Below are Bertil Lintner's 1986 field notes taken at the main elephant training camp, at that time, of the Kachin Independence Army in the Hukawng Valley of Kachin State, northern Burma (Myanmar). Lintner calls the elephant-training place, nestled in a remote spot in the jungle, "Tanai Yang" which in the Kachin/Jinghpaw language means "clearing along the Tanai." Lintner's journalistic travels through the area are conveyed in the book "Land of Jade: A Journey from India Through Northern Burma to China" (Orchid Press). The focus of Mr. Lintner's book is Kachin-Burmese politics and military conflict; his stay at this KIA elephant training camp is mentioned in the book very briefly (p. 179). These field notes convey a lot more information that he learned from the local Kachin mahouts about KIA elephant training.
I'm very grateful to Mr. Lintner for sharing these field notes with me.
The Kachin Independence Army was -- and remains to this day -- the only governmental or quasi-governmental body remaining in the world that administers a multiple-route elephant-reliant transportation system. This system, as well as the KIA's reasons for valuing elephants as a means of cross-forest mobility, are discussed in Chapter 8 of my book "Giants of the Monsoon Forest" (WW Norton), and also in my article "Elephant Riders of the Hukawng Valley" published in the Journal of Burma Studies in 2021.
Zachary Morton and Ewa Narkewicz have generously contributed their time to type up these notes, so that they're easier to read. See below, after the text images.
Wednesday January 9th
Three months since we reached Chan? And possibly three more months left in the jungle. I spent all day in bed, and my foot my better at night. If I go out I can feel it, it will take another few weeks before I can walk, I’m afraid.
I slept in the afternoon, drank coffee and took it easy. Bawk Dee came in the evening to teach me JInghpaw? I’m making slow progress but I think I’ve learned some, at least.
Two elephant trainers came at night, and we had an interesting discussion about elephants; how to catch up and train them; elephant vocabulary etc. Could make an interesting story for the Arts & Society pages in the Review.
Had coffee & biscuits at night. I’m getting lazy. I haven’t walked since Dec. 9, when we arrived at Na? Byu.
Kadan la Raw (4 yrs experience; the dark one)
Nawnghku Zau Dik (5 yrs experience; the fair one)
Both come from the Hukawng Valley)
The vocabulary: mixed Pali-Assamese- H? Shan
Three “grades”or “ranks”
- Hpandi Long (‘commander”, one who has caught 7-8-9 elephants)
- Hpandi Onn (2nd in command; one who has caught a few elephants)
- Maat (trainee; beginner)
Both boys are Hpandi Longs, Zan Dik has caught 7 elephants, La Raw 12
Hpandi = Pandit; Maut – Mahout
How to catch a wild elephant:
Two men, a hpandi and a maut, will sit on a tame elephant with long and strong ropes; the hpandi on the elephant’s neck, the maut behind him. The rope (or the lasso) has to be tied to the elephant. When they spot a wild elephant, the hpandi will throw the lasso and the maut will assist him in arranging the rope etc, and to hit the elephant’s back to make it move faster. The maut’s job is very dangerous; if he falls off the elephant it’s difficult to rescue him, especially if they are close to a herd of wild elephants. A maut must have 3 yrs experience before he can become a hpandi.
When the lasso is around the wild elephant’s neck, you let him go. Then pull him in slowly (if the tame and wild elephants are males or females makes no difference.)
When the two elephants are close to each other, the wild one will struggle until it gives up: then. You can lead him to the camp. If he tries to run away, the tame elephant will hit him with his trunk.
If the tame one is big enough, or if the hpandi is very experienced, one is enough to capture a wild elephant; if not, two tame elephants are usually used.
Training: In the camp, leg rings of cane will be placed on the elephants front and back legs.
First stage: people come and touch the captured elephant, saying sawbaai babu (if it’s a male) or sawbai mai (if it’s a female). This is to make him or her used to humans. The elders say: “Don’t think of staying in the jungle anymore”.
Second stage: the inner part of a banana plant is mixed with water and salt. This food is called tanna. Wild elephants usually search for salt near water-hole; if it knows it will get salt in the camp, it won’t run away. The elephant will be fed like this for 2-3 days.
Third stage: The elephant will be trained how to walk and to obey the first and most basic commands. A hole is made with hot iron in the ‘elephant’s right ear (only on one side). When it walks straight forward the hpandi says:
Akesa-e, babu-e, akesa
(“go carefully”; a tame elephant will walk beside the capture one). Three persons are involved: one who sits on the neck, one on the back, and one has to carry the tanna. The first word: tad (=stop). They put the rope around the elephant’s neck and stop it; then it is given tanna as a reward. Eh-tad:oh-tad
When they want the elephants to turn around, they pull the rope which is tied to the rope in its ear, and say: bisho.
The hpandi will pull with his hook in the direction he wants the elephants to turn to. If he wants it to turn just a little bit, either right or left, he’ll say shwe.
This training is done when it’s cool; in the morning and in the evenings. If this is for the benefit of the elephant, or its trainer, they didn’t know. In the daytime and at night: the elephant is kept in the forest with his leg-rings on. The trainer must go and see him at least once during the night.
Fourth stage: the elephant has to learn how to kneel
Pom, pom = down in Kachin; only for government elephants;
Bosam = down, kneel.
When the words are being said, the trainer pulls the elephant down with his hook. When he has obeyed, the hpandi will praise the elephant, saying hoi, babu; hoi, babu, and he’ll be fed with tanna.
At this stage, a tame elephant is no longer needed.
Mai (long) = female
Mai (short) = stand up
The elephant can hear the difference.
When you want the elephant to turn over: tale, tale.
When you drop something and want the elephant to pick it up: law, law, law – and if you want him to pass it on to you: uhta, uhta.
To clear obstacles: Tit, tit (push)
To clear branches & twigs: uhta dajo
To push down bamboo etc: uhta put
To go fast: sa, sa (+ hit the head with a knife or a hook).
If you want him to turn, use the legs and tickle the elephant behind his ears; either left or right.
Elephant – trainer relationship:
A young elephant (below 7 ft) won’t recognize his trainer and any hpandi or maut can ride him; an older one recognizes people and not everybody can ride it (it depends on how xxx (possibly boisterous given the context) he is).
Wild-tame elephants: there are about 20 elephants in Oanai Yang under 2 Brigades (abbr) (last year: 30, but some have escaped and some have died); only 2-3 were born in captivity, and the rest have been captured. If you train an elephant born in captivity, the procedure is the same. If a tame elephant meets a wild one accidentally in the jungle, it depends on the hpandi or maut; if he’s afraid, the elephant will be afraid also.
Usage: to transport rations & ammunitions to the front. A strong elephant can carry 3-400 viss; a small one less, but the smaller ones are faster in mountainous terrain. The basket on the elephant’s back is called waw (Hkamti shan?)
The Kachins don’t have elephants traditionally; they learned it from the Hkamti Shans. Before, there were not so many tame elephants in the Hukawng Valley, but plenty of wild ones. Old people used to tell how they built big “elephant-traps” near water-holes; a big hole with a fence around it, and one gate (kyouns, must be the same as a kraal). When the wild elephants were trapped inside, the people selected the good ones and kept them – and released the others.
Today, elephants are used for everything in the Hukawng Valley, even to plough fields. In Putao, the elephants are bigger, up to 12ft tall. Zau Dik’s uncle was one of the first elephant trainers in the Hukawng Valley; he had an instruction book written in “an Indian language.” His name was Nding Donja.
Catching Season: November – May (in the dry season).