Getty ImagesEntranced by elephants, British citizen James Howard Williams moved to Burma in the 1920s to be a forest assistant at the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation just so he could work with the world’s largest land animals. Not long after he started his job, Billy—as Williams was known—saw an elephant trying to carry a heavy pile of logs cradled in his tusks and trunk. As the bull headed up a steep hill, the timber was in danger of rolling up and over the top of his head. Struggling, the tusker put the logs down and picked up a bamboo stake. He positioned the bamboo in his mouth, pointing it up like a backstop, and then grasped the logs again, secured with the stake.
Experiences like this convinced Williams that elephants were the most intelligent animals in the world, able to improvise novel solutions to problems. They were always acquiring new skills because their brains, much like ours, were built to learn throughout their lives. “[The elephant] never stops learning, because he is always thinking,” he said.
One of Williams’s favorite stories occurred sometime around the late 1920s, when he had the chance to test the limits of the elephants’ abilities by asking them to do something they had never done before. It was early June, the beginning of monsoon season in Burma, and Williams was awaiting the start of the rains to loosen a massive stockpile of 2,000 teak logs. They were lined up in a dry riverbed, with the smallest first and the largest—astounding in girth and length, some 40 feet—to the rear. Until the rains broke, they, like all the teak logs in the upper Chindwin River, were stranded.
There was one big problem, however: The dormant avalanche of wood sat eight miles upstream from an expensive new railway bridge, which spanned the river. When the logs came crashing downstream, they would be headed right for the abutments supporting the bridge.
Michael Maslan/CorbisWilliams quickly called for Poo Ban and Poo Gyi, two tuskers that, besides being big and strong, were also considered lane bah these, or what the elephant riders called “wise old animals.” He thought it might be possible to train them to stand in the water before the bridge, facing upstream, and redirect the logs away from the piers and toward the center of the river. Their riders said it would be easy.
Poo Ban and Poo Gyi were taken down to the river, with their riders sitting atop them and giving commands as a few test logs were floated down. The riders shouted, “Coming left,” or, “Coming right.” Immediately, the elephants diverted each log as it arrived. With casual grace, the bookended tuskers followed commands to catch each log as it headed toward a pier, and then, using their trunks or tusks, they nimbly shoved it to the center. The scheme looked as if it would work, but the intended barrage of teak would probably require a second team to serve as relief.
The heat was suffocating, yet day after day, distant thunder and gathering black clouds threatened but didn’t deliver rain. Finally, after two weeks, the rains began to fill the riverbed upstream. Williams, who had installed field phones at the logging site and at the bridge, soon received word: “The river is rising; heavy rain has broken in the headwaters; logs are moving on the sandy bed.” The teak logs were on their way.
At three in the afternoon, Williams observed a change in the color of the water—it was becoming “chocolate dirty” with silt and debris. This signaled that the moment of reckoning was coming fast. The quicker, the better, because there were only a few hours of daylight left, and this was not an operation to be attempted in the dark.
The tension ratcheted up as an excited crowd of villagers formed on the banks to watch. No one was allowed on the bridge itself as a precaution against distracting the elephants. Poo Ban and Poo Gyi were ordered into the water. The tension had not gotten to them; in fact, Williams found them to be jovial. They strolled out slowly, dignified and magnificent—two beautiful gray tuskers wading in a brown river. The water splashed up as they moved, first darkening their legs, then skimming their bellies. Their riders, each bare chested with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail, positioned each elephant in front of an abutment. When the animals were in place, the men scrambled off, climbing up and onto the piers themselves. They were posted there to see what was coming and to give orders to their elephants.
Soon, everyone heard the unmistakable thunder of teak on the move—the boom, boom, boom of the massive logs striking one another. The onslaught started, and so did the elephants. They were like game-ready goalies. “With grace and ease, Poo Ban and Poo Gyi diverted each log with their tusks right and left [and] with a glancing push and blow,” Williams said. Every stray log spun and dipped in the water toward the center. The tuskers were good.
But this was just a warm-up: The smaller logs had come down first. The pace picked up as larger logs began to appear. The elephants “coolly held their ground, but they were more than occupied—left tusk, right tusk.” Williams watched with excitement. All the wood that came near the precious bridge was tossed expertly by the animals to the middle of the current.
Williams wasn’t the only one thrilled by the skill of the elephants. The air was now filled, not just with the crashing of the logs but also with the cheering of an ever-growing crowd. It was all going so well. But Williams looked skyward. How long would the light last? And how long would the elephants hold out? They must be exhausted. He wondered if he should take them out and replace them with the waiting relay team. But the most colossal pieces of timber were here now.
For Poo Ban and Poo Gyi, the effortless tossing had turned into concentrated heaving. Instead of waiting for a log to come in before sending it off with a light jab of a tusk, they were now extending their trunks forward to reach the logs early and slow them down before muscling them away. If Williams added the other two elephants, they might get in one another’s way. But he worried for these two warriors; it didn’t look like they could keep it up.
Just then, they seemed to tell him they couldn’t. Nearly in unison, both elephants began to turn around, facing downstream. Their riders frantically shouted for them to stop, but they didn’t listen. The tuskers were talking only to each other.
However, the elephants were not refusing to work; they “did not swim away downstream and break ranks as I feared and rather expected,” Williams said. “Instead, they plunged their forefeet into the sandy bottom of the creek and … did hula-hula dancing movements, allowing logs to ricochet off their rumps still more like cannons off the cushion.”
The crowd erupted into laughter and cheers. The elephants used their ample haunches to deflect the logs, and they were also agile enough to swing back a little with the momentum of each one to blunt the impact. Just a few scattered logs—the tail end of the wood cache—were coming now, so Poo Ban and Poo Gyi were taken out and replaced by the second team. “It was a triumph for the jumbos,” Williams said, “and not one log damaged a pier.”
Billy Williams believed that living with elephants made him a better man, and he fought for their humane care in the teak business. When Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite British Force 136, operating behind enemy lines. He commanded a team of war elephants that carried supplies, built bridges, and transported the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. You can read about Williams’s amazing experiences in the book Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke.