The Entire World is a Family

- Maha Upanishad



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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Athletes & Explorers

Oct 19, 2018

Outdoor Moms: Hilaree Nelson – Mother of Two, Mountaineering Hero to All

2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir, ski descent of Papsura, first woman to summit two 8,000m peaks in 24 hours… mother of two.



Brooke Hess

‘Outdoor Moms’ is a new series, profiling mothers pursuing their sport, all while taking care of family. You can read the first article on world-famous kayaker, Emily Lussin, here.

“You know just when you have that skin crawl on the back of your neck. Like, we are not in a good place. We need to move.”

One week ago, Hilaree Nelson was in Nepal completing one of the biggest expeditions of her 20 year ski mountaineering career. Today, she is sitting at home in Telluride, Colorado, just having finished the hectic morning routine of packing lunches and getting her two kids to school on time.

She is telling me the story of when her crew got stuck in a storm between Camp 1 and Camp 2. Instead of pushing on through the whiteout, they decided to set up an interim camp and wait it out. “We were all huddled in this little single-wall, three-person tent. It was storming out pretty good and we started hearing avalanches coming down… One avalanche was a little too loud and a little too close, so we left the tent standing and we got out and started trying to navigate in the whiteout.” Once the weather cleared, the team safely made their way to Camp 2. Two days later, Nelson and her climbing partner, Jim Morrison, returned to the interim camp to gather the gear they had left behind. What they found was the remains of a massive avalanche that had ripped across the camp, scattering gear everywhere and throwing it into crevasses. “It was a little crazy. We were kinda like, ‘oh wow I am really glad we didn’t stay there’.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Less than two weeks later, Nelson and Morrison found themselves atop the summit of Mt. Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. Four hours after that, they both arrived back at Camp 2, having just completed the first ever ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir.

Skiing a 50 degree slope for 7,000 feet would be an impossible task for some of the most dedicated skiers out there. Add in the fact that they did it at 8,000 meters elevation after spending the previous 14 hours on a summit push, and the feat becomes unimaginable.

Read about Hilaree’s Lhotse Expedition here.

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

For Nelson, who has previously skied both Cho Oyu in Tibet and Papsura in India, this achievement is one of the highlights of her career.
But her career as a ski mountaineer is only half of her life.

Nelson’s two sons, Graydon and Quinn, are the other half.

Summit of Wilson Peak, Telluride, CO. Graydon and Quinn’s second 14’er.

“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time”

“I have two boys. They are 9 and 11. Graydon is the younger one and Quinn is the older one. They are crazy little boys… They are really into skiing, they are both alpine racing, they are currently in mountain biking camp after school, they go to climbing club after school, and they are really obsessed with lacrosse. And they both really like math too!” Between expeditions, working as The North Face team captain, and being a mother of two, it is a wonder Hilaree is able to juggle it all. And from what it sounds like, both her kids are on a path towards being just as busy as she is!

Instead of letting the busy schedules stress her out, Nelson embraces it.
“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time. It just doesn’t miss a beat… It’s fun to be a mother.”

As Nelson talks about motherhood, her face lights up with pride. “I like how unpredictable it is. I’ve always been a bit terrified of every day being the same, and kids are a sure-fire way to make every day different and an unknown adventure.” Nelson describes the unpredictability of her children as one of her favorite parts of being a mom. As she recounts the chaos of motherhood, I can’t help but think how this mirrors the other half of life. Weather forecasts, snowpack predictions, snowpack stability, and even personal mental and physical strength are all factors that can be unpredictable during a ski mountaineering expedition, much like children can be unpredictable during motherhood.

Nelson climbs Skyline Arete with younger son, Graydon.

“It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit”

Taking on two very different roles as both mother and mountain athlete requires a unique mindset that Nelson has adapted over the past 11 years. “The emotional roller coaster I ride is sometimes very difficult on my kids. I am so stressed to leave them before I go on a trip, and then I turn into that climber person. It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit so I can focus on what I am climbing. Then when I come home, it is really hard to switch back into mother. You know, I am full mother when I am home. I am in the classroom, I am picking them up from sports, I am taking them to ski races, cooking them dinner, making them lunch. I am just mom, like what moms do. It is almost like I am two different people living in one body.”

Nelson’s somewhat double identity life is what defines her. But it didn’t come easy. She describes her comeback from childbirth as the single most difficult challenge she has had to overcome. “Getting back to being an athlete after having babies was about the hardest thing I have ever done. In fact, it was so difficult that it almost makes climbing and expeditions look easy.” Her first son was born via a relatively “easy” c-section. Her second… not so easy. Hours of surgery for both mother and son, combined with blood loss and blood poisoning resulted in Nelson taking an entire year off from athletics.

By the time she returned to training and to the mountains, her mental strength had taken a huge hit. “I pushed hard to get back in it, but it was really difficult. It was really challenging on my confidence.”

All challenges aside, getting back into it was worth it. Having just completed one of the most iconic ski descents in history, Nelson was eager to show her boys some media from the Lhotse expedition. Nelson’s recount of their response made me giggle. “They looked at some video stuff of it yesterday and some photos… I mean, they are hard to impress, my kids.” With notable ski descents around the world, as well as being the first woman to climb two 8,000 meter peaks in 24 hours (Everest and Lhotse), and being named a 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, I am actually not surprised her sons are so hard to impress. She has set the bar pretty high!

Nelson says the boys are finally at an age where they are starting to become aware of what her career means. One of the most challenging aspects of it – long stretches away from home. Recently having gone through a difficult divorce, the challenge of leaving her kids for long periods of time becomes even more apparent. When she is in Nepal, the kids stay with their father. With the recent addition of 3G internet access to Everest Base Camp, it has been easier for her to stay in touch with her kids. However, a month is still a month, and time spent away isn’t easy. Nelson says she used to feel guilt when she left her kids, but now she has learned to view her career as a positive influence in their lives. “It has taken a long time for me to realize that having my job and being a mother has been beneficial to my kids for them to see me be a person, individually, and trust in that. It was a struggle for me for a long time that I was hurting my kids by continuing my profession. But I see now their joy and their support for what I do, and we can have rational conversations about it. I see that they are proud of me. I see that they appreciate what I do, and see me as a person. So I think it has all been worth it, but it wasn’t without a lot of tears and a lot of difficult times.”

“I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous”

Another challenge of her career – the danger. Ski mountaineering is one of the most risky sports any mountain athlete can partake in. At ages 9 and 11, Nelson’s kids are just beginning to understand the danger associated with it. “Skiing and mountain climbing to them, it has always just been a part of their lives as long as they can remember. I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous. I don’t know if they are okay with it, but it’s just what I do, and they love what I do.”

The first time Graydon and Quinn skied in the rain. “Being from Washington State, I grew up skiing in the rain and it was fun to see my kids reaction to the adverse weather. Of course, they thought we were crazy…”

“Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Danger and challenges aside, Graydon and Quinn look up to their mom with the utmost admiration. The boys support her career, and are proud of her accomplishments. Between their mom’s career, as well as their own personal experiences, the boys have started viewing mountain sports less as hobbies, and instead, a way of life. “Both my boys consider skiing not even a sport for them. They learned it as soon as they learned how to walk. It’s just a way of life. It’s how they play.” Nelson says she isn’t going to push the boys into climbing and mountaineering. However, despite her lack of effort, both boys have already made a list of the mountains they hope to summit. “First they are going to climb Mt. Baker, and then Rainier, and then they want to climb Denali. Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Both boys have already been to Makalu base camp, as well as summited several 14,000ft peaks in Colorado. When they were ages four and six, they made it most of the way up Kilimanjaro, but in Nelson’s words, they were “a little bit little” to make it to the top.

Family time on Telluride Via Ferrata.

As much as the boys idolize her, Nelson is reminded every day that they are still kids. They go to school, they play tag at recess, they wrestle, fight, cry, laugh, and most of the time are completely unconcerned with Nelson’s career as a world-renowned ski mountaineer.

“The best thing in the world is going on these expeditions that mean so much to me, but then coming home and having kids that in some ways are oblivious to what I do and are just kids… It’s awesome. It’s just a great thing to have in my life.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Cover Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face


Read about Hilaree Nelson’s ascent and ski descent of Papsura, The Peak of Evil here.

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