The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir



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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Dec 06, 2018

Film Review: Ode to Muir. A Snowboarding Movie, and an Important Covert Education

Lost in amazing scenery, and one of outdoor's great personalities. Prepare to learn, even if you won’t realize it’s happening.



Sean Verity

Before we get to the movie itself, don’t be put off by the narration that you’ll hear in the trailer. It’s a tone that you might expect from the X-Factor announcer, or any movie trailer that starts off with, “In a world…” and it’s important to give you an incentive to push on, in case you might need it.

To answer the question that I suspect you have… yes, the same narration continues throughout the film. I know, it doesn’t seem like a good thing, but I have my own personal relationship to that voice. Something that develops as the film continues, and you recognize its purpose.


The film is called “Ode to Muir”, so an education about John Muir and the John Muir Wilderness? Probably. Great scenery? Sure. Another awesome Jeremy Jones snowboarding video? Very likely! I was correct on 2 of 3 fronts.

“Price of admission: lots of calories”

In short, this is a nine day, 40 mile foot-powered trek through the Sierra Mountains, as two-time Olympian Elena Hight, and a guy introduced as the “Sierra Phantom” accompany Jeremy Jones deep into California’s John Muir Wilderness. The remoteness is exactly that, and it is earned. Jeremy takes joy in mentioning the “Price of admission: lots of calories”. His point is a good one, that this is something that we can all enjoy. Crest after crest, the views are stunning and beautifully shot (as you might expect from a Teton Gravity movie). Jeremy indulges himself in pointing across valleys, and announcing that they must make their way in that direction. By his own admission, he has spent a lifetime in the Sierra, and continues to see landscapes the first time. The outdoors is a big place. 

Of course, Jeremy Jones does not need any introduction. His snowboarding movies have adorned bookshelves around the world for decades now. This, however, was something different. It was something more important. There is less of an emphasis on the music, or even snowboarding (don’t expect death-defying descents here). Instead, you will find more of an emphasis on Jeremy, the landscape, and more than anything else, Jeremy’s message. This is propaganda, just the positive kind.

Ode to Muir is a little like trying to subtly slip the bad news into an everyday sentence using snowboarding to distract us. “Honey, have we got milk at home, I crashed the car, because my parents are coming around this evening”.

Note: Whilst this is not your typical snowboarding movie, I could still hear the customary Jeremy Jones’ oooohs and ahhhhs from those sat around me.


Time is spent on recalling a bygone era, when politicians spent time in the outdoors, they appreciated them and fought for them. They sat around fires, and really experienced the outdoors, they didn’t just swing clubs at The Mar-a-Lago Club. This movie is a call to action, that we must do something now, but gives us hope, that things can be done correctly, with the attitude that we have seen in presidents past. 

The movie is interwoven with animations that paint an important, and scary picture with regards to the future of our climate and planet. Key messaging that continually remind you that this is not just a snowboarding movie. This is an education, but not algebra, the information is presented well, it sinks in and you immediately recognize the importance. You’re going to bring this up and discuss these newfound stats when you’re next hanging out with friends.

Whilst the animations play an informative role, Jeremy contextualizes them. He refers to the terrifying term “last descents”, the chilling concept that people are now doing things that might not be possible in subsequent years due to climate change. As someone who lives in the outdoors, Jeremy can see these detrimental changes in his everyday life, and of course, it means a great deal to him. He isn’t just using what he is, but who he is to pass on this important information. Not stood behind a podium, but communicating important information to us whilst he uses his skills, and the beautiful shots to hold our attention. Jeremy obviously loves what he does, but he now chooses to do what he has done for so long, in such a way that communicates an important message. It’s commendable. What’s more, this isn’t a one-off, Jeremy is the founder of “POW”, or “Protect Our Winters”, an initiative with a mission to turn passionate outdoor people into effective climate advocates.

Find out more about POW: Protect Our Winters.

Still, an important point is made, real change can unfortunately only be sparked in the wilderness. Walking up the mountain isn’t enough, we need to walk up to the White House, and up Capitol Hill too.


“The older I get, the more I love my snow”

A great element of this movie is easy to miss, Olympian Elena Hight trying to understate her own abilities. Elena is, of course, a very accomplished snowboarder, she’s more than comfortable on the snow and her modesty with regards to split skiing wasn’t fooling anybody. It’s an attitude that is great to see, but will make your average Joe, with your average abilities (like me), smile. Her reservations regarding her own ability are not shared by anybody else. Nor were there any problems for Elena when it came to the descents. She’s awesome, and a great addition to the film.

Jeremy introduces the “Sierra Phantom” pretty quickly. In effect he’s presented in a way that you would describe what Mogli is to the jungle, “ he’s out there all day and you just see his tracks”. A brief appearance, but worthwhile. 

Elsewhere, there are laughs from those who are sat around me watching the movie, as Jeremy reaches the crest of ridge and summits alike. You might expect “f*ck, that was hard” or “Jesus, I need some air” but no, invariably you will only hear “Good job”, another “Good job”, or “The older I get, the more I love my snow”. As impressive as Jeremy’s attitude is, and of course, it’s due to his familiarity with something that he has done for so long, it is also the relaxed nature of those that that summit with him. You won’t hear them telling JJ to “shut up and pass me the water”, it’s all fist bumps!

The movie ends with JJ suggesting a moonlight ride, to “get the last bit out of it”; spare a thought for those that might have fancied an early night. You would really have felt for the production team, had it not been for the stunning shots caught under moonlight. As someone who can relate to these guys, they live for such shots, and wouldn’t have required much encouragement. Not that their skill shouldn’t be acknowledged, something special is happening behind the camera. Many of the shots are powerfully engaging, whilst the audio is picked up perfectly, regardless of powder being thrown around.


Here’s the thing about the narration. What would the movie be without it? Whilst Jeremy brings credibility as someone who is acutely aware of “last descents”, John Muir’s words hold unparalleled sincerity that can only belong to a different time – a time when people were less cynical, and in this context, given that this is propaganda, a perspective from that time counts for something.

I had a relationship with that voice. So much so, that I almost felt apologetic by the end. In a way, the voice is synonymous with the film, you need to absorb the delivery in order to absorb the information. It was just harder to do so in comparison to appreciating fresh pow.

Who would I recommend the film to? People who like ski docs? People who care about the environment? Just general outdoorsy people? It’s of interest to each, they all cross-pollinate in a way that was definitely intended.

This is an important film to watch, it’s incredibly digestible, and it will raise awareness of important issues. It’s the kind of content that we need more of.

You can find more information, and a calendar of tour dates should you like to go and watch the movie for yourself here. We encourage you to do so.

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