Laos is home to an approximate 460 domesticated elephants. Most are engaged in timber harvesting operations, sadly contributing to the destruction of wild elephant habitat. Yet these elephants are very valuable as they provide valuable income to local communities. A community of approximately 12,500 people directly depend on revenue generated by work undertaken by logging elephants.
Traditionally elephants from wild populations were captured and domesticated by skilled mahouts. Since capture from the wild has been banned by the Lao 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 therefore do not reproduce. As the age of the average domesticated elephant is rising, the self-perpetuation of the population is at jeopardy.
Preliminary data collected and analysed through the Lao Elephant Care and Management Programme shows reproduction rate for elephants is currently at extremely low levels. The population is becoming moribund, with elephants having an increasingly higher average age without offspring to replace them. With only 46 cows under the age of 20 (the country’s ‘breeding reservoir’ in 15 years’ time) the future of Laos’s domesticated elephants is at risk of extinction.
Understandably, mahouts prefer to benefit directly from the logging industry, a workplace that provides them with a good, secure income. This is more financially beneficial than allowing time for their elephants to reproduce, during which they don’t earn any revenue from their elephant This was never an historic problem, as traditionally elephants were recruited from the wild and not bred in captivity.
The aim of our breeding program is to understanding the problems which discourage elephant owners from breeding their animal, and finding alternative methods of income for elephant owners and their families.
When compared with the logging industry, reproduction represent a huge financial loss for elephant owners as calves can’t work until around age 15. An additional concern is that forests are disappearing fast, endangering the all natural resources of the country, while 80% of rural communities still rely on these forests daily to survive.
On the bright side, tourism in Laos is increasing and calves born in captivity are starting to have a significant value. Successful tourism ventures in neighbouring countries encourage the government and local communities to develop alternative elephant activities, which are totally compatible with elephant pregnancy. Tourism and other nature-friendly means of employment should be supported in terms of communities’ capacity building, legal and policy framework.
ElefantAsia needs your help to support breeding among Lao mahouts.