Saving Elephants: Laos Cultural Icons on Brink
Laos, for centuries, has been known of its large population of elephants, thus making it called as Lan Xang or “Land of a Million Elephants” in English.
But these huge cultural icon has been facing a crisis for so long not known to most of Laos people.
There have been a total of 800 elephants still left in the country, around 400 wild elephants and 400 in captivity, as estimated by the Laos government and conversation groups.
"Both populations are not sustainable and are actually declining," says Anabel López Pérez, a biologist from Spain with the Elephant Conservation Center. "And the problems that they face, both populations, are completely different."
The biologist also stated that the biggest reason for the decline on the wild elephant numbers is deforestation. Forest of Laos has been heavily deforested due to the high demand of timber of neighboring countries China and Vietnam with only 40% of forest still existing today from 70% forest coverage recorded in the 1950s.
As the forests dwindle, that leads to habitat fragmentation, and the elephants are unable to follow normal migration patterns, she says leading to human-elephant conflict. "So elephants go outside the forest ... and find human infrastructure and crops of the locals," López says. "They eat everything around and sometimes break infrastructures, and locals are not very happy with the situations."
On the other hand, elephants in captivity has their own problems. Even though Laos' government has placed tight restrictions on using elephants to transport wood for the logging industry, elephants in captivity are still dying in droves, says López.
“They're fed unhealthy diets and forced to work in poor conditions at elephant tourism camps, or they get injured and aren't taken care of properly. What's more is that elephant owners have little incentive to breed the animals in captivity, as a pregnancy would sideline a female elephant from working for up to four years” she says.
As male elephants get aggressive and unpredictable to handle than females because of their hormonal changes, no one wants to employ them. "So we see more and more often, male elephants today die so the owners they can have an income and buy, sell these body parts," says López.
Another reason for the decrease in population of both wild and domesticated Asian elephants is poaching. This activity leads the Asian elephants to be classified as endangered species. A rise in demand of elephant body parts like skin and ivory which are used in traditional medicine continue in places like China and Myanmar.
Established in 2010, Elephant Conservation Center, country's only conservation park, has been trying to rehabilitate the elephant population in Laos where López is a part of a team of conservationists.
At the center near Xayaboury, a town in the northwestern part of Laos near the border with Thailand, lives around twenty-nine elephants — 20 females and 9 males. Some are government-owned and used for parades and government functions, while others belong to the conservation center. Some of them had formerly worked in Laos logging industry.
López is in charge of the breeding program of the center's 29 captive elephants with their wild counterparts. There's also a nursery and hospital onsite, as well as plenty of mountainous forest for the elephants to roam and watering holes in which they can bathe.
The mahout training program they offer in the conservation center aims to improve the elephant handlers' deep knowledge for conservation purposes. All mahouts who come to train and work at the center are Laos citizens, says guide Phongsavath Malaythong. It was the Khmu, one of the country's three main ethnic groups, were the first people to take care of the Laos elephants.
Before working as a guide for the conservation center, Malaythong worked with the animals in various elephant tourism camps in and around Luang Prabang, a popular tourist destination city on the Mekong River over two hours away from the conservation center. "The wild elephant is very important to Laos people ... because the elephant a long time ago is [revered] like a Buddha," he stated.
Elephants, in present, are still being used in parades during holidays or religious celebrations in the country. This deep cultural connection not only informs the mahouts' training, but also the willingness of ordinary Lao people, he says, to work with conservationists when there are clashes between humans and elephants.
He also stated that they even go to the locals, talked to them and state the importance of the elephants. Aside from directly reaching out to the people, there are instances that even the people would have approached them to ask to work with them and for the elephants. He wished more tourist would come not to enjoy the elephant but also to know and learn them even more.
They're even hoping to train elephant guides who speak Chinese to help make their eco-friendly elephant experience more attractive to the droves of Chinese tourists coming into Laos.
"You come here to support because you don't pay this price to sleep in a simple bungalow, in bamboo," says site manager Anthony Philippe, from France. "So people who come here are already concerned about the situation. So, once they come here, it's because they want to see something different."
The center has a great relationship with the government which gave the center much of its land even though they are mostly funded by the visitors. Philippe also added that it works with the Xayaboury provincial government on various projects — helping improve the local elephant festival and hosting conservation-focused events for residents, buying their supplies in town, employing mostly Laos people.
"I spoke with the governor a few days ago and he said, 'If you need more [land], we can find one solution for you to increase the size, if necessary,' " Philippe says.
It’s not only the local government who have been very supportive of elephant conservation but also the national government which bans catching wild elephants and trading wildlife as well as restricting elephants to be used in the logging industry of the country.
It was the conservation center who received the 13 elephants after Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith stopped the sale of them to a safari park in Dubai.
All these conservation efforts will be in vain if the current trajectories which is the continued rate of deforestation, habitat fragmentation, human-elephant conflict and poaching continues making Laos zero elephants by the year 2030 as stated in an article co-written by Chrisantha Pinto, an American biologist at the center.
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"Definitely infrastructure projects should be of concern and should be developed in a sustainable manner and really taking into consideration where they're going through," says Nilanga Jayasinghe, a World Wildlife Fund program officer focusing on Asian species.
These threats — human development, infrastructure, deforestation, better access for poachers — are not isolated to elephants in Laos but all over Southeast Asia.
"Throughout the five Mekong [River] countries, a number of [elephant populations] are in steep decline," says Jayasinghe. "It's a pretty dire situation."
Every country in the region is facing similar problems in elephant conservation, even if there is a great support on this move from the governments in Southeast Asia and various organizations trying and investing to save these animals. It’s also a matter of resources, Jayasinghe says.