Tag Archives: logging

Land of a Million Elephants

Mahouts guide their elephants to the Mekong river to bathe.

Mahouts guide their elephants to the Mekong river to bathe.

“When I came here, I didn’t know anything about elephants. I was a little afraid of them,” Son Phet admitted. A 24-year-old mahout, or elephant rider, Son Phet did not look afraid of the giant animal anymore as he stood fully upright on its head. Khoun, the 47-year-old female he was partnered with, hardly seemed to notice his weight.

A mahout leads his elephant through the jungle to their overnight camp.

A mahout leads his elephant through the jungle to their overnight camp.

Son Phet, 24, has been working as a Mahout for nearly 2 years. His current elephant, Khoun, is 47 years old.

Son Phet, 24, has been working as a Mahout for nearly 2 years. His current elephant, Khoun, is 47 years old.

After the last week of investigating the impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams on the local populations, we had come to an elephant camp outside Luang Prabang to try and learn more about the relationships between people and animals along the Mekong. We had seen shockingly little wildlife during the the last months of travel.  Apart from a brief visit to a national park and bird conservancy in Vietnam, most the animal populations and habitats we’d encountered had been in bad shape. We needed to be reminded that the Mekong was a river that was not solely the domain of humanity.

Admittedly, visiting a man-made camp where elephants were closely tied to their human partners was not the purest means of learning about the lives of the animals. But as Laos had an estimated population of just 400-600 wild elephants remaining, with our limited resources we stood little chance of interacting with them in their natural environment. Even with this compromise in mind, we felt it was important to try and gain some understanding of the enormous mammals’ situation in 21st century Laos.

After all, the country’s historic nickname was Lane Xang – the Land of a Million Elephants.

Courting an Elephant

“I heard that one of the older mahouts had a motorbike accident,” Son Phet explained when we asked what prompted him to become a professional elephant handler. “I knew about this place because my village is quite nearby and I had played with elephants a little before, and so I decided to apply.”

The process of learning to control with an elephant, Son Phet told us, was an involved one. Captive elephants form a special bond to their handlers and will stubbornly refuse to listen to anyone they do not know. They are highly intelligent animals and can remember and understand a surprising variety of command words, but if they don’t trust a person they project an air of quiet indifference and simply will not move. And weighing at roughly 3 tonnes, there is little a person can do to compel them against their will, save extreme physical violence.

A mahout walks his elephant back to camp after bathing in the Mekong river near Luang Prabang.

A mahout walks his elephant back to camp after bathing in the Mekong river near Luang Prabang.

For Mahouts like Son Phet, whose job security depended on being able to control his elephant while keeping it in good health. Abusing the extremely valuable animal (buying an adult female can cost far more than a luxury SUV) would be a sure way to get fired. On top of this, beating an elephant into submission could create short term acquiescence, but in the long run made sure the mahout would live in perpetual danger.

“Elephants hide their emotions,” Son Phet told us when we asked him about the risks involved with his job. “It can be very difficult to tell if they are happy, sad, or angry. If you treat them badly they will hide their feelings, but they will never forget. They will wait and let you think everything is ok, but they might wait until you are alone with them in the jungle and then kill you. They don’t forget.”

The thought of such a powerful creature biding its time behind a mask of calm until it could exact the ultimate revenge on an abusive human was both fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. Of course Son Phet was taught this when he accepted the job, and so knew that the only way to gain real control required time and patience.

Mahouts bathe their elephants in the Mekong river as a local fisherman passes in the background.

Mahouts bathe their elephants in the Mekong river as a local fisherman passes in the background.

The basic formula was simple: stay in nearly constant contact with them for roughly a month until sufficient trust was earned. That contact involved everything from feeding the elephants, playing with them, and bathing them in the Mekong to keep them cool and clean. Except for when the elephants were taken into the jungle where they slept for the night, the mahouts were seldom out of sight of their animals, even long after a trusting relationship was established. Yet like any relationship, complete control was always out of reach. “You can never really have 100% control,” Son Phet explained. “The best you can do is maybe 95%. They can always choose not to listen.”

When we asked Son Phet to describe how he felt about Khoun after spending more than a year together, his response was unashamedly tender: “She is everything. My friend, my family, my wife.”

Beasts of Burden

As much as we were moved by the close relationships between man and elephant we had witnessed over the last few days, we knew that Khoun and the other animals at the Luang Prabang camp were not free in the true sense of the word. They were treated with absolute compassion and kindness, but still they remained indentured to their owners and spent nearly every day carrying tourists on their backs. Yet from our research and pre-trip conversations with elephant experts, we knew that employment in the ecotourism industry was far preferable to the other jobs elephants were often forced into.

An elephant hauls teak logs from the Nam Ou river to shore so they can be transported to lumber mills.

An elephant hauls teak logs from the Nam Ou river to shore so they can be transported to lumber mills.

According to the Elephant Conservation Center, there are currently more elephants employed by the logging industry in Laos than there are wild. Laos is rich in valuable hardwoods such as teak, and its mountainous terrain and the low budgets of many logging operations mean hiring industrial machinery is not always the most effective option for harvesting lumber. Elephants, with their enormous strength and ability to navigate both on land and in water, are often recruited into the labour force.

The owner of the camp where we’d been staying agreed to show us where we could see the use of elephants in the logging industry for ourselves, and so early on our final morning in Luang Prabang we were dropped off at a small crossing on a minor tributary of the Mekong.  As we sat in a leaky fishing boat that served as the only means of crossing we could hear the distant sound of something crashing through the water well before we saw it.

A logger cuts apart a felled teak tree before a logging elephant hauls it across the Nam Ou river for transportation.

A logger cuts apart a felled teak tree before a logging elephant hauls it across the Nam Ou river for transportation.

An elephant hauls a teak log across a small beach. The logs are worth around 150$ per cubic metre at market price, and one elephant can haul up to 60 cubic metres per day.

An elephant hauls a teak log across a small beach. The logs are worth around 150$ per cubic metre at market price, and one elephant can haul up to 60 cubic metres per day.

When the elephant, a 35-year-old female names Seub, round the bend in the river, it was a truly awesome sight. Outfitted with a thick harness it dragged a massive section of a freshly felled tree at the end of lengths of heavy looking chains. It was the first time we had actually experienced the full extent of the animal’s power; with each determined heave forwards it was apparent just how strong it was as it heaved the log over a sandbar and into the flowing river beyond.

Its mahout sat cross-legged on Seub’s head just above the river’s current as the elephant swam steadily across to the opposite bank, the weight clearly much easier for her to manage with the aid of the water’s buoyancy. Once ashore, the mahout barked commands to the Seub, provoking the final burst of power needed to beach the log. Seub was then unhooked from her chains and let to a thicket of dense grass to graze for a while before heading back across the river to haul another section of teak.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahout watches on.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahout watches on.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

An elephant drags a log out of the Nam Ou river as her mahouts watch on outside Luang Prabang, Laos.

In all, Seub would be able to make roughly 10 of these trips in a day, earning around $150 for the loggers for every cubed metre of lumber she delivered. If she wasn’t sick or tired and worked at maximum speed, her mahout told us, Seub could pull more than $10 000 worth of wood across the river in an 8 hour work day. It was difficult and dangerous work for both the elephant and her mahout, and since many small scale logging operations were illegal the risks were substantial.

Back at the Luang Prabang camp, we talked with Son Phet about what we had seen. “I’m a bit worried,” he said about the future of elephants in Laos. “We used to be ‘the land of a million elephants’, but now we’re just a few thousand. They can be valuable, and people sometimes hurt them [while trying to earn money with them]. When I see this I wasn’t to tell people to stop so that we can keep elephants in Laos for future generations.”

Mahouts lead their elephants to the jungle camp where they spend the night.

Mahouts lead their elephants to the jungle camp where they spend the night.

Mahouts gather in the morning to prepare a collective breakfast.

Mahouts gather in the morning to prepare a collective breakfast.

Mahouts watch TV together after the day's tourists have left.

Mahouts watch TV together after the day’s tourists have left.

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Note: We had not gone to Luang Prabang to pass judgements. In an ideal world elephants would be left alone to live without human interference, but reality is not ideal. As populations grow and forests are cut, the habits of humans and elephants are coming closer and closer together, and it is likely that the best hope for a thriving elephant population in Laos is through captive breeding. From what we had seen, the life of an ecotourism elephant was far preferable to that of a logging elephant. 

For anyone looking to get involved, the Elephant Conservation Center works to repurpose logging elephants into the ecotourism industry, expand the country’s elephant population through breeding programs, and protect the habitat of the wild elephants remaining.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

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Out of the Bush: What I Learned While Tree Planting

I am who I am today because of five summers spent living in tents in Canada’s northern forests. As a tree planter I learned what it meant to work hard – harder than anything I had experienced before. And while it nearly killed me during my torturous rookie season, I came out a far, far better person.

Tree planting taught me how to make due with limited resources in a remote location. Over the years I gained the ability to deal with huge amounts of personal discomfort and focus on the task at hand. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that self-pity was a waste of time – everyone was having trouble carrying 50 pounds of trees through mosquito infested swamps, they certainly didn’t need to hear me whining about it. In short, tree planting toughened me in a way that made it possible to work as a photojournalist today. Had I not set out for the bush nearly a decade ago, I sincerely doubt I would be where I am now.

In an effort to bring together the two jobs which have had the most impact on my life, I spent nearly four months in a tree planting camp last year trying to capture the experience with a camera.

Right now thousands of tree planters across Canada are starting their seasons, replanting Canada’s forests by hand. For them it will be as it has always been – simultaneously one of the best and worst possible ways to spend a summer. And while can’t say I’ll miss the job itself, every Spring I feel a powerful nostalgia for the truly unique lifestyle.

For those reading this from a destitute hotel room somewhere in the Canadian north, good luck and happy planting.

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A foreman checks his map, trying to decide where to put his planters.

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Tree planters walk to work, carrying all their gear, food, and water down a 4 km muddy trail.

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A planter moves through the aftermath of a forest fire, replanting the burned zone with new trees.

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A tree seedling, recently planter in the cracked soil of northern Alberta oil country. A good planter can plant thousands of trees per day.

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A planter works an especially good piece of land on a rainy day. He will go on to make over $600.

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A planter’s face is covered with soot and charcoal after working to replant a burnt forest.

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A planter falls up to his knees in soft mud. The ground, open and flat, should be a planter’s dream, but heavy rains have rendered areas of it unworkable.

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A planter drinks water from a gas container. The vessels are common among tree planters because they are high capacity, tough, and can be used as a stool if necessary.

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A planter silhouetted agains an oncoming rainstorm on the oil sands of northern Alberta.

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Planters work to dig toilets for the camp. Each time the camp is moved, which typically happens multiple times per season, the camps need to be rebuilt.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off.

Foremen use the camp toilets on a day off. There is little privacy in a planting camp.

Planters pick thorns out of eachother's hands at the end of a work day.

Planters pick thorns out of each other’s hands at the end of a work day.

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The camp’s cook hangs from a log deck. Canada is the world’s biggest exporter of forest products.

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The camp sits around a fire on the last night of the season. Some planters will go on to other jobs, but many will head back to their province of origin.

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Planters watch the northern lights.

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Reforesting Cambodia, Ten Trees at a Time

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 74% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

A nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of the most heavily deforested countries in the world, over 75% of Cambodian forests have succumbed to illegal logging and land development.

In the 1970’s, 70% of Cambodia was covered in primary (untouched) rainforest. Today, that number is closer to 3%, mostly due to the dual blights of large-scale land development and illegal logging.

The roots of Cambodia’s mass deforestation trace back to the Khmer Rouge era when various factions, locked in a deadly fight to wrest control of the country, financed their armies from the sale of timber to foreign governments and corporations. While  guerrilla groups, including the then-fledgling Khmer Rouge, sold most of their harvest to Thailand, the ruling government they were focused on ousting was exporting to Japan and Vietnam. With all sides engaged in a fight to the death, there was little consideration left over for possible future environmental impacts.

Valued for high-quality hardwoods, such as the luxurious rosewood, Cambodian forests continued to be heavily exploited throughout the civil war period and into the 21st Century. Today the national forests are a spectre of what they used to be, and despite a government supposedly committed to preventing illegal logging, the countryside of the southeast Asian nation is more often experienced as a dusty red desert than a lush tropical rainforest.

A few months ago I was introduced to Kalen Emsley, one of the founders of Ten Tree Apparel.  A company with a business model that revolves around a pledge to plant ten trees somewhere in the world for every item of clothing sold, Ten Tree is already approaching the one million mark in Africa. Having myself spent more than a year of combined days living in a tent as a seasonal tree planter in northern Canada, it seemed logical to combine my past experiences in reforestation with my more contemporary skills as a photojournalist. Kalen and I started working out a way to expand Ten Tree’s planting operations into Cambodia, and through a series of emails and Skype calls we eventually figured out how to make it happen.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside.

A volunteer discusses details about an order for 10 000 seedlings to be planted in the Cambodian countryside in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

A nursery worker transplants a flower from the coconut husk where it was germinated into a more permanent plastic pot.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Especially during the soaring temperatures of the hot season, the trees must be kept under shade while they mature.

Tree planting operations have become somewhat of a cliche, with businesses around the world sending teams of office workers with a few shovels to plant a few hundred trees in a field somewhere. In contrast, this project will see thousands of native trees planted in areas where they will be of direct benefit to local residents – near rural schools, for example. And unlike the industrial scale planting I used to do as a student summer job, these handmade forests will be comprised of mixed species – not just large swaths of monoculture.

Though it’s still far too hot in Cambodia to begin planting (ten thousand dead trees wouldn’t really help anybody), the trees have been ordered from a local nursery and our idea is on its way to becoming a reality.

Workers at a nursery outside Phnom Penh receive instructions from their manager.

Workers receive instructions from their manager at a nursery outside Phnom Penh.

 

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia's often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

A nursery manager inspects the health of tree seedlings. In Cambodia’s often-intense heat, the young trees must be monitored constantly.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Newly sprouted tree seedlings in a nursery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh

When the weather cools off (which is, sadly, not until the end of April at the earliest), teams of student volunteers and environmentally active Buddhist monks will travel out of the city to put some trees in the ground. I’ll be there to document it, but until then these images from my recent visit to the nursery will have to do.

 

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