myanmar have had a relationship for centuries, but when the British hunger for teak accelerated the the pace of logging in the country, it also deepened the interdependence between elephants and their oozies (drivers).

The start of the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852 is attributed in large part to British demand for teak. The war ended with the British taking over Lower Burma. And when that did not satisfy overseas demand, the empire moved on to Upper Burma, swallowing it and completing the country’s colonization in 1886.

This movement northward was accompanied by movement inward, toward increasingly hard-to-reach teak forests, where heavy machinery could not be brought. The only way to extract the heavy logs was with elephants.

The photos on now display at the ‘Elephants & Empire’ exhibition at Myanmar Deitta showcase the relationships that formed between elephants and oozies in colonial Burma, just before the Japanese occupation. They show humans and elephants bathing, travelling and working together.

Of course, the elephants in the photos are slaves; they didn’t apply for logging jobs. But their lives, nonetheless, have come to depend on these jobs. This is especially true today, decades after the empire withdrew from Myanmar. 

As teak forests dwindle and as environmental conservation laws come into effect, Myanmar’s working elephants are threatened by more dangerous alternatives, like disease, neglect or deportation to Thailand to give rides to backpackers.

Last year, the Myanmar government imposed a temporary national logging ban that will last until March 2017 and has also prohibited timber exports since 2014. The aim is to give the country’s forests time to regenerate. And while illegal logging continues, the cessation of legal logging under the Myanmar Timber Enterprise leaves captive elephants idle and at risk.

‘Elephants & Empire’ highlights the work of the Myanmar Timber Elephant Project, which is working to keep enslaved elephants healthy and wild populations sustainable, as well as the work of Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, a family-run camp for retired working elephants in Myanmar.

The exhibition has been organized by the School of History at the University of Leeds and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The photos were provided by the London Metropolitan Archive. They will be transferred to Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp near Kalaw when the exhibition ends.

‘Elephants & Empire’ will remain on display until February 4 at Myanmar Deitta, located at Number 49 44th Street, 3rd floor, Botahtaung, Downtown Yangon.


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