Elephants in Myanmar have long been invaluable labourers in the country's timber industry, nimbly finding their way through forests and dragging heavy fallen trees to rivers for shipping.
But as Myanmar's ruling junta expands logging in the country's teak forests, more wild elephants are being captured and trained for clear-cutting operations that destroy the very habitats in which they roamed freely, activists and industry insiders say.
Advertisement"On account of the loss and fragmentation of their habitats, the size of the wild elephant population has declined," said Uga, chairman of local environmental group Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association.
"To obtain elephant power for logging, wild elephants are being captured and recruited," said Uga, who uses only one name.
Employing elephants is normally more environmentally friendly than using heavy machinery, which requires roads cut into forests which cause more damage than elephants would.
About 4,500 elephants are believed to be working in the logging industry, including 2,500 owned by the state-run Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE), Uga said.
As logging operations have dramatically expanded, especially in remote regions of northern Myanmar near the Chinese border, some companies are turning to private entrepreneurs to capture and train elephants, business owners said.
One owner of domesticated elephants in Taungoo, about 150 miles (240 kilometres) north of Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon, said that 100 elephants had left in June to work on a timber operation in Sagaing province, hundreds of miles to the north.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said the elephants had been loaded into trucks to work for a company making veneers and plywood for export.
He had one elephant in the group, which he said was taken on a three-year rental agreement to clear cut forests to make way for new towns in so-called replacement areas, where villagers are being relocated to make way for the Tamanthi hydropower project.
The dam on the Chindwin river, in a remote corner of northwestern Myanmar, will provide electricity mainly for export to neighbouring India. Ethnic minority groups in the region estimate that at least 35 villages will need to be relocated.
Officially, the MTE uses a selective felling system for its logging and employs elephants to drag the logs to the nearest waterways for transport.
Under that system, only the most mature trees are logged, leaving younger ones to keep growing in a cycle meant to last 25-30 years.
But the government has openly started clear-cutting forests as it embarks on the Tamanthi project and other dams around the country, with neighbours China and Thailand financing much of the construction.
One retired MTE official told AFP that orders to follow selective felling guidelines were often ignored.
"Deforestation would not be occurring if we used the selective-felling system, adhering to the forestry law," he said on condition of anonymity.
"But the advice of experts is ignored... by orders from the government."
According to the most recent estimates, some 1.5 million cubic metres (53 million cubic feet) of timber worth 350 million dollars was exported from Myanmar to China in 2005, most of it illegal, according to Britain-based forestry watchdog Global Witness.
That was a 12 percent gain over the year before, and roughly double the amount exported in 2000, the group said.
Much of the logging takes place in remote areas of the country where it's impossible for outside experts to assess the extent of the environmental damage, but activists have long warned of the devastating consequences.
"This is a particularly destructive approach to logging that causes huge environmental damage," said Mike Davis of Global Witness.
For the elephants working in logging, the clear cutting means they are assisting in the destruction of their own habitat, Uga said.
"Wild elephants are running out of pasture in the forests," he said.
"Elephant conservation is important. We should follow forestry law to protect wild elephants as well as to protect the forest".