Known as Lane Xang, or the “Land of a Million Elephants”, the Lao PDR historically had large and widely distributed populations of both wild and domesticated elephants. As a living icon with important symbolic connotations, the elephant is an animal dear to the hearts of all people in the Lao PDR. Unfortunately, if the current mortality rate continues, it is safe to say that the elephant will become extinct in the near future.
Today the population stands at around 400 wild elephants. Survival of the species in the wild is seriously endangered by loss of natural habitat (expansion of settlements, agriculture, the logging industry and industrial infrastructure i.e. dams and roads) and to a lesser degree by poaching for the ivory trade or for the export of living animals. Competition for space is leading to increasing conflict between elephants and people, leading to casualties on both sides.
Laos has about 450 domesticated elephants. Most of them are engaged in timber harvesting operations by logging companies and therefore causal to the destruction of elephant habitat. Elephants are contributing to the national economy and a community of about 9000 people directly, depending on revenue generated by their work.
Traditionally, elephants from wild populations were captured and domesticated. Since capture from the wild was banned by the government, the domesticated population has plummeted. With an increase in demand for elephants by the logging industry, the animals are made to work at a furious pace. They are overworked and exhausted, and as a result cannot reproduce.
Data collected and analysed in Laos shows that the reproduction rate for elephants is extremely low. The population is becoming moribund, with elephants having an increasingly higher average age. With only 33 cows under the age of 20 (the country’s ‘breeding reservoir’ in 15 years’ time) the future of Laos’s domesticated elephants is under threat.
There is therefore an urgent need to safeguard the remaining elephants and create a breeding programme for them. If Laos wants to maintain a self-perpetuating population and avoid extinction of its elephants, the number of births must increase dramatically. This will ensure survival of the domestic population and reduce pressure on its wild counterparts. It is also important that careful and sensitive support be provided to the reconversion of elephants from logging to alternative financially viable activities, such as eco-tourism and National Protected Area (NPA) management. Elephant handling is a tradition in Laos, and a good asset for increasing habitat protection and management and the development of nature tourism within protected areas. These can benefit local people and mahouts and contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and critical habitat.
It is therefore of major importance to conserve the wild elephant populations within the Nam Pouy NPA, Sayaboury province. The protected area was identified as a top priority conservation area for wild elephants by the Government of Lao PDR at a National Elephant Conservation Meeting held in 2008.