A Race Against Extinction

With 2 elephant births for 10 deaths per year in Laos, breeding is an absolute necessity


There are around 800 elephants left in Laos. About 400 in the wild and 400 in captivity. Of this population, only a small percentage of females are still capable of breeding, due to lack of breeding opportunities given to them while they are working. Because of this, about 10 elephants die annually for every 1-2 elephants born. With these numbers it is predicted that the elephant population in Laos could disappear in the next 20-30 years. In an attempt to prolong the existence of this iconic species, the ECC has been working to increase the birth rates in Laos.

The Center began as a nursery for all pregnant logging elephants to come and rest through their pregnancy, as well as the vital years of breast feeding. Elephants are pregnant for 18-22 months. The last year of pregnancy an elephant cannot work, as well as the next 3-4 years of breastfeeding. Because of this, many mahouts stopped breeding their elephants, which resulted in reproductive issues for many retired logging elephants in the current population.

The baby bonus program allowed mahouts to breed their elephants without financial concerns. Once the logging industry had almost come to an end, the Center decided to begin a breeding program. Perfecting this program proved challenging. A female elephant is only in heat for a few days every four months.

To better predict when this period would be, blood was taken from all breeding age females weekly and sent to a laboratory for analysis of progesterone levels. By following this hormone, the ovulation cycle of each female is tracked and she is placed with the male at the appropriate time.

The Center has invested in this program further, with the help of the Smithsonian Institute and the Australian Embassy in Laos, to train a biologist in endocrinology and set up a lab for all hormone research to be done in house. This breeding program is not meant to breed more elephants into captivity, but to conserve the species through reintegration back to the wild. Our goal is to integrate every mother and calve born to the Center into a herd and release the herd together once the calf is five years old. This way only experienced elephants are released into the wild to continue breeding, as well as calves that grow up naturally instead of within human constraints. We have also rescued 8 males to ensure that there is continued genetic diversity incorporated within the gene pool. To learn more about their management, see our scientific research section.

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