Lush forests containing unimaginable biodiversity, protected and unprotected habitats of countless wildlife species, and rivers and ponds teeming with fish, mammals and reptiles are all under great threat in India. For many getting a master degree in conservation or zoology, this trend could be synonymous losing a loved one or seeing a child kidnapped. They have little say in the matter and can only hope the destruction lets up. The biodiversity that India takes so much pride in is being stripped down and turned into throw away products used in other nations. However, while schools and universities are up in arms, more powerful entities are continuing their business unhindered, but despite this imbalance of power, some unlikely heroes are rising up form the ashes.
The country’s vast rain forests and evergreen woodlands- like many around the world- are being depleted of their timber to satisfy the global appetite for wood for furniture, building materials, paper, charcoal, and other wood products. This is being done both legally and illegally and often the process strips the land of not only the trees, but of the accompanying biodiversity. This is until elephants became a popular means of green, sustainable logging that has greatly reduced the impact of fossil-fuel powered vehicles on the land and allowed indigenous people to take part in economically beneficial means of preserving the forests they live in.
The Indian elephant, with a captive population of around 3,500 on the sub-continent, serves humans in several ways in India. While elephants have been used for many purposes around the world for both their sacred status in ceremonies and around temples and for transport in difficult terrain, they have also been used for hundreds of years in the timber industry. According to a paper from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, these highly intelligent and powerful animals are capable of hauling half their body weight which averages between 9000 and 12000 pounds for an adult Indian elephant. A logging elephant is typically required to lift 900 pound logs and push and pull over 3000 pounds during its work day in the forest.
While the practice of logging with elephants is certainly not a novel idea, the concept that it could be a sustainable method of supplying tropical hardwood demand while preserving the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples of India is rather new in the twenty-first century. Both the health of the forest and the security of indigenous habitats have paid the price in the past hundred years for the timber industry replacing elephants with machinery and environmental and indigenous rights organizations are taking notice. Not only have the elephants been losing their territory and food source, but the indigenous people whose lives depend on the forest are taking a hit to their communities as new logging roads are built and trees being harvested with no regard to reforestation or the protection the rights of the forest inhabitants.
While motorized logging is capable of a higher rate of wood production, it cannot come close to competing with the elephant for environmental friendliness and sustainable logging practices. Where a logging truck requires roads, gas, expensive parts and a high price tag plus people trained in fixing machinery, an elephant can pass through untamed jungle and requires only breaks from work to eat, drink, sleep and rest -all of which are not harmful to the environment- after its initial training period of five to seven years. Even with training and paying the mahout, or trainer, the price tag for an elephant is one tenth of that of a logging truck and its carbon footprint is far less than that of any logging machine. The slower rate of harvesting from elephant logging is also less harmful to the forest and for its indigenous inhabitants that rely on it, but unless it is supported and subsidized by the Indian government and the international community, it stands a poor chance of remaining a viable method of logging in India or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.