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Who needs skidders? – elephant logging in Burma

12 February 2024

An extract from Ross Lockyer’s book, That’s What Elephants are For appears in the February 2024 issue of NZ Logger. It’s an amazing read – and an amazing story. In mid-1984, Ross Lockyer was offered a consultancy with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as Logging Engineering Consultant for the Project Completion Mission pertaining to the ADB Burma Forestry/Loan Project.

His job was to travel around all the areas that were covere3d under the project and observe, investigate, assess, evaluate and report on the situation as he saw it at the time. With elephants for skidders and buffalos for loaders, he got far more than he bargained for.

Part of his job was to locate and inspect log-harvesting equipment, which had been by the first ADB Burma Forestry Project. This included logging trucks, log loaders, log loaders, log skidders and chainsaws, road construction equipment such as bull-dozers, road rollers, water trucks, fuel bowser tankers and maintenance and repair workshops.

As well as these checks, Ross was also charged with inspecting and reporting on the log storage and rafting operations, logging and loading operations, sawmills and the traditional Burmese log extraction equipment comprising of elephants, water buffaloes and oxen. Throughout Burma at the time, teak logs were being extracted from the forests on the steep and hilly terrain and by buffaloes on the easier and flatter terrain. Oxen were used mainly on the riverbanks for short hauls on gentle, favourable downhill sloping terrain, or to haul two-wheeled ox carts for transporting logs along tracks and roads.

For the first time in New Zealand, at Wood Transport & Logistics 2024, Ross Lockyer, now 80 years of age, a retired forest ranger, adventurer and story teller will be telling his story of his experiences on Elephant Logging in Burma.

Retired and living near Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands, friends had been telling him for over 30 years that he should write a book about his life and adventures in the forestry and logging industries in the forests of Asia and the Pacific. So, in 2013, he put pen to paper and started writing – “the book”.

Ten years later that one book has expanded into five books. All five books have now been published and have sold over a thousand copies to date. The titles include “An Accidental Bushman” (about the making of a Forest Ranger in early 1960s NZ); “Cannibals, Crocodiles and Cassowaries” (a NZ Forest Ranger in pre-independence Papua New Guinea); “The River is my Highway” (stories from the forestry and logging industry in the jungles of Indonesian Borneo).

Meanwhile, Back in the Jungle…” ( a kiwi bushman in the jungles of Indonesian West Irian and North Sumatra); and finally, released in November 2023, “But That’s What Elephants Are For!”; (a forestry consultant working with the logging elephants in the teak forests of North and Central Burma, followed by more stories of adventures in the forestry and logging industries of Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, China, Thailand, Japan, Kiribati and South Africa.

With a gung-ho approach to life (and often his own safety), Ross threw himself into his work and immersed himself in the local cultures and communities wherever he went, learning the languages and customs that helped him fit in and do his job. He had many fascinating and hair-raising adventures and close scrapes, and he encountered many amazing people wherever he went. Indeed, a wonderful and fulfilling forestry career for a country kid from Okato, Taranaki, who at 17 years of age, on the 7th January 1962, fronted up at the NZFS Forest Ranger Training School at the FTC in Rotorua with 28 other keen young men to begin a lifelong career in forestry.

Many of those now 80-year-olds, still keep in regular contact and have become lifelong mates to this day. Ross considers himself fortunate that he has been able to record his stories for the enjoyment of others.

Registrations to the Wood Transport & Logistics 2024 event being run in Rotorua, New Zealand on 22-23 May can be made here.