A somewhat-modified version of this essay is posted at:

This 2018-19 essay condenses material in several chapters of a book of mine, Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants, published by W. W. Norton in 2019 (https://wwnorton.com/books/Giants-of-the-Monsoon-Forest/)

Nighttime Release and “Zomian” Elephant-Based Transportation in Kachin State (Burma/Myanmar) and Arunachal Pradesh (India)

Jacob Shell

Kachin State in Myanmar (Burma) and its immediate environs comprise one of the most heavily forested zones in all of South and Southeast Asia. In many ways, it is the only remaining region where Asian elephants can at least somewhat approximate the range of mobility they enjoyed in ancient times. This binational forested region, which also extends into India’s Arunachal Pradesh, continues to have many elephants, likely around three thousand who are domesticated (captive) and a comparable number who are in the wild. Such numbers are very imprecise, not least because of the very conditions which make the region attractive to elephants in the first place: the Kachin-Arunachal region is an area of relatively weak state presence. This means, on the one hand, that the region is “underdeveloped” in the sense of there being relatively little paved road infrastructure and associated developed, deforested land; and, on the other, the weak state presence means that a conservationist bureaucracy cannot easily survey the area to get a handle on the region’s overall elephant population geography.

Two of the Kachin-Arunachal region’s main ethnolinguistic groups are the Kachin people—a kind of confederation of many different tribal and clan-based groups with overlapping dialects and languages—and a Tai-Shan group called the Hkamtis. The Kachins and Hkamtis have drawn the attention of political anthropologists and similar observers since the heyday of British colonialism in the region. In the late 19th century, the journalist and colonial official James G. Scott (who alternately went by the name Shway Yoe) remarked that these groups appeared to have formed through processes of escape from expanding military powers over the centuries. Writing in the 1950s, anthropologist Edmund Leach researched different forms of Kachin political organization, noting that, at least in his time, some villages were relatively more hierarchical and others more acephalous or anarchic in their organization. More recently, the political theorist James C. Scott (not to be confused with James G.), synthesized these observations and argued that groups like the Kachin and Hkamti have been “Zomian” in their organization and distribution within the region. This term, borrowed from Willem van Schendel and Jean Michaud, seeks to describe groups in the uplands of South and Southeast Asia whose cultures and modes of livelihood have emerged through historical experiences of flight from lowland, rice-growing, forest-clearing kingdoms and states. The term “Zomia” refers to the word zomi, which in the patois of the Naga Hills means “highlanders.” Swidden agriculture usually looms large as an example of a “Zomian” social or ecological practice, as does oral memory-keeping and ethnic shapeshifting. Such practices, James C. Scott and others have argued, function in part to keep the power of the state at arm’s length—or even (as James C. Scott in particular has argued) to prevent the fugitive culture from itself providing the basis of a new state.

Hkamti mahout and his elephants, southwest Kachin Hills, 2015. Photo by Jacob Shell.

The Kachin and Hkamti people of Kachin State and eastern Arunachal Pradesh have also been heavily involved in the capture, training, and riding of Asian elephants. They’re on a very short of list of groups who, to this day, continue to engage in the practice of nighttime release of trained elephants into surrounding forestland. During this nocturnal period, domesticated elephants are permitted to wander the forest, usually with their forelegs loosely fettered, so they can search for fresh food, sleep, and—crucially—find mates. Mahouts, or oozis, in the government-managed Burmese teak logging industry also engage in this practice. So do mahouts in the Moran area of eastern Arunachal Pradesh and Assam (around Bordumsa), and to some extent mahouts in in the Adi area around Dambuk, also in Arunachal. Karen mahouts in the Bago and Karen Hills in central and eastern Myanmar also usually release their elephants into the forest on a nightly basis. Some mahouts in northwestern Laos may continue to engage in the practice as well.

Following a Burmese mahout (oozi) in the early morning as he fetches his elephant from the forest, central Burma, 2016. Photo by Jacob Shell.

The nighttime release practice is of vital significance from a conservationist standpoint, and merits far more attention from the international elephant conservationist community. Detailed data kept by the Burmese forestry department about its teak logging elephants has suggested that captive elephants who are given time to wander in the forest on a nightly basis have a much better chance reproducing, and will live over twice as long, compared with an elephant kept in a zoo. Elephants are hesitant maters in captivity; the nighttime release practice gives them a temporary period of relative freedom and wildness in which to assert control over their own patterns of reproduction.

Of course, the ideal future which many elephant conservationists and advocates would like to see is one where elephants are permitted to be wild at all times, not merely at night (and certainly not with foreleg fetters)—and a future where elephants are free to migrate in ample forestlands with excellent protections from poachers. In reality, the odds of achieving that ideal, in a part of the world where development places intense pressures on forestlands, seem vanishingly small. The strategy of protecting elephants by coupling them with forest-based human communities, while simultaneously granting these human-coupled elephants daily periods of time to “become wild” and to mate, seems both realistic and promising.

Elephant carrying a log, central Burmese elephant logging village, 2016. Photo by Jacob Shell.

Singpho mahout engaged in elephant logging in Manabum hill range, Arunachal Pradesh, 2016. Photo by Jacob Shell.

With that said, a conservationist might also look at some of the work such captive elephants perform and question the value of this labor from the vantage point of aiding elephant survivorship. In the Burmese teak logging business, elephants’ work is, primarily, the felling and skidding of teak logs. Since any effective long-term strategy of conserving the Asian elephant species, or re-expanding the species’ numbers, needs to entail a strategy of forest conservation, it seems somewhat doubtful that elephants’ knocking over trees to generate profit for human corporate entities is the best labor for them to be engaged in.

However, if we look beyond the Burmese logging industry, to the ethnic-minority elephant-domesticating groups who release their elephants in the forest every night—to groups, that is, like the Kachin and Hkamtis—we find that logging is not the only kind of work trained elephants are being asked to do. The Kachin and Hkamti mahouts also have their elephants doing much transportation work. Since transportation work does not erase forest cover, it seems to offer unique environmental promise as a form of elephant-based labor. Trained Asian elephants are uniquely valuable for two transport needs in particular: one, for cross-forest transportation, especially in areas where, due to topography, monsoon conditions, or politics, there are very few roads. Two, for flood-time transportation: the value of the “transport elephant” spikes during the season of flooding, when roads become inundated by rain or blocked off by landslides and mudflows.

Through ethnographic work I conducted between 2013 and 2017, I learned of several different areas where, up through the 2010s, elephant-based transportation during monsoon and across forest ranges remains vital. These areas include the Hukawng Valley of Kachin State, the Hpakant jade-mining region of Kachin State, the upper Dihing River beyond Miao in Arunachal Pradesh, and the Dambuk river-peninsula in Arunachal Pradesh. The Hukawng and Hpakant areas are mostly Kachin (in particular Jinghpaw-Kachin) and Hkamti. The hinter region of Miao is heavily Singpho-Kachin and also Hkamti. Dambuk is mostly Adi, though many of the mahouts here are Adivasi (and the elephant owners Adi).

Elephant pulls car in Hpakant region of Kachin State, c. 2010. Photo by Hkun Lat.

“Zomian” themes of escape and state-evasion, of the sort which theorists like James C. Scott would predict, are highly pronounced within these local complexes of elephant-based transportation. Armed conflict between the central Burmese military (Tatmadaw) and Kachin guerrillas (the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA) has been recurrent since the 1960s. The KIA has a brigade of transport elephants—some sixty elephants overall, as I learned through an interview with a KIA official in 2015. The elephants move supplies such as clothing, arms, motor equipment, and lucrative forest commodities like jade, amber and gold across roadless areas of the forest, beyond the view of the Tatmadaw’s jeep-bound patrols. The KIA’s elephant transport “system” extends to the Chinese frontier (where jade fetches extraordinary prices). The clandestine paths also go to the Indian border, where KIA mahouts sometimes capture wild elephants using the lasso method (mela shekar), and sometimes retrieve arms. Along their secretive trails, the KIA mahouts release their brigade elephants into the forest each night. When this practice results in a pregnancy and eventual calf, the young elephant is brought either to a civilian mahout’s village to be trained, or to the KIA’s own elephant training camp, which as late as 2015 was located along the upper Tanai River near the Kumon Mountains (since then, fighting seems likely to have pushed the camp elsewhere).

KIA elephants and soldiers in Kachin State, 2011. Photo by Ryan Libre.

Such elephant-based evasive mobilities do not always have this militaristic character. A civilian Hkamti mahout in the southwestern Kachin Hills described carrying jade on his elephant’s back on behalf of commercial gem merchants during the rainy time of year, when the normal trucking road to Hpakant becomes obstructed. A mahout in the Manabum hill range in Arunachal described taking supplies like rice and construction materials by elephant from Miao to tiny villages farther up the Dihing River during monsoon. In the Adi village of Dambuk, the village head has the local mahouts give travelers elephant rides across the Sissiri River when that watercourse floods (though, a concrete bridge is under construction here which may render these “fording” elephants locally obsolete).

Elephant carries people and rice bags across the Sissiri River near Dambuk, Arunachal Pradesh, India, 2017. Photo by Jacob Shell

Elephants carry passengers across the Sissiri River near Dambuk, Arunachal Pradesh, India, 2017. Photo by Ayem Modi.

One Adivasi mahout in the village of Dambuk described an extraordinary incident in the 00s when some river fishermen in the area became trapped at a midriver island during a rapid flood. Two elephants—a mother-daughter pair named Sesta-Modi and Burmay-Modi—waded and swam across the flooding river with their mahouts. The rescue “convoy” took some two dozen fisherman back to the mainland side of the river in a single trip, meaning each elephant took a dozen people each. This is by far the most passengers I have ever heard of an elephant taking.

Examples of elephants’ facilitating such emergency escapes come up with surprising consistency in recent history. During World War II, elephants were indispensable in the evacuation of British and Indian refugees fleeing Burma during the Japanese occupation of the country. The mahouts who facilitated these escape operations were mostly Burmese in the Chindwin-Manipur area and Kachin and Hkamti in northern Burma and Assam. Related accounts from the Vietnam War describe Vietcong soldiers escaping American bombers by riding elephants into the hidden refuge of the jungle. Another example is recent enough to indicate that this history of “escapes on elephant-back” is very much ongoing. In May of 2018, fighting between the KIA and the Tatmadaw reached the small Kachin village of Awng Lawt. This village is nestled deep in the Hukawng Valley. Hundreds of villagers fled the violence, seeking a displaced persons camp in the Hukawng Valley’s main town, Tanai. Like many people in the area, the people of Awng Lawt live with trained Asian elephants. Escaping the fighting, the displaced villagers took their elephants with them, about ten giants overall. Some people in the march had smartphones with them, and their astonishing photographs and video footage show the elephants carrying the elderly, the young, and many people’s possessions through the forest and across jungle rivers. This episode too conveys the significance elephants can hold for people in flight. (May 2020 comment: in August 2019 in Myitkyina, I conducted interviews with an elephant mahout from Awng Lawt village; article based on these interviews is under review).

Video (footage by Jerome Palawng Awng Lat):

Elephants and refugees flee from the village of Awng Lawt during fighting in May of 2018. Photo by Jerome Palawng Awng Lat.

The Asian elephants are themselves in certain ways “Zomian.” Over the millennia they have fled the valley plains for life in the forested hills, dietarily shifting from grazing to browsing. In this transition they have had an innate interest in escaping the forest-clearing state, and in being highly mobile in a zone which the agents and infrastructure of the state cannot easily enter. The elephants’ best shot at survival has likely hinged not on merely avoiding humans (which is hard for an enormous creature to do), but rather on becoming uniquely useful to certain groups of “Zomian” humans wishing to get to forested areas beyond the reach of the political and economic forces of deforestation. Cooperation with such forest-oriented mahouts, who release elephants into the forest each night so the elephants can eat and mate there, may thus be interpretable as a kind of long-term species strategy of surviving the Anthropocene.


Elephants and mahouts crossing a river in the Indo-Burmese borderlands, 2015-16. Image is anonymized. Photo by Jacob Shell.

References and further reading:

Rajeev Bhattacharyya, Rendezvous with Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Man (New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 2014).

Ros Clubb et al., “Compromised Survivorship in Zoo Elephants,” Science 322, no. 5908 (2008): 1649

F. Kurt and Khyne U Mar, “Neonate Mortality in Captive Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus),” International Journal of Mammalian Biology 61 (1996): 155–64.

Nicolas Lainé, “Conduct and Collaboration in Human-Elephant Working Communities of Northeast India,” in Conflict, Negotiation, and Coexistence: Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia, ed. Piers Locke and Jane Buckingham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016): 180–204.

Richard Lair, Gone Astray (Bangkok: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 1997).

Edmund Leach, Political Systems of Highland Burma (London: Athlone Press, 1964), 36.

Bertil Lintner, Land of Jade (1990; rpt. Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2011).

Andrew Martin, Flight by Elephant (London: Fourth Estate, 2013).

Mandy Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderlands of Burma (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).

James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

Jacob Shell, “Elephant Convoys Beyond the State: Animal-based Transportation as Subversive Logistics,” Environment and Planning D, online version published, paper version forthcoming.

Jacob Shell, “Enigma of the Asian Elephant: Sovereignty, Reproductive Nature, and the Limits of Empire,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, forthcoming.

Raman Sukumar, The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Victoria Taylor and Trevor Poole, “Captive Breeding and Infant Mortality in Asian Elephants: A Comparison Between Western Zoos and Three Eastern Elephant Centers,” Zoo-Biology 17 (1998): 311–32.

Shelby Tucker, Among Insurgents: Walking through Burma (London: Radcliffe Press, 2000).

James Howard Williams, Elephant Bill (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1950).

Leave a comment