Laos, once known as the Land of a Million Elephants, faces warnings from conservationists that it could lose its herds within 50 years if it does not move quickly to protect them with tourism eyed as a possible savior.
Poaching and habitat loss from logging, agriculture and hydroelectric projects has caused a major decline in the number of both wild and domesticated Asian elephants in Communist Laos.
ElefantAsia, a France-based non-profit organization, estimates the number of domesticated elephants, who are used mainly in the logging industry, has fallen 25 percent in the past five years to 560 with only 46 cows under the age of 20 left.
It estimates there are less than 1,000 elephants left in the wild where there are only two births to every 10 deaths.
“(The situation is) critical,” Sebastien Duffillot, co-founder of ElefantAsia, told Reuters. “Destruction of habitat has huge impact on wild elephant groups. Domesticated elephants are overworked in logging and thus do not reproduce.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates as few as 25,000 wild and 15,000 captive Asian elephants may be left in the 12 countries where they live.
Concern over the future of Laos’ elephants if this elephant-human conflict continues has prompted the rise in recent years of organizations such as ElefantAsia, businesses such as the Luang Prabang-based Elephant Park Project, and the elephant watchtower in the Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area near Vientiane. All have one major aim — elephant conservation.
Markus Neuer, manager of the Elephant Park Project that was set up in 2003 with the aim of saving elephants from the logging industry, said until recently there had been no concerted effort to save elephants in this largely impoverished nation.
“Until now, there is no station for breeding and no real control over the numbers, registration and a real lack of professional medical care,” he told Reuters.
TOURISTS DOLLARS FOR ELEPHANTS
These groups are using tourism as a way to restore locals’ pride — and financial interest — in elephants.
ElefantAsia last year began organizing an annual Elephant Festival which was held for the second time recently in the dusty town of Paklay in far western Laos. It attracted 70 elephants and around 50,000 visitors, mostly domestic tourists.
Elephant Park, which is privately financed, is also targeting tourists with a two-day “Live like a Mahout” program to learn the skills of a elephant keeper, and offers elephant treks near the UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Luang Prabang.
The elephant watchtower had a rocky start when its first construction collapsed two days after completion but a new, seven-meter tower was built and opened in 2005 where visitors can stay overnight to see wild elephant herds from up high.
But funding is a constant issue, as elephants are expensive to keep, and squabbling between the various groups — those privately funded and NGOs — has also hampered efforts.
The death earlier this year of a 4-year-old elephant at the Elephant Park sparked a row between ElefantAsia and the park.
ElefantAsia, which provided the initial treatment for the elephant, said the animal died because of weakness and diarrhea and raised concerns about the conditions at the park.
But the park said a second opinion from a Thai veterinarian suggested a misdiagnosis and even incorrect medication.
ElefantAsia has also voiced disapproval of elephant camps for tourists, saying it prefers forest treks in natural environments.
As more companies and provinces eye elephant trekking as a revenue stream, industry watchers expect the debate about elephants being exploited to only get louder.
Dr. Klaus Schwettmann, a former adviser of the elephant watchtower which is now managed by villagers, said tourism might not be the perfect solution but realistically it was the best.
“Advantages include opening to the outside world, jobs and opportunity for the villagers to learn and understand. Whether we like it or not, jobs and money are always the key,” he said.