What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau



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

Jun 19, 2019

REWILD with Tony Riddle: Part 2 – Children and Education

Tony Riddle explains how our educational system must be reinvented to better preserve childrens' innate abilities and uniqueness.



Davey Braun

In our latest series called REWILD with Tony Riddle, The Outdoor Journal has been speaking with Tony about his paradigm-shifting approach to living a natural lifestyle that’s more in line with our DNA than Western society’s delerious social norms. In Part 1, we introduced how Tony is leading a rewilding movement through his coaching practices as well as his commitment to run 874 miles barefoot across the entire UK to raise awareness for sustainability.

In this installment, Tony discusses society’s disconnect from our ancestral hunter-gather lifestyle, the need to completely reinvent the education system, and how to preserve children’s innate abilities.


TOJ: When I see the word “rewilding,” I picture the opening scene of the movie Last of the Mohicans where Daniel Day-Lewis is sprinting and leaping through the woods on an elk hunt. Is that how humans are supposed to be, an athletic animal in tune with nature?

Tony Riddle: In modern society, we’re basically living in these linear boxes, breathing in the same air, getting the same microbiome experience, sleeping in the same room over and over, and nothing alters. Whereas the tribal cultures that we came from are moving through a landscape that’s forever changing. They’re always uploading new sensory pathways, new sensory experiences, constantly in a state of wiring and rewiring the brain. For me, the path of rewilding is getting back to that – being present in nature and honoring a cellular system, a sensory system and a microbiome system in their natural setting.

When you start to really assess it, some people have this vision of hunter-gatherers as savages, but these are sophisticated beings, and as they move through the landscape, they become the landscape.

By “Rewilding” we can get back to a lifestyle that’s more in line with our innate human biology.

Tribespeople operate in these states of meditation which, when you have kids you appreciate it. I’ve studied childhood behavior in the formative years, those first years up until the age of seven. The brain is working at a certain hertz that you and I can only achieve through meditation. This is the state of Flow. It hasn’t been cultured or schooled out of them.

When I think of “rewilding” now I have a term I’m calling “rechilding.” We’ve got to try and get back to that level of frequency that tribes have managed to stretch into adulthood. I’ve tried to break down the behaviors of these tribes. I discovered Peter Gray’s work, who asked the question to 10 leading anthropologists, “What does childhood look like in nature?” From infancy through the age of 16, children play. That’s all they do, without any adult intervention, and they learn everything they need to learn about their adult environment in those first playful years. So if that’s the case, then they go into adulthood still playing and they don’t have to work to find flow states through that field of senses and the frequency that they’ve been operating in.


TOJ: In familiarizing myself with your work, I noticed that some elements are about reverse engineering the range of motion, movement chains and posture of our own selves as children, while others focus on reconnecting with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, how do you reconcile those concepts?

“For children, it’s about preserving their wildness and their innate abilities.”

Tony Riddle: For children, it’s about preserving their wildness and their innate abilities, the stuff that you and I would have had but we went through an educational process where it’s not appropriate to move or say anything out of turn, where children are expected to just sit still in a classroom for hours on end and not share anything. But then you realize that when you go out into the world that you have to share everything, We need to show them the appropriate behaviors and not dumb them down by limiting their experience.

Tony spending time climbing trees with his children to preserve their innate ability to climb and balance.

In those early years, we have things like physical education, but before physical education, we have play. We were all playing around, trying to understand the physicality of our body. We’re born with all the gear, we just have no idea how to use it, because our adult species doesn’t know how to demonstrate the appropriate behavior. When we go through the playful state to try to understand this system as children, we might impersonate all the animals, but now as adults, we have to go to animal flow class to relearn it.

When children go to physical education class, they’re given specialist clothing, which includes sneakers and the specialist clothes that their adult species wear. The adults model to children how tough exercise is and how brutal it is. Adults come back profusely sweating, which is absurd because imagine the hostile environments that this species has had to traverse! My DNA goes back 270,000 years to a tribe in East Africa. So imagine how hostile these environments would have been!

“Imagine the hostile environments that this species has had to traverse!”

We observe these parkour kids, they’re showing us what’s innately in us. I love hanging out with them because it’s just expanded my mind and my movement. The physicality of the human being is unbelievable, but it’s been cultured into a sedentary position at this stage because the adult population is showing a compromised, sedentary lifestyle. By the time a child reaches the age of seven, all of the observations are made – the templates for the rest of their lives. So if the adult species is compromised, then within those first six years, that’s all the child will recognize as their potential range of behavior. I call it their “Tribe of Influence.” The tribe of influence is made up of your family, your friends and your close community around you. If you’re observing all their behaviors, that just becomes your social core. It doesn’t mean it’s biologically normal, it’s just the social norm. And social norms of today are so far afield, we are doing the most horrendous things. I read a stat yesterday, since 1970, 60% of the wild animal populations are gone. We’ve managed to do that in 50 years. That’s less than one human life span. Our social norms are compromising the planet.

Read next on TOJ: Tony Riddle: Introducing REWILD


There’s a great term I’m plugging the moment which Peter Kahn called “environmental generational amnesia.” Every generation that’s born, it can either expand on the knowledge passed down from before, or be dumbed down further, and it only remembers where it left off. So for those 60 percent of the species that are gone, to the new generation that comes in, that’s their new norm.

“It doesn’t mean it’s biologically normal, it’s just the social norm.”

The natural human pathways from our previous generations have been forgotten in a way, but movement is just a component of it for me. It goes beyond movement. There’s a whole physical, social and spiritual animal that needs rewilding. There’s also sleep and play and nutrition and human contact, even sunlight. We’re just disconnected.

Tony regularly plunges his body into icy water to maintain proper cardiovascular health.

We have a D3 issue with our culture now. We’re surrounded by artificial light in artificial environments, but when we do go out in the actual environment, we cover up by wearing sunglasses, so we’re not actually absorbing any of the nutrients from the sun that we should be. Especially in the UK, people are starved of sunlight, but as soon as the sun is out, they’re wearing sunglasses. If you look at helio-therapy, the highest absorption of D3 is around the eyes. There was a study recognizing that sun exposure helped kids with TB recover, but it also found that when they put sunglasses on, they didn’t get the results.


TOJ: If you were the superintendent of a school, what changes would you make if you are in charge?

“The educational system has to be scrunched up, thrown in a bin and restarted again.”

Tony Riddle: It’s almost like the educational system has to be scrunched up, thrown in a bin and restarted again. It’s flawed and it’s not working. In countries that are trying to do something about it, in particular, Finland in Scandinavia, it’s completely different. People are starting to wake up to the fact that it’s not biologically normal to be indoors all day, it’s not biologically normal to sit down all day, it’s not biologically normal to eat processed foods. But, that’s the environment where we’re growing these young bodies and minds.

The future is unraveling at such a rapid rate with tech. My understanding is, the current iteration of the educational system will have to die because of the way that the tech world is transforming things. So what can we possibly take from the educational model of today for five years time or 10 years time, where are we actually going to be in terms of the evolution of tech?

Like father like daughter, training their hanging L-sits on the olympic rings.

There’s almost like a natural pendulum. It’s swinging way back over this way. Now we’ll start to explore more biologically normal ways. With my barefoot run, I’m trying to raise awareness of these issues like sustainability in the environment and I can reach a wide audience through technology.

“It comes down to small changes.”

It comes down to small changes. You can drive yourself nuts thinking, “I’ve got to do this and do this…”, but actually, there’s value in just assessing things that are in your hands, looking at what is a biological norm versus a biological extreme. If you can’t justify something, you have to let it go. Then, what you can start to do is whittle away at things that aren’t appropriate behaviors and that will improve in the next generation that is observing those behaviors.

You and I are walking around with the observations from those first six years of our lives, and then if you really unravel it, we’re walking around with the norms of our ancestors as well.

We need a different educational model. We need a schooling system based on educating kids about their fundamental needs, including movement and play, one that gets them involved in growing natural foods and learning about their own independent role within the interdependent social tribe.

We’re all unique, but we go to school and we’re taught to conform. You have to sit and do the same exams, but in a real tribal situation, there’s an interdependence of the tribe, When you have kids, you suddenly realize how important it is. I’ve got three kids and another one on the way. They’re all different. Nature didn’t design them to be the same. They’re designed to be uniquely different so they fulfill their role in our tribe. Why not nurture the fact that they are different in order to grow their individual talents at a very young age. How do I nurture their unique abilities and create the appropriate environment for them to learn and become uniquely awesome?

Tony’s coaching is individually tailored based upon the belief that we all have a unique role to play in our community.

Stay tuned for our REWILD series featuring an in-depth discussion of Tony Riddle’s socially extreme, yet biologically normal practices.

Part 1, Tony Riddle: Introducing REWILD
Part 2, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Children and Education
Part 3, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Transforming Your Body
Part 4, REWILD with Tony Riddle: Barefoot Running Across Great Britain

To connect with Tony, visit tonyriddle.com

Facebook: @naturallifestylist
Instagram: @thenaturallifestylist
Twitter: @feedthehuman
Youtube: Tony Riddle

Feature Image: Tony’s daughter working on her grip strength in Tony’s studio.

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