By Mong Palatino
Laos was once called the ‘land of a million elephants’ but today elephant population has been reduced to several hundreds because of poaching and illegal ivory trade. Some are dying because of overwork in logging areas. It is estimated that wild elephants number around 300 to 600:
"Scattered in small fragmented herds, population numbers of wild elephants are believed to be around 300-600. Like many other countries, wild elephants in Laos are threatened by problems caused by humans. This includes deforestation, poaching, expansion of human settlement and human-elephant conflict."
Meanwhile, there are around 420 captive elephants:
"Sadly captive elephant populations are in decline. Only an approximate 420 remain in Laos. The new millennium has bought with it the burden of financial gain, with mahouts (elephant owner) 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."
Fortunately, there is a growing awareness about the need to protect the elephants in the country. One of the groups spearheading this advocacy is the Elephant Conservation Center:
"Elephant Conservation Center differentiates itself from elephant tourist camps by being a haven for elephant reproduction, lactation, convalescence and disease diagnosis. Do NOT expect to see package tours riding these elephants all day long!"
It is also the first elephant hospital in Laos as well as serving as an ecotourism camp. It provides technical and livelihood assistance to elephant owners or mahout who depend on the elephants for their daily income.
The center is also a sanctuary for rescued elephants. They were able to rescue a young elephant which they named Noy. After a few years, the elephant will pick his new name through a process described by head veterinarian Emmanuelle Chave:
"At three years old, elephants are trained by their future mahout, to respond different cues, in order to work with humans. A shaman organizes this important journey, where the elephant leaves the forest world for the human world. At the end of the training, the young elephant is offered three sugarcanes, on which are written names. The name on the first sugarcane he picks up will be his."
Brita visited the center and recognized its role in protecting the welfare of elephants:
"The Elephant Conservation Center is probably one of the few places you can visit where it’s not about elephants adapting to people’s schedules and needs but where people adapt to the rhythm and needs of the elephants
"I am very picky when it comes to choosing an Elephant “place” as there are far too many all over the world which treat their elephants badly and which just means moving from one horrible life (=logging) to another (= bad treatment for tourism purposes)."
jo ebisujima also visited the center and learned that putting chairs on the back of an elephant is painful for the animal:
"One of the important things that were learnt was that the chairs that are used for carry people and luggage on an elephants back (hawdah) really isn't good for them. This is due to the shape of the bones…It is more comfortable for the elephant to be ridden without any kind of saddle and sat on their neck."