Although modern logging equipment was in widespread use, difficult terrain and lack of roads in many areas necessitated the use of elephants in logging operations. In 1982 there were 12,000 working elephants in Thailand, including those trained at the Royal Forestry Department's Young Elephant Training Center. [Library of Congress]

Elephants are very important in the teak business. They are skilled professionals that are trained by their Karen mahouts to work alone, in pairs or in teams. One elephant can usually drag a small log on land or several logs through water with the chains that are harnessed to its body. Bigger logs can be rolled by two elephants with their trunks and lifted off the ground by three elephants using their tusks and trunks.

It reportedly takes 15 to 20 years to train an elephant for the logging in the forest. According to Reuters recently captured elephants “methodical, repetitive training methods teach the animals to respond to simple commands over several years. Aged about six, they graduate onto more complex tasks such as piling logs, dragging logs or pushing them up and down hills into streams using their trunks and tusks, before starting full-time work aged around 16-years old.Such animal worth as much as $9,000 a piece, and earn $8 or more for a four-hour day. Female elephants with short tusks are used for pushing things. Males with long tusk are good for logging because their tusks enable them to pick up logs. the tusks get in the way if the push something.

Work elephants used to hoist logs onto trucks that usually carry the logs to rovers, where the logs are float to mills. Men saw teak logs in the water and water buffalo, that kneel on command, pull the logs out of the water and push them onto carts.

Elephants are still used in Burma to move teak logs. Drivers, called oozies, prepared their mounts with a pick-ax-like tool called a choon. If necessary the elephants can be transported from place to place in trucks or trailers pulled by trucks. Elephants used in illegal logging are sometimes brutally used.

Elephants are a good alternative to clear cutting because they can be used to select only the species of tree that are needed, they don't need roads and they can maneuver through all kind of terrain. Because elephants in Thailand may be out of work soon as the teak forests are depleted, I say transfer them to the Pacific northwest were they can used as alternative to the clear cutting used there.

Elephants are cheaper and most frailty than tractors and damaging forest roads. "Instead of hauling away heavy green logs with bulldozers and tractor skidders, which scar erosion-prone hillsides," wrote Sterba, Burma uses elephants to pull their lighter dried logs to rivers on which they float to staging areas for exporting processing." [Source: James P. Sterba in the Wall Street Journal]


Tropical woods from Southeast Asia include teak and ramin. Teak is the common name for the tropical hardwood tree species Tectona grandis and its wood products. It is one of the most prized and valuable of all woods. Hard, solid, heavy, strong and durable, it comes from a tree native to Asia that grows quickly at first but needs around 50 years to mature before it can be harvested for lumber. It can reach heights of 140 feet, with a 60 foot trunk, and usually grows in catered patches, mixed with dense growth. The word teak comes from the Malayalam word thekku. This tree is mentioned in the seventh-century literature of Tamil popularly known as the Tevaram

Teak is a deciduous tree (which periodically sheds its leaves) with long, rough leaves that can reach two feet in length. At certain times of the year small clusters of white flowers produce had-shelled nuts with four seeds. Teak trees are easily cultivated and grow best in rich soil on the banks of streams.

Tectona grandis is found in a variety of habitats and climatic conditions from arid areas with only 500 mm of rain per year to very moist forests with up to 5,000 mm of rain per year. Typically, though, the annual rainfall in areas where teak grows averages 1,250-1,650 mm with a 3-5 month dry season.

Teak is native to India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia and cultivated in many countries, including those in Africa and the Caribbean. Much of the world's teak is exported by Indonesia and Myanmar. Myanmar accounts for nearly one third of the world's total teak production. There is also a rapidly growing plantation grown market in Central America (Costa Rica) and South America.

Mature teak fetches a very good price. It is grown extensively by forest departments of different states in forest areas. Teak consumption raises a number of environmental concerns, such as the disappearance of rare old-growth teak. However, its popularity has led to growth in sustainable plantation teak production throughout the seasonally dry tropics in forestry plantations. The Forest Stewardship Council offers certification of sustainably grown and harvested teak products. Propagation of teak via tissue culture for plantation purposes is commercially viable. Due to the increasing cost of teak, various alternatives have been employed. These include purpleheart, iroko, and angelique. [Source: Wikipedia]

Characteristics of Teak

Resinous oil give teak its fragrant smell, protect the wood from insects and fungi and give the wood its extraordinary durability. Teak does not warp or crack when seasoned and does not cause nails to rust. Teak used make houses that are several centuries old is still in good condition. Bits of teak over 2000 years old have been found in Indian caves. Because it not very hard teak can be easily worked and can be polished to a golden brown color. It valued for making houses and cabinets and is regarded as the best wood for shipbuilding.

Teak is a yellowish brown timber with good grains and texture. It is used in the manufacture of outdoor furniture, boat decks, and other articles where weather resistance is desired. It is also used for cutting boards, spark-plugs, indoor flooring, countertops and as a veneer for indoor furnishings. [Source: Wikipedia ]

Teak, though easily worked, can cause severe blunting on edged tools because of the presence of silica in the wood. Teak's natural oils make it useful in exposed locations, and make the timber termite and pest resistant. Teak is durable even when not treated with oil or varnish. Timber cut from old teak trees was once believed to be more durable and harder than plantation grown teak. Studies have shown Plantation teak performs on par with old-growth teak in erosion rate, dimensional stability, warping, and surface checking, but is more susceptible to color change from UV exposure.

Growing, Harvesting and Cultivating Teak

Teak trees are usually harvested when the girth of the tree is at least six or eight feet. It is first killed by cutting through the bark and sapwood completely around the trunk. Then the trees is allowed to stand for two or three years until it is dry enough to be floated downstream. Teak that has not been allowed to age is too heavy to float.

The vast majority of commercially harvested teak is grown on teak plantations found in Indonesia and controlled by Perum Perhutani (a state owned forest enterprise) that manages the country's forests. The primary use of teak harvested in Indonesia is in the production of outdoor teak furniture for export. [Source: Wikipedia ]

Cultivated teak is propagated mainly from seeds. Germination of the seeds involves pretreatment to remove dormancy arising from the thick pericarp. Pretreatment involves alternate wetting and drying of the seed. The seeds are soaked in water for 12 hours and then spread to dry in the sun for 12 hours. This is repeated for 10–14 days and then the seeds are sown in shallow germination beds of coarse peat covered by sand. The seeds then germinate after 15 to 30 days. Clonal propagation of teak has been successfully done thorough grafting, rooted stem cuttings and micro propagation. While bud grafting on to seedling root stock has been the method used for establishing clonal seed orchards that enables assemblage of clones of the superior trees to encourage crossing, rooted stem cuttings and micro propagated plants are being increasingly used around the world for raising clonal plantations. Hyblaea puera, a moth native to southeast Asia, is a teak pest whose caterpillar feeds on teak and other species of trees common in the region.

Uses of Teak: Food, Furniture and Boats

Teak is a good material for the construction of both indoor and outdoor furniture. Teak's high oil content, strong tensile strength and tight grain makes it particularly suitable for outdoor furniture applications. Over time teak can mature to a silvery-grey finish. Teak is used extensively in India to make doors and window frames, furniture, and columns and beams in old type houses.

Leaves of the teak wood tree are used in making Pellakai gatti (jackfruit dumpling), where batter is poured into a teak leaf and is steamed. This type of usage is found in the coastal district of Udupi in the Tulunadu region in South India. The leaves are also used in gudeg, a dish of young jackfruit made in Central Java, Indonesia, and give the dish its dark brown color.

Teak has been used extensively as a boatbuilding material. In addition to relatively high strength, teak is also highly resistant to rot, fungi and mildew. In addition, teak has a relatively low shrinkage ratio, which makes it excellent for applications where it undergoes periodic changes in moisture. Teak has the unusual properties of being both an excellent structural timber for framing, planking, etc., while at the same time being easily worked, unlike some other similar woods such as purpleheart, and finished to a high degree. For this reason, it is also prized for the trim work on boat interiors. Due to the oily nature of the wood, care must be taken to properly prepare the wood before gluing. [Source: Wikipedia ]

When used on boats, teak is also very flexible in the finishes that may be applied. One option is to use no finish at all, in which case the wood will naturally weather to a pleasing silver-grey. The wood may also be oiled with a finishing agent such as linseed or tung oil. This results in a pleasant, somewhat bland finish. Finally, teak may also be varnished for a deep, lustrous glow.

Teak is also used extensively in boat decks, as it is extremely durable and requires very little maintenance. The teak tends to wear in to the softer 'summer' growth bands first, forming a natural 'non-slip' surface. Any sanding is therefore only damaging. Use of modern cleaning compounds, oils or preservatives will shorten the life of the teak, as it contains natural teak-oil a very small distance below the white surface. Wooden boat experts will only wash the teak with salt water, and re-caulk when needed. This cleans the deck, and prevents it from drying out and the wood shrinking. The salt helps it absorb and retain moisture, and prevents any mildew and algal growth. People with poor knowledge often over-maintain the teak, and drastically shorten its life.

Teak in Myanmar

Now that most of the valuable hardwood in Thailand has been logged and there is a logging ban there, Myanmar is the only country with large tracts of teak forests left. In the past only mature trees were harvested by elephants and traditional "soft" logging method, but in 1988 to gain foreign currency the Burmese government let Thai timber contractors come into land belonging to the Karen, Mon, Shan and Karenni to log the teak. In same cases the money earned by the government was used to buy arms to fight the indigenous people on whose land the timber was harvested. In 1994, the Myanmar government halted to concession sales to Thai loggers, who clear-cut the region of Myanmar near the Thai border. [Source: "Endangered People" by Art Davidson]

Burma contains most of the world's teak forests (75 percent of them by some reckonings). Sometimes called “brown gold,” teak used to account for a third of Burma’s output. One teak log can sell for as much as $20,000. The only things that have kept Myanmar’s teak forest from being completely exploited are poor roads and poor infrastructure.

Teak logs are floated downstream to be hauled by truck. In some places they are still logged and carried in the forest using elephants. Many of the homes and offices of the ruling generals in Myanmar have teak-paneled reception rooms, teak-paneled bedrooms, and teak-paneled hideaway bars. Each year 30,000 acres of teak forests are replanted.

Harvesting teak is a long process. Before a tree is cut it must be girdled and left standing for three years. Otherwise the tree is so full of sap it won't float. Using elephants it takes another season just to get the cut logs to the rivers where they are floated to mills near Rangoon.

Myanmar is a major exporter of teak, accounting for 75 percent of the world market, most of it going to India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. With prices for the wood so high Myanmar has borrowed millions of dollars to mechanize an industry that has long depended on elephants for labor. Most of the teak now is found in insurgent areas and even if that is included, Myanmar's supply of the lucrative timber is only expected to last for ten more years if it continues to be harvested at the current rate. As well as growing opium many mountain insurgent groups raise cash by smuggling teak into Thailand, a country whose teak supplies have already more or less been depleted.


Ramin (Gonystylus species) is the common trade name given to a number of light coloured tropical hardwood tree species native to the peat swamp forests of Brunei Darussalam, Fiji, Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra), Malaysia (Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, Sarawak), Singapore, Solomon Islands and The Philippines. [Source: Kew.org, Kew Gardens]

Wood from the Ramin tree is particularly sought after by illegal loggers. Ramin wood is prized for its fine grain and easy working qualities and the main products in trade are picture frames, pool cues, blinds, tool handles and decorative mouldings. The major importing countries are China, USA and Italy.

Concern has arisen about the over-exploitation of ramin, particularly from prime orangutan habitats and Protected Reserves in Southeast Asia . Ramin is now listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates the international trade in species threatened through trade. This means that a permit is needed to import certain parts and derivatives of ramin into the UK. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has been designated as the UK CITES Scientific Authority for plants. As such, its role is to provide scientific advice to the UK government on plants in trade and assist enforcement agencies, such as HM Revenue and Customs, to implement CITES not only within the UK, but at the European and international level.

United Nations: Wild Teak Forests Declining

Jeremy Hance wrote in mongabay.com: “Wild teak forests continue to decline, threatening genetic diversity, while commercial planted teak forests are on the rise, according to a new assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Overall, teak forests have declined by 1.3 percent, or 385,000 hectares, worldwide from 1992 to 2010. Teak (Tectona grandis) is used for a variety of commercial purposes, including outdoor furniture and flooring. [Source: Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, March 28, 2012]

Wild teak forests are found only in four countries, three of which—India, Laos, and Myanmar—have seen declines, while Thailand has seen an increase in its teak forest by nearly 3 million hectares. India has lost the most teak forest in the last two decades, falling around 2.1 million hectares, meanwhile Myanmar lost just over a million hectares and Laos 68,500 hectares. Thailand has banned logging in natural forests since 1989, which the assessment says may be the reason behind its rise in teak forests.

"Supply trend points to a continuing decline in the volume and quality of natural teak, which results in progressive loss of genetic resources. This is why it is essential in the near future to plan, organize and implement a programme for the genetic conservation of native teak resources in the four countries with natural teak forests," said Walter Kollert, FAO Forestry Officer, in a press release.

Even as wild teak declines, commercial teak plantations are on the rise. Such forests are increasingly grown outside of teak range countries, including Africa, Central and South America, and Indonesia, but India is still the largest holder of commercial teak plantations, making up 38 percent of the world's total. Teak has not been evaluated by the IUCN Red List.

Timber and Logging in Thailand

Thailand was once a major exporter of tropical hardwoods and was famous for teak. After logging had seriously hollowed out Thailand’s rain forests, and teak was logged out, the Thai government banned both timber exports and commercial logging in 1989 and now is a net importer. Much of the logging that goes on in Thailand is illegal. Thais have also been heavily involved in illegal logging in Cambodia and Myanmar. See Deforestation Under Environmental Issues, Nature.

Major exploitation of the highly valuable teak wood for exportation was begun by European interests in the late 1800s, and by 1895 indiscriminate cutting had largely exhausted the more easily workable stands. About this time, the government established a system of control that included leases and cutting cycles (a teak tree takes from 80 to 150 years to mature fully, depending on local soils and weather). By 1909, when controls were further tightened, almost all of the industry was in European hands, mainly British but also Danish and French. During World War II, a Thai company took over all concessions, and although a few were returned to foreign control for a period after the war, the government's long-term goal of full Thai operation was attained in the late 1950s. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Although teak had been a major long-term source of foreign exchange earnings, the output by volume of timber from other commercially valuable species was far greater. Thailand had a large number of such species, of which the most commonly exported one was yang, related to the so-called Philippine mahoganies. Others were of great value domestically, supplying the country's general requirements for timber and wood products of various sorts. In the 1980s, however, the forests failed to meet the demand for raw materials for paper and paper products, and these were being imported in growing quantities. Only limited stands of pine existed, and development of a domestic pulp and paper industry appeared to depend on the establishment of suitable forest plantations. *

Even before the ban on logging in 1989 the timber industry in Thailand was in sharp decline. Thailand's export of raw roundwood logs was about $10.4 million in 1977 and has been in decline ever since. In 1988 this had fallen to just over $2 million prior to the ban on exports. Meanwhile, Thailand's imports of raw logs has climbed from $4 million in 1977 to over $80 million in 1988. [Source: TED Case Studies]

Thailand's furniture industry had grown largely due to the teak and rosewood stands that provided cheap raw inputs into making the product. As of 1987, the major furniture export markets for Thailand were the United States, Japan, and France, accounting for about 60 percent of the total. Exports to the United States jumped by 177 percent over 1987/1988, up to $68 million. Singapore and Hong Kong were major re-export sites of Thai furniture products.

Timber in Myanmar

Timber is the second-largest revenue earner for the military government after fossil fuels. In 2002, logging represented 9.3 percent of the military regime’s legal foreign exchange. It is estimated that illegal logging equals or exceed that. Myanmar exported $453 million in finished wood in the fiscal year 2008-09.

Burma has the largest remaining stands of teak and “padauk”, or cherry wood, trees. Logging was important export in the colonial economy, but excessive harvesting and poor forestry management have resulted in a sharp drop in the availability of teak. China, Thailand, and India are their main markets for timber, but most wood is exported illegally.

Raw logs from Myanmar are usually exported to China. The raw wood is then crafted into finished products, which are finally traded to Europe and the U.S. for cheap consumption. According to another NGO, Global Witness, up to half of the wood imported into China is illegal. The depletion of forest resources is making it difficult for Myanmar to manufacture furniture and other wood products for export. Xinhua reported that "finished-wood exporters...expressed their readiness to completely stop exporting wood logs."

Teak is Myanmar's most important timber export. India and China are the biggest markets for its legal teak exports. "Logs and lumber are Burma's biggest foreign exchange earners," wrote James P. Sterba in the Wall Street Journal in the 1990s, "but instead of selling logging concessions it normally cuts teak trees under a selective tender system established by British colonialists in 1856 to foster sustainable yields. Trees are inventoried and only some of those deemed mature enough (with trunks about seven feet around) are marked for harvesting after an annual allowable cut is determined. A ring of bark is tripped off and the trees are allowed to die and dry out for two or three years." "The Burmese government," says Sterba, "plans to ban log sales entirely and export only processed timber and to limit logging to sustainable levels." [Source: James P. Sterba in the Wall Street Journal]

Much of the logging in Myanmar is illegal, with much of the illegally-harvest wood ending up in China or Thailand. After logging was banned by China, some Chinese logging companies moved their workers to Myanmar.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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