So-Yin’s Escape

30. October 2021

Some 90 years ago the Bombay Burma Corporation caught and trained wild Burmese elephants to haul the trunks of teak trees from the ridges they grew on, to the rivers where they were rafted to float down to Rangoon and other saw mills, sometimes more than a thousand miles away.

It was hard work and one little elephant called Son-Yi, barely 7 years old, did not look forward to hauling teak from ridge to river for the rest of his life.

The opportunity for a possible get-away presented itself when the Forest Management of the Bombay Burma Corporation decided to explore additional hard wood sources on the Andaman islands. Elephants are not indigenous to the islands, so the Forest Management simply transferred 80 Burmese elephants, including So-Yin, to the Southern Andamans. There, So-Yin had much free time as he was too young to work. In Burma he had watched mahouts and their elephants crossing the Irrawaddy river. The mahouts had fastened belts across the belly of the elephants to hold onto while kneeling on the elephants’ back at the highest point. The elephants swam along calmly and at ease. Suddenly, however, they would dive into 15 feet of deep water, and just for fun, would keep submerged as long as possible hoping to ditch their riders.

Once in the Andamans, surrounded by the Indian Ocean, So-Yin used his freedom to take daily swims, until one day he imagined to see another island in the distance. There it was, that opportunity to escape his masters. Without hesitation he sat out to explore the adjacent island. The Forest Service wrote So-Yin off their books, having observed his previous ocean swimming escapades they assumed that he had drowned.

Elephant playing in water/ Photocredit: Iurii / Shutterstock

Far from drowning, So-Yin thoroughly enjoyed his long distance swimming, feeling at home in the water, at times completely submerged, until he reached the first island of his adventurous journey. Suddenly emerging form the the sea like a prehistoric monster, he must have surprised the Jarawas tribesmen on the shore. However, they were used to all kinds of strange animals,  and living completely from fish and shell-fish they represented no threat to So-Yin. He was undoubtedly as surprised as they were, so he prudently disappeared into the jungle to cherish his freedom and satisfy his appetite…

Some twelve years later a Bombay Burma Corporation employee found elephant tracks on the northern Andaman Island, and having knowledge of the (believed drowned) escapee, there was little doubt that the only living elephant on this large island could only be So-Yin. From where he disappeared to where his fresh tracks were discovered So-Yin had travelled a good 200 miles, most of it by swimming.  Some of these distances from island to island required our elephant to navigate more than a mile of open ocean. Son-Yi probably explored each island thoroughly and once familiar with it decided to venture to the next in the true spirit of the nomadic elephant life-style.

So -Yin was never captured and one must assume that he enjoyed the peace of the islands with plenty to eat and few humans to bother him. While elephants are very social animals, male elephants sometimes seek solitude even when other family member are close by. Thus the Andaman Islands became his home to enjoy for the rest of his life.*

*Inspired by events in the book entitled: Elephant Bill, author J.H. Williams, first published 1950