The Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) is moving to keep pachyderm management efforts from running amok. The Lao elephant culture is quickly changing, and ECC is putting new measures in place to take conservation to the next level.
A brief list highlights the challenges: the economics of wild vs. domestic elephants, a decline in group socialization, a lack of breeding, and changes to a 3,000-year-old culture to meet today’s reality. This requires a major rethink.
On 28 November 2018, Dr Gillian Lynch, a veterinarian, presented the ECC with a forum at Vientiane’s Australian Embassy Recreation Club to discuss conservation issues and present their needs and actions to help elephants cope in a changing world.
“Elephants have been a significant part of Lao culture for millennia,” said Mr Khamphet, who has worked with Lao elephants for some 20 years.
“They have been used to work in logging camps and some get sold into tourism,” he noted, adding that an elephant is worth about $35,000.
For Mr Khamphet, the overriding issues are different for domestic and wild elephants, as populations for both continue to drop.
Domestic elephants and their owners face three main problems,” he said. “First, they are not having babies. They generally work in logging camps, and with a 22-month gestation period followed by three years of child rearing…this means no work for five years.”
He noted that until 2.5 years ago, the elephants were mostly working in logging. When the government put in place the logging quota’s most, of the owners couldn’t find a job. Some of them found work in the tourism industry, others had to resort to continue logging illegally, or were contacted by foreign organizations to sell them abroad illegally.
He added, “They no longer know how to take care of themselves in their natural habitat, and they are overworked and have no recreation.”
"Elephants know how to forage for food, but they aren’t used to living in groups anymore. This is crucial for their release in to the wild. Elephants need to learn from other members of the herd as a part of their development. If we can’t form social groups, we can’t release them," Mr Kamphet said, before switching the focus to the decrease in wild elephants and their three biggest challenges.
“Hunters killing them for ivory remains a major threat,” he said. “Elephants have also lost their habitat. They need land and certain foods, and a lot of it. As the forest decreases, so does elephant population. Finally, some wild Lao elephants migrate to other countries, but that's not common.”
He said the last few years have seen a new reason for poaching elephants, as there is a huge trade in elephant skin, which means that females are being targeted a lot more. Regarding elephants being taken abroad, Mr Kamphet said it’s the captive elephants that are being transported overseas,
ECC Hospitality Manager Jozef Coremans credits Mr Khamphet along with the conservation centre’s team of biologists, conservationists, and mahouts for leading the way in the elephant’s cultural transition.
“When we started about 10 years ago, we mostly performed first aid for mammals for the government, and we brought mahouts to the centre,” he said.
In the beginnng, the projects of the mobile clinics, first aid courses, first aid boxes and manuals were set up for the elephants working in logging and in tourist camps. "Later on, when the staff was capable, we handed the project over to the government, and they are running it still," Mr Coremans said.
"We sought partners to cover the initial costs of our projects," he added, but the centre needed sustainable support and began bringing in tourists for income. However, elephant tourist camps aren’t big in Laos like in Thailand, Mr Coremans said, so they continue to seek international partners to cover the costs to maintain the projects.
Meanwhile, ECC was taking logging elephants and trying to give them a new purpose. “If they’re in captivity and don’t work, they can’t make money…and food costs $25,000-$40,000 a year per elephant,” Mr Coremans explained.
The true aim is to reintroduce them into the wild, and mahouts play a pivotal role in the transition from ancient culture to today’s situation.
“We need a new generation of mahouts, and not ones teaching the old knowledge,” Mr Coremans said. “We need a synergy between the old and new techniques. We need to ease mahouts into working in a new way.”
Traditional mahouts have a lot of knowledge about husbandry, nutrition, and natural medicines, he explained. "We need a new generation of mahouts, but the problem is that we risk losing the old knowledge, as they don’t come from families that have been working with elephants. At the centre we combine new techniques and the traditional knowledge."
Elephants are social animals, but once they are domesticated, they lose the ability to survive in the wild, which requires living in a herd.
“Socialization and families are necessary for elephants, Mr Coremans said. “We introduce elephants to each other at ECC, and urge them to form a group with a hierarchy. This promotes transferring skills, like finding food, from the older to the younger elephants…We need 30-40 elephants at the ECC at a time to form solid groups and then re-introduce them into the wild.” As of April 2018, ECC had a herd of 29 elephants.
He said ECC needed to breed for extended families, but “males can be considered undesirable as they turn nasty when they rut”, he said.
“ECC has eight males, and we want to keep them in Laos. ECC wants to learn how to manage the breeding. Research can be done and we can move ahead together.”
One of ECC’s latest moves is to set camera traps in the 1,912km2- Nam Phouy National Protected Area (NPA) in Sayabouly.
“The camera traps are showing good signs that there is a viable wild population. We want them to breed in the wild, and this is possible.”
The Sayabouly Provincial Government has recently asked ECC to use locals to patrol 190,000 hectares of the NPA. The idea is to change mahouts into rangers.
"Patrols will be necessary as camera traps are only a good way to monitor wild life, but not to protect it," Mr Coremans explained.
As the human and Lao elephant cultures continue to evolve, ECC and the local government are poised to take elephant conservation to the next level, and return pachyderms into the wild where they belong.