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Hill Knowledge and the Half-Wild State: Elephant Stewardship in the Kachin-Arunachal Region of the Indo-Burmese Borderlands

Authors: Jacob Shell*, Temple University
Topics: Animal Geographies, Cultural and Political Ecology, Environment
Keywords: Deforestation, Zomia, Kachin, elephants, mahouts
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the border region of Myanmar (Burma) and India, hill peoples employ several thousand Asian elephants in forest-oriented work-tasks such as logging, roadless transport, and monsoon-time transport. In many ways, this overlooked group of Asian elephants, about 8000 out of a total remaining species population of 40000, gets a “best of both worlds” arrangement, as the group not only receives stewardship from their human work partners, they also enjoy nightly periods of free roaming in the surrounding forest, where the work elephants mate at far higher rates than do elephants in enclosed environments. The human stewards engaged in this elephant work hail from a variety of ethnic groups: in particular Kachin, Hkamti, Moran, and Burmese. These stewards’ unusual knowledge about the complex negotiation of keeping their elephants in a kind of half-domestic, half-wild state, as well as the unusual political ability of the stewards’ communities in resisting forces of deforestation, both hold enormous promise as models for conservation. And yet, due mainly to ongoing tension in this region between hill communities and bureaucratic states, much of this body of knowledge, especially pertaining to elephant-based transportation, has been largely overlooked by local formal governments, as well by the international community of elephant conservationists. The presentation is based on fieldwork I’ve conducted in the Indo-Burmese borderlands between 2013 and 2019, especially in Kachin State and Arunachal Pradesh. At a theoretical register, the presentation emphasizes the tension between hill groups and bureaucratic states, a framing associated with theorists like J. C. Scott.

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