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Sep 29, 2018

Bringing Back the Giants in the Land of a Million Elephants

With care and awareness, the endangered Asian Elephants in Laos could be saved. Ecological conservationists, tourists, and local mahouts are trying to make it happen.


Jahnvi Pananchikal

Elephants need a natural environment to live healthy and sustain their population. They enjoy traversing through interesting forest routes, and find food and water from lakes and rivers within that habitat. When their life is such, they flourish when living alongside humans and grow in healthy numbers.

In Laos, this is how Elephants lived for decades, and the reason why the country is called “The Land of a Million Elephants.” Well, technically, there were thousands of them.

However, reports have indicated that unsustainable development, timber industry, and illegal trade have reduced that number to mere hundreds in the last three decades. Today, these Asian Elephants (Elephas Maximus) are enlisted as endangered on the IUCN Red list. Research shows that only 600-800 wild elephants and around 500 captive animals remain in Laos.

“Most of our elephants were working in the logging industry and they were raised in isolation.”

Understanding the challenges faced by the current elephant population, a group of veterinarians, wildlife biologists, and conservationists set up the Elephant Conservation Center in 2011. They work together to create a more harmonious space for elephants and humans. The center rescues captive elephants from the logging industry or circuses and helps them recover in a natural environment. The local mahouts genuinely care for their survival, since their livelihood needs are met by the center.

Photo: Fabien Bastide

“We always work closely with the mahouts since they know their elephants very well.”

“Most of our elephants were working in the logging industry and they were raised in isolation. When we rescue them, we need to observe their behavior and try to include them in one of our social herds,” said Anabel, the resident wildlife biologist at the center, when interviewed by The Outdoor Journal.

“Once the day is organized for the elephants, we monitor their behaviors by going to different areas and observing them from the observation towers. In these towers, we always work closely with the mahouts since they know their elephants very well,” added Anabel.

Growing human need meets unsustainability

“When I was a young boy, I remember seeing a lot of elephants, particularly during festivals. Nowadays, the number has tragically decreased.”

Poor law enforcement and an increasing human population has been detrimental for the elephants of Laos. The report published by AESG indicates just how much the captive elephants have overworked in the logging industry in the last two decades.  Many of them are illegally traded for tusks and circuses, which often generates a higher income for the locals.

In times of simple living, however, things were different. According to Asian Elephant Specialist Group (AESG), in the late 1980s, the elephant population in Laos ranged between 2000 – 3000 animals, of which almost 1332 elephants were domesticated. The earlier reports show that their population existed in at least 23 National Protected Areas, and a healthy number was seen even outside those preserved forest ranges.

Photo: Garrett Ziegler

“When I was a young boy, I remember seeing a lot of elephants, particularly during festivals. Nowadays, the number has tragically decreased,” said Thao Phayphet, a Laotian expat currently living in France. It’s been forty years since he moved from Laos.

The breeding period can be up to 3 years, and locals of today consider that as a loss.

This human tendency to build unsustainably has led to breeding issues and habitat loss for Asian elephants, who once used to roam freely and were considered auspicious by the locals. According to the latest scientific report, both wild and captive elephants share similar threats and conservation difficulties, including “habitat destruction, poaching, increasing conflicts with local human populations, and risks of inbreeding depression.”

The report also indicates that the locals don’t want to wait too long for captive elephants to breed, since it affects their work and income. The breeding period for these species can be up to 3 years, and locals of today consider that as a loss.

“it will take 35 years before the population grows again”

And that’s not the only issue at hand. The situation gets trickier since captive elephants are unable to breed amongst themselves, and partially depend on the wild ones. The latter group, however, is at risk of illegal poaching and trade. Consequentially, there aren’t enough of the wild ones to breed and sustain the overall population. The report shows that number of wild elephants has declined from 400-500 elephants in 1990 to 60-80 in 2010.

“As a result, the model indicates it will take 35 years before the population grows again. Long-lived species, such as the Asian elephant, are highly sensitive to population inertia, with long periods before the population may recover from any change in a vital rate,” the scientific report explained.

Elephant Conservation Center Sets a Sustainable Example

The Elephant Conservation Center was set up to make sure that these beautiful creatures have a chance at living and breeding. Thanks to increasing awareness, even the Lao government, in addition to International NGOs have recently stepped up.

Photo: PX Here

The WWF set up Nam Pouy Sanctuary in collaboration with the Lao government, to ensure survival of wild elephants. A recent news article by News Desk, reported on the efforts of the current government to create conservation policies, with the support NGOs to increase the Asian elephant population in Laos.

“It is very difficult, but if people became more aware about the situation it might help to save the elephants.”

“The main challenge is to educate the public (western and locals) about the problems of these animals, how we are all involved in their extinction and what we can do to improve their situation. It is very difficult, but if people became more aware about the situation it might help to save the elephants,” said Anabel, the wildlife biologist at the center.

Jozef, the communications manager at the Elephant Conservation Center, mentioned that they are also in the process of collaborating with the government to get more space for captive elephants. “It’s a long process, but at least it’s a start,” he said.

“I was happy to see a team from many countries take care of them, show them to tourists, feed and raise baby elephants.”

On a community level, the Conservation Center raises awareness about the way elephants deserve to be treated. The tourists watch them from a distance and walk with them in nature, instead of sitting on their backs. The visitors also engage in sessions that educate on current challenges and pose ecotourism as a possible solution.

“I was happy to see a team from many countries take care of them, show them to tourists, feed and raise baby elephants. In Southern Laos, they organised a ride with elephants, near our place in the village. The owner said that it’s very expensive to take care of them, and mahouts need help from the government, or an NGO, to continue seeing elephants in the future,” explained Thao Phayphet.

The Elephant Conservation Center is only the beginning of long-term strategies that need to be put in place to help the Asian Captive Elephants survive in Laos. The Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) released a statement that acknowledges the reality of the situation at hand and the measures needed to solve them.

Elephants are beautiful creatures that have been worshiped for generations in Laos. Caring for elephants is not just about visiting places like the Elephant Conservation Center. It also means not entering spaces or buying products that attract tourists and consumers for superficial purposes, such as circuses or ivory-based items. When consumers become conscious and locals are provided with alternate livelihood opportunities, the population of Asian elephants in Laos will automatically begin to thrive.

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Sep 17, 2019

India Must Stop Deforesting its Mountains if it Wants to Fight Floods.

During floods and landslides in August 2019, two villages were completely destroyed killing several people, while a year earlier Kerala saw its worst floods in a century.



Gayathri D Naik

Floods are now an annual nightmare in many parts of southern and western India. Valleys in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala that weren’t considered flood-prone until recently are at risk.

These floods appear to be getting more severe. Climate change is causing stronger and more erratic rainfall with recurrent floods in low-lying areas while population growth is putting more people in risky areas. And another problem comes from deforestation in the mountain range where much of the water first fell: the Western Ghats.

More than 500 people died in severe flooding in Kerala in 2018.
AJP / shutterstock

The Western Ghats run for 1,600km in parallel with India’s west coast, from Gujarat right down to Tamil Nadu at the tip of the subcontinent. It is – or was – a picturesque landscape of serene valleys, steep gorges and virgin forests. Yet recurring floods and landslides in the mountains, hills and areas downstream (between the Ghats and the sea) show that India must rethink its environmental law to balance the needs of nature and humans.

The Western Ghats follow India’s western coast.
Nichalp / wiki, CC BY-SA

The mountains are teeming with life. Though they cover only a small part of India’s total land area, the Ghats are home to more than 30% of the country’s species of plants, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, including both wild elephants and tigers. Its combination of unique species and habitat loss means Unesco has recognised it as one of eight global “hottest hotspots” of biodiversity.

Climate change is already having an obvious impact, with unprecedented rains in monsoon seasons and severe drought and dry rivers in summer. And as the human population has grown, people have chopped down the forests and replaced them with spice, tea, coffee and rubber plantations. Thousands of illegal stone quarries now also operate in the Ghats, where mountainsides are demolished to generate stones and sand for the construction industry. Deforestation and the use of highly destructive explosives mean these areas are prone to increased seismic tremors and landslides.

Large dams on major rivers offer renewable energy yet also raise another set of environmental problems. In Kerala, many are located in eco-sensitive parts of the Western Ghats, with some dating back to British rule. As demand for energy increases, India plans to build more dams which in turn could lead to massive deforestation and ecosystem destruction. All this makes flooding more severe, as deforestation in the catchment area of a river reduces the land’s ability to retain water.

Tea plantation on deforested land near Munnar, Kerala, in the Western Ghats.
Mazur Travel / shutterstock

Whether triggered by damming, deforestation, or exacerbated by climate change, human-induced natural disasters in the region have pointed to a need for stronger environmental protection laws.

How to protect the Western Ghats

India’s 1950 constitution claims that protection of environment is a fundamental duty of every citizen, and though it does not explicitly contain a right to a clean environment, legal authority for environmental lawmaking is derived from the document.

Over the years, the country’s central government has enacted various laws that are applicable to the Western Ghats: the Environment Protection Act 1986, the Forest Conservation Act 1980, the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2002 and so on. However, these laws are not implemented efficiently, which makes me wonder if areas like the Himalayas and the Western Ghats – internationally significant ecosystems and biosphere reserves – need their own special laws.

The endangered Boulenger’s tree frog is found in the Western Ghats – and nowhere else.
lensalot / shutterstock

Additionally, India’s water laws are inadequate. Existing legislation primarily focuses on pollution control, meaning the law has little to say about preventing or even managing floods which result from mismanagement of dams or too much riverside development.

The problem is enhanced in case of rivers that flow across state boundaries. Some of the major floods in the past couple years happened after dams at or near full capacity in one district or state were opened, letting water flow downstream into another area. Recently, a draft dam safety bill has been proposed to address these problems.

Similarly, discussions over climate change and environmental lawmaking should involve more grassroot level participation. For most people, poverty and earnings still matter more than climate mitigation or adaptation. Hence people’s perception should be moulded to recognise and realise how deforestation or climate change impacts their daily life.

The Western Ghats are south India’s lifeline, with millions dependent on the range either directly or indirectly. These mountains need protection. However, while new development in the region continues to be human-centric, the entire concept of nature preservation is relegated. To protect the Western Ghats, what we require is an attitude that recognises the significance of these mountains, and that will involve specific laws.The Conversation

Gayathri D Naik, Research Scholar, School of Law, SOAS, University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover Photo: Mountains above Munnar, a hill town in Kerala, India. Santhosh Varghese / Shutterstock

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