Politics & Political Theory

Elephant convoys beyond the state: Animal-based transport as subversive logistics

This article explores and analyzes a form of subversive logistics: the use of trained Asian elephants in the mobilization of cargo and people. This unusual means of conveyance, whose zone of persistence is mainly in the forested uplands of Burma (Myanmar) and parts of northeast India, most comes into its own during logistical operations which occur without the use of fixed-route roads. Empirically, the article presents fieldwork conducted in Burma and northeast India between 2013 and 2017, as well as related archival research, including research about other transport animals like sled dogs and camels. The (perhaps surprising) role played by elephants during flood relief operations in recent times receives special attention here, as does the theme of elephant-based transportation during modern armed conflicts, such as the ongoing Kachin conflict in northern Burma and in the Burma theater of World War II. The article aims to help theorize the connection between mobility and political subversion, highlighting how landscapes which do not lend themselves to permanent transport infrastructure—and thus the presence of the state—are simultaneously places of potential resistance. A related aim is to contribute to our understanding of the elephant–human relationship itself, demonstrating how elephants and humans have worked together to produce constantly shifting systems of mobility.

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Volume 37 Issue 5