For generations, Laos has been famed as the land of a million elephants. Now there are fewer than 900 left.
The future of the continent’s largest land mammals and the people who have been taking care of them for generations is at crisis point…If the elephant dies out, it means the loss of a wonderful creature, but also the end of an age long culture.
For millenia, the elephant has held a spiritual as well as a very practical role at the heart of Laos culture. Believed to have spiritual powers, and near-human souls, they are venerated in shamanistic and Buddhist traditions.
Human and elephant have worked together logging the great hardwood trees that as recently as 40 years ago covered 70 per cent of the country. Over thousands of years, mahouts – traditional elephant handlers – have passed down the secrets of elephant care from father to son in ancient rituals that bind young man to young elephant, often for life. But their labour has contributed to the destruction of the very habitat that has for so long supported both elephant and human – as well as thousands of other species that live in the jungle. In recent decades a massive intensification of logging has destroyed Laos forest. With the trees gone, wild elephants have lost their homes and logging elephants and their mahouts are losing their livelihoods.
The consequences have been catastrophic. Two hundred years ago there were an estimated 50,000 elephants in Laos. Now there are just 900. Those still used in logging are over-worked and often ill treated and their mahouts – once highly respected for their skills and wisdom – have been reduced to a life of poverty and hard labour.
There is an urgent need for conservation action in Laos and the region. The Elephant Caravan will raise both local and international awareness to help save the last elephants of Laos, in partnership with established organisations like the Elephant Conservation Center and France-based NGO “Des Elephants & des Hommes”.
Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal in Gajah, Journal of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group Number 35, 2011