Working elephants in Laos face the end of the road | Asia Pacific

Working elephants in Laos face the end of the road

Working elephants in Laos face the end of the road

Updated 7 May 2014, 13:25 AEST

An Australian study has warned that captive elephants in Laos will be extinct in 100 years, if nothing is done.

The University of Queensland report says this is because the captive elephants are not allowed to breed at a sufficient and sustainable rate.

Elephant ownership has long been associated with Lao culture and national identity, but it's estimated only 480 captive elephants remain across Laos.

I asked Dr Greg Baxter, senior author on the study, to differentiate between captive and wild elephant numbers.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Dr Greg Baxter, Senior Lecturer in Wildlife Ecology, University of Queensland

BAXTER: That's a vital point Sen, I'm glad you asked that. The reason we looked at the captive elephant population is that there are many, many more captive elephants in Laos now than there are wild elephants. There's probably about 480-500 captive elephants in Laos now, which is not very many, but even fewer than that in the wild. So there're probably less than 200 in the wild. So it really does matter for the persistence of wild Asian elephants, what happens to that captive population.

LAM: So what do we know about the estimated 480 captive elephants in Laos? Where are they and who owns them?

BAXTER: They're mainly owned by family enterprises, people who've been working traditionally in logging, though opportunities for people to work in logging is decreasing and so people are looking around for alternatives. And one of the alternatives is to use them in tourism operations, use them for ceremonial purposes, use them in temples and those sorts of things, but there are really not very many animals that can be used in that way.

LAM: Elephants, of course, are an important part or have been an important part of Laos culture and national identity. So did it surprise you that the numbers were allowed to dwindle so alarmingly?

BAXTER: Yes, it did, and you're right, Laos used to be called The Land of A Million Elephants, so when you go there, there are elephant images on street signs, on relief carvings in temples and so on. So it is an important part of the Laos culture. So it was a surprise that the numbers had got so low.

And I think it's happened by stealth, everybody has just assumed that because there have been a lot of elephants in the past, that it would continue that way, but we've demonstrated that it's not going to stay that way.

LAM: And is part of the problem economic, that the Mahouts or the elephant owners simply cannot afford to allow the female elephants time off, to have babies?

BAXTER: That's the nub of the problem. The really big issue with the elephants is allowing them to breed. We know that they have healthy elephants, we know we have healthy numbers of males and females, and that they can breed, but they're not allowed to. Because it takes four or even perhaps five years for an elephant to be taken out of production, to be rested, to have the young, to suckle it, to rear it to more or less independence, before it can be put back into work again, in heavy industries like logging.

In lighter industries, like tourism, then pregnant elephants can still work and they suffer no ill effects, but in heavy industries like logging, you have to take them out for four or perhaps even five years. And the mahouts simply cannot afford that.

LAM: And the University of Queensland Study also warns that the captive elephants might die out within 100 years. So I guess there's still sufficient time to fix the situation. Do we have any solutions here?

BAXTER: There is sufficient time to do something about it now which was the point of doing the study, to alert people that there's a ticking time bomb that we need to do something about. You've already mentioned the problem with not allowing elephants to breed.

The other problem, of course, is the ageing of the female elephant population in captivity. They're all or the majority of the animals are over 40 now, so if we don't do something quickly, then they will be past their reproductive age, so we need to do something now, rather than in, even 15 years' time.

LAM: So what is the window of opportunity here. How many years do we have left for these female elephants to have calves?

BAXTER: No more than about 15 years and we found with our study that there was almost no chance that if we do nothing, the captive elephant population will persist for more than about 112 years.

While we can't stop it going to extinction just within Laos, what we can do is slow it to about 200 years by allowing a substantial proportion of the population, between 10 and 20 percent of the population of females to breed every year. If we do that, we stretch the time to extinction out to about 200 years. That gives us some more breathing space.

So what the longer term solution is, is not to regard the Lao population in isolation, but to allow them to breed with animals from other parts of the range and there are a number of countries around that have the same sub-species of Asian elephants, so we're not going to be mixing genes, we're not going to be interfering with the evolutionary process if we bring in elephants of the same sub-species and allow animals to be swapped between countries to re-enforce the small and dwindling populations in those countries.

LAM: And what's your impression, is the Laotian government taking note of this problem?

BAXTER: Well, they haven't been. to date, and in fact, they have recently exported baby elephants to China for display purposes. Now, I can understand with such a cultural background with elephants in Laos, that they want to promote the elephant culture. I'm not against that in principle, but with such a low population, taking any young animals out of that Laos population is a very, very big detriment to that population and it simply can't continue into the future.

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