Why does the KIA still use war elephants?

A Siamese war elephant in 1866.
Photo: Wellcome Library, London / John Thomson
A Siamese war elephant in 1866. Photo: Wellcome Library, London / John Thomson

Myanmar is the last place on earth where elephants are still used for warfare, and the Kachin Independence Army is the only group keeping this 4,000-year-old tradition alive.

Journalist Patrick Winn discusses these elephants in this PRI podcast:

The KIA has been fighting the Myanmar government for decades to maintain control over its jade, gold and timber-rich land. Its 10,000 soldiers rely on mortar shells and small arms to fight the Tatmadaw, which is equipped with fighter jets, attack helicopters and advanced artillery.

So how do elephants help the KIA ward off its much stronger rival? By helping the soldiers survive.

“You’ll mostly find them in remote areas. Places where cars and trucks cannot go,” Col. James Lum Dau, a foreign affairs specialist who has served in the KIA for decades, told PRI. “In the deep jungle, an elephant is the only way to bring in supplies. There is no other way.”

This explanation distinguishes the KIA’s war elephants from the image of combat war elephants you may have been imagining. These elephants are not the armor-clad monsters employed by medieval rulers to crush and impale their enemies. And they are not instruments of psychological warfare, as ancient warlords used them; the trumpeting of an elephant would probably not frighten a Tatmadaw soldier sitting in a tank.

Instead, the purpose of the KIA’s war elephants is purely logistical. The land the KIA is fighting for has very few roads. The only way to transport supplies is on the backs of elephants walking along secret jungle paths.

“They can carry pretty much anything,” Col. James Lum Dau told PRI. “Rice, rations, medicine, weapons. Anything you would normally carry by car.”

And for this task, elephants are perfect.

Asian elephants “are evolved to be mobile in precisely these sorts of conditions,” war elephant expert Jacob Shell told PRI. “They’re happy in the rain, don’t get stuck in mud — the musculature in their feet prevents this — and can ‘fuel up’ by eating the bamboo shoots and other nutritious vegetation they encounter as they traverse the landscape.”

So are you likely to see a logistical war elephant in the last place in the world where they exist? Not really. The KIA employs only about 50 such elephants and keeps them in the most impenetrable parts of the forested mountains where it operates.

Furthermore, Myanmar’s wars are getting more deadly, even as the government repeats its commitment to peace. So you probably shouldn’t go there.

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