Back to the Wild for Lao Elephants


“The soft release of elephants into the wild is a scientific experiment, and the first in Laos. I can’t wait to see what happens,” said Sebastien “Seb”  Duffillot, co-founder of the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) “It took a year to get to this point.”

That day happened on 5 March, when the ECC team left the sanctuary on foot. They guided a herd of five on a 12-day trek to Thong Mixay. This remote enclave sits in the southern region of the province’s Nam Pouy National Protected Area (NPNPA) near the Thai border where wild elephants live.

“ECC’s focus has always been in rescuing individual elephants, but this domesticated elephant soft-release mission into their natural habitat takes species conservation to another level,” Seb explained. “We’re looking for a major outcome.”    

The Experiment

Seb stressed that mahouts are leading the soft release mission, and ECC’s biology team will collect data. “We will not be interfering with local knowledge,” he said.” We’re here for data. It’s an experiment.”

ECC Biologist Chrisantha Pinto added, “Our goal in 2019 is to gather as much data as possible on the existing wild elephant population (estimated at 40-50) currently living in the NPNPA, and to perfect our process of data gathering and herding.”

Herding is huge. According to Seb, herding is a long process, and the first step in a release is to create a family of five. “This is similar to the wild. We put together a herd with a mother, three females, and a juvenile male.”

It starts like university, with an entry exam. “For example, some aren’t able to find water and are not suitable for release,” Seb said.

If they pass the exam, they enter the program to form a herd, which takes about eight months. “Elephant herds are matriarchal, and a female leader eventually emerges, by showing signs of maternal behaviour. Others bond to her and with each other,” Seb explained.

Next, the new herd moves to isolation at ECC…no mahouts, no people. Then the soft release takes place. “We take them to the release point in the NPNPA, and see if they can do it,” Seb said. “Mahouts will visit weekly and then monthly, and then possibly, never again.” 

The first phase of the soft release will last four months, before a reassessment. As Seb noted, “There are so many questions, and we are looking for answers.”

Seb reeled off a list: Are they too domesticated to be released? Is it even feasible to release them? Will they want to go back to the wild? They know the forest, but can they handle an environment that is not stable like ECC?

“Some may have become too humanized, and can’t be released. We’ll wait for the results,” said Seb. “We won’t be sad if it doesn’t work. It’ll be fun to do.”

ECC Finance Manager Celine Gibert added, “This soft release is simply a stage in exploratory data collection to test the strength of an unrelated herd outside of our concession, how data collection will work in such thick jungle, and to better understand the traditional knowledge of the mahouts.”

The release also affects the villages in the area, she said, but ECC is taking precautionary measures by using visual control, based on mahout tradition.

Seb pointed to three benefits of a successful release. “First, it will alleviate food pressure on ECC.” Their daily diets can be 200 kilos each.

“They will also be free, but in a protected area,” Seb said, noting that ECC is the only organization that has permission from the government to operate in the NPNPA. 

“The third benefit is for the released elephants to bond with those in the wild to build a genetic reservoir,” he said.


Data shows Lao elephant’s reproduction rate is extremely low. The country currently has about 450 domesticated elephants and around 400 remain in the wild. Both groups are scattered around Laos.

This has led to a fragmented population and interbreeding. “Releasing from different areas is good for the population’s g-nome,” Seb said.

Making matters worse, the population is decreasing as Lao elephants have an increasingly higher average age. Further, loggers don’t want their females to reproduce, as this takes them out of work for some three years, and time is money in the domesticated elephant world.

“With only 33 cows under the age of 20, the future of Laos’s domesticated elephants is under threat,” Seb said, adding that the country’s ‘breeding reservoir’ could dry up in 15 years.

ECC aims to turn this around. ECC biologist Anabel Lopez Perez in charge of the breeding programme, has her hands full, but the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute offered to partner with the elephant sanctuary to assist…at a high level.

Enter Janine Brown, a world authority on elephant reproductive biology. She heads the endocrinology lab at the institute’s zoo, and came to ECC to monitor elephants’ hormone levels and contribute to a better understanding of their life cycle and needs.

“Her research informs what we know about animal behaviour, reproduction, and stress,” said Anabel

Seb added, “The least stressed are logging elephants because they need exercise. Even riding an elephant reduces stress levels. We want non-stressed elephants.”

Stress also plays into reproductive behaviour, as does a male’s testosterone level. Janine measures testosterone levels for an encounter, and this can be high.

According to Seb, male elephants come out once a year to mate, which gives owners a free calf, before the mother gets back to work, in spite of the time/money loss. This male mating period is called “musth”, a heightened hormonal state.

“During this time, they can be very aggressive and considered dangerous, and owners don’t want bulls,” Seb said. This has led to selling males overseas or starving them to death for their ivory.  

Historically, elephant owners let their females roam. Wild males are attracted to those in heat. “This was a very effective technique,” Seb explained.

Females have a 120-day menstruation period, and ECC measures stress hormone levels to determine which elephants are suitable for reproduction. At the center three elephants have a wild father, which may help in a release.

Changing Roles

“Elephants have served us since Neolithic (Stone Age) times,” said Seb, and as previously stated, elephants need to generate income for owners as they cost $25,000-$35,000 and eat tons. Demand has decreased, as has supply.

In recent centuries, elephants earned revenue by logging and transport, but today, they have been replaced by pickup trucks, according to Seb.  

“With their traditional life gone, options for their livelihood have evolved,” he said, noting, “They need a new way to generate income for owners and mahouts or its back to illegal logging, the circus, or the zoo.” Worse, males are considered by some as a way to harvest ivory for big money.

He said ecotourism is one way to raise income. Another new model is using elephants as transport for park rangers. “Release is ECC’s choice.”

While the elephants’ role is evolving, so is that of the traditional mahout. “Traditional mahout style is no more except in some pockets of Laos,” said Seb. “Otherwise, the traditional, generational mahout livelihood is done.”

He continued, “Mahouts’ sons want modern lifestyle. The traditional lifestyle is gone. They don’t want to go back in time.

To preserve the past, Seb has set his eyes on creating a museum in Luang Prabang. He has scoped out a French colonial building, and has plenty to put in there. “This will be my baby,” he said. “This is my dream.

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Photos courtesy of ECC.


ECC Biologist Chrisantha Pinto