Wibke Himmelsbach:
Employment of Working Elephants in Myanmar -- Myths and Tradition in Conflict with Reality


Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany

The domestication of elephants and their employment in timber extraction has a long tradition in Myanmar. Also in other parts of the world, people have an idea about the life of working elephants and their oozies (mahouts or elephant rider). Many stories and myths about the great friendship between domesticated elephants and their oozies go round: Children that grow up with baby elephants and live together all their life, helping and caring for each other. There might exist some friendship like described, but they are rare exceptions.

True is, that working elephants are still employed in Burmese silviculture to drag timber and up to today, dragging gear, taming and training methods were hardly modified. Also today, people believe in ghosts and natural spirits, called ``Nats''. In elephant camps the spirit of the elephant nat is still worshipped.

But during four month living in elephant camps, not a single elephants seemed to have any special affection for its oozies. Many oozies in contrast like their elephant. But on-sided affection can not be called ``friendship''. Low salaries for elephant workers and basic standard of living provoke, that many oozies leave their elephants, to earn more money with other work. Besides, the invasion of new products and the awareness of a new life style transmitted through television, accelerate the changing processes in elephant camps.

Ideas to improve the management of working elephants and the situation of oozies and their families already exist in Myanmar. Modern taming and training methods avoiding physical punishment for the training elephants are in implementation as well as better living conditions for local people in rural areas, to keep the workers and their families in the camps. Myanmar hopes to keep its old tradition upright by integrating new ideas.

Keywords: Globalisation, Myanmar, regional identity, tradition, working elephants


Contact Address: Wibke Himmelsbach, Georg-August-Universität GöttingenGermany, e-mail: waldkauz-ruft@web.de
Andreas Deininger, September 2004