Elephants have worked alongside humans for thousands of years. The ancient art of being an elephant owner (mahout) carries with it the responsibility of trust, skill, strength and kindness. Captive elephants in Laos are treated as equal family members by their adopted human family and work with humans for many years.
Sadly captive elephant populations are in decline. Only an approximate 450 remain in Laos. The new millennium has bought with it the burden of financial gain, with mahouts having to work their elephants seven days a week to earn a living. Elephants are mainly employed in the logging industry, a very hard and dangerous job. Male elephants are too tired and busy to reproduce and can even die from logging accidents.
The fertility of female elephants is markedly lost at 30 years of age. It’s very important that a cow has had the opportunity to reproduce before her reproductive health is compromised. However a mahout cannot afford to rest his female elephant during her pregnancy and lactation. The cow needs at least 4 years out of work – a very long time for a family to be without income.
All these factors means the birth of a domestic calf is a rare event in Laos. However the Elephant Conservation Center allows owners of pregnant cows to join their breeding programme during their elephant’s pregnancy and during the 2-3 years that follow it. This supports elephant reproduction while offering mahouts a paid job. In the normal ‘logging’ context, mahouts are not willing to breed their elephants as they would have to stop working during pregnancy and until weaning is over. No work means no income, which is impossible for rural Lao communities. In addition, a calf elephant is a liability for logging mahouts who need to wait the animal’s 13th birthday before the elephant can make money by pulling logs. Thanks to the Elephant Conservation Center’s breeding incentive programme, captive elephants and their owners are given alternative options. This hopefully will help Laos remain a sacred heartland for elephants.