Everything For The Elephants

In our 21st Anantara Hotels Resorts & Spas #ElephantProfessional lecture, Dr Ingrid Suter defended how – in contrast to the situation in Thailand – captive breeding programs can help conserve Asian elephants in Laos.

Soon as Dr Ingrid Suter entered Laos as an ambassador of the Australian government for the first time in 2008, she realized how elephants were a big part of the country that is nicknamed “the land of a million elephants”.

This Southeast Asian country is home to approximately seven million people whose average salary is less than 2 USD/day. The majority also live in rural areas and rely on basic natural resources which include more than 400 privately-owned captive elephants.

In fact, elephant ownership and mahoutship is an accepted normal part of culture in their rural life, according to her.

Elephant ownership and mahoutship in Laos is comparable to horse ownership in the western world. Screenshot from Dr Suter’s lecture

This piece of Laotian culture, unfortunately, is now being threatened due to the decline in captive elephant population.

Laotian mahouts as well as elephant workplaces are usually hesitant when it comes to breeding their elephants, since the pregnant female would require maternity leave. Without alternative employment opportunities, this means the mahout will lose their only source of income.

In the past, mahouts relied on capturing new wild elephants to rejuvenate the captive population, but this too became impossible when the Laos government enforced a ban on the capture of wild elephants in 1989.

Dr Suter presenting her projections on the probability of survival of the Laos captive elephant population. Screenshot from Dr Suter’s lecture

The Laotian captive elephant population will likely go extinct in the next 112 – 220 years due to the low number of newborn elephants, as predicted in her research.

Unlike Thailand which GTAEF believes there is still an excess of poorly treated elephants in the captivity, she found the situation different in Laos and other countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Borneo.

“Having a population that we know the parameters about, and that we can manage, is in my opinion of equal importance to having a wild population that we know very little about,” she concluded.

And the elephant keeper

“If you’re not working with the mahout, you’re not working with the elephant”

Dr Ingrid Suter

To save the mega-mammals themselves, Dr Suter highlighted the importance of working with their keepers through grassroot consultation and bottom-up approaches.

“No matter how ambitious your project, you’re not gonna save the species if the communities living in the same area as the species are left out of the decision-making process,” she said.

While in Laos, she was working with ElefantAsia, who was the one and only provider of a mobile vet unit for elephants. Although some of the elephants received injuries because of the handler, the medical care providers would refrain from blaming the mahouts.

She explained that it was ultimately the mahout’s decision that they wanted to get help for their elephants. So, making the mahouts feel bad would eventually be an unproductive move to the elephant’s health.

Agricultural equipment supplied to the mahouts while their elephants are on maternity leave. Screenshot from Dr Suter’s lecture.

In addition, ElefantAsia also supplied mahouts with agricultural equipment in order to free the elephants for maternity leave, and provided environmental education for the Laotian children in order to facilitate elephant conservation.

“If you’re not working with the mahout, you’re not working with the elephant,” she said.

Working in the Land of a Million Elephants

Working in Laos also requires very good relationship with the government, since this single-partied communist country only recently started allowing local societies or non-governmental organizations.

“Respectful communication and acknowledging and working within the local parameters is a really critical and necessary step to creating any kind of meaningful exchange and progress,” emphasized Dr Suter.

But on top of the government, tourist camps have also become a big stakeholder in elephant conservation in recent years.

During her research, she interviewed more than a hundred mahouts in various elephant-related industries, and found that the mahouts who chose to work in the tourism sector were the youngest, most inexperienced, and lowest paid.

This was a sharp contrast to the mahouts in the logging industry, who were mostly from traditional families with rich knowledge in mahoutship. They received the highest salary compared to other industries, perceived elephants as their only means of income generation, and wanted to pass on their knowledge to the younger, inexperienced mahouts.

While the young mahouts in the tourism industry were eager to learn and the old mahouts willing to teach, tourist camps were largely unmoved by the idea of paying old professional mahouts high wages to train and equip their inexperienced next-in-lines, according to her.

She added that although elephant-based tourism is on the rise, many of the tourist camps abused their social altruistic tendencies while undermining scientific evidences.

For example, they banned mahouts from using the bullhooks, which adversely contributed to mahout injuries and deaths.

They were also unenthusiastic about elephant conservation, by claiming that they had little control over the elephants that they hired but did not own, and seeing themselves losing money over an unworkable pregnant elephant.

A group photo of ACES. Screenshot from Dr Suter’s lecture

Despite the challenges, Dr Suter still continues to work with all different sectors and stakeholders in hopes of a better future for the elephants. Currently, she is one of the three co-owners of Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES) and is focusing on auditing in order to help ensure highest elephant welfare standards as possible to elephants living under human care.

Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily represent Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.