Thai Elephant History: Logging

The logging industry in Thailand has a long and storied history, which is inextricably entwined with the history of elephants in the country. The harvesting of timber – usually teak wood from either plantations or natural forest – is invariably a difficult process, often in remote, unforgiving terrain which renders the use of traditional machinery impossible. The large size, strength, intelligence, and longevity of the elephant has, historically, made it a valuable asset in the logging industry, and Asian elephants has been used by humans for this purpose throughout South-East and Central Asia for centuries.

Traditionally, elephants would be enrolled in training schools (as pictured) at around 3-5 years of age. Over the course of 5-6 years, they would be tamed and taught commands, such as stop, walk, crouch, pick up, move, lift, pull, and push, and would form a close working relationship with their Mahout. They would learn the intricacies of hauling and stacking logs, either by pulling the lumber behind them using chains, or by using their tusks and versatile trunks to move the logs. Conditions for the elephants in logging camps depended on the company, but the work was always harsh, hot, and dangerous, and many elephants in logging camps passed away at around 50 years of ages, decades short of their average life expectancy.

The first governmental logging controls were implemented in 1898, and illegal logging operations have existed in Thailand ever since. Logging was officially banned entirely in 1989, in response to catastrophic flooding the previous year, which caused the deaths of 350 people, and the severity of which was exacerbated by soil erosion from widespread deforestation. The ban on logging resulted in many elephants and their owners becoming unemployed, and many looked to the tourist industry for income, with some elephant shows incorporating the logging elephants’ skill with timber into performances. Nowadays, elephants are still utilised by illegal loggers in the country, as well as being used legally by the Forest Department to remove stores of illegally harvested teak wood recovered in remote locations. They also continue to be used in the logging industry in neighbouring countries, such as Myanmar and Laos.

The great tragedy of elephants working in the logging industry is that they have unwittingly contributed to the decline of their species. In the early 1900’s, there were an estimated 100,000 domestic or captive elephants in Thailand. At the present time, there are approximately 4,000-5,000 total elephants in Thailand. In 1950, approximately 70% of the country was forested, whereas today, only 25% of that forested land remains, much of which is in poor condition. An obvious, direct correlation can be drawn between the decline in elephant numbers and the destruction of their environment in Thailand in the past century. Not only have elephants lost a significant portion of their natural habitat and a major source of food, but the deforestation and encroachment upon their former homes has resulted in countless instances of human-elephant conflict.
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