An elephant and mahout during a festival in Sayaboury Laos. Photo: AFP via Biosphoto/Jean-François Mutzig
An elephant and mahout during a festival in Sayaboury Laos. Photo: AFP via Biosphoto/Jean-François Mutzig

In 1924, the makers of the original King Kong movie travelled from Thailand to Laos, where they spent three years filming rivers and jungles teeming with elephants in their film documentary “Chang”, the Thai language word for elephant.

Once known as “the land of a million elephants”, Laos now has less than a thousand of the great beasts as the landlocked communist country sacrifices its wildlife legacy for a growth-dominated economy.

Laos is now thought to have only around 350 elephants remaining in the wild and approximately 400 domesticated jumbos living in rural villages, most former beasts of burden for the logging industry. Others live in sanctuaries, conservation areas or tourist camps.

There is growing evidence that China is fast buying the last of Laos’ elephants, with the porous northern borders of Luang Nam Tha, in particular the former casino town of Boten, emerging as gateways for the unregulated and often illegal trade of domesticated and possibly wild elephants.

Chinese buyers are reportedly paying as much as US$25,000 per elephant for use in Chinese circuses, zoos and conservation parks as show animals, according to wildlife investigators and conservationists who track the mostly underground trade.

Elephants in Lao, like pandas in China, have nationalist, economic, cultural and religious significance, particularly in Buddhist areas of the mountainous country. But even with clear signs of high-level involvement in the smuggling of endangered wildlife including elephants, there have been no reported convictions.

wat xieng thong-luang prabang
Elephants adorn Wat Xieng Thong in the ancient Lao royal capital of Luang Prabang. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Unlike China, Laos has yet to develop strict controls or sophisticated leasing agreements to regulate the export or ownership of iconic animals typified by China’s highly regulated pandas. Laos has been a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations, a multilateral treaty to protect endangered animals and plants, since 2004.

Yet the country has frequently come under fire for not regulating cross-province and cross-border trade in elephants and other protected wildlife. Ivory products were openly on display at Vientiane’s Chinese commercial hub, Sanjiang Market, until it was recently destroyed by fire, and are still sold freely in the tourist town of Luang Prabang.

The United Arab Emirates this year sought to buy 16 elephants for Dubai’s zoo, but a Prime Ministerial order issued on April 4 prohibited the sale, rent or export of elephants. A plane dispatched from Dubai to Vientiane to retrieve the elephants was turned back empty-handed, according to the World Conservation Society.

But the sale of elephants to neighboring China continues apace, activists and independent wildlife investigators say.

One conservationist who requested anonymity told this writer that CITES rules are often bent. Local laws often contradict the spirit of CITES, such as provisions that encourage the capture and use of wild stock for breeding, as well as authorizing trade in parts and products of captive-bred animals including tigers, rhinos and elephants.

“If the high-ranking officials decide they want to give an elephant as a present to impress someone, they can. Local officials have little say,” he said. “CITES it appears only covers wild animals, and that if the paper work is correct domesticated animals can be exported.”

Transport Asian Elephant truck Xayabury Laos.Biosphoto / Jean-François Mutzig
An elephant being transported by truck in Sayaboury, Laos. Photo: AFP via Biosphoto/ Jean-François Mutzig

Commercial export of any CITES-classified animal, according to the letter of the regulations, is illegal unless it comes from a CITES-approved captive breeding facility – none of which exist in Laos.

In 2014, Laos donated four elephants to Japan’s Kyoto Zoo as a diplomatic gift. They were put on display in 2015 ahead of Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong’s visit to Tokyo for the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Japan and Laos.

Staff at the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center, a specialist breeding and veterinarian outfit, were alarmed earlier this year when Kyoto Zoo veterinarians turned up unannounced and systematically photographed all the center’s procedures, including how to tranquilize elephants prior to surgery. They note that smuggled elephants are often tranquilized to subdue them prior to export.

The Kyoto Zoo staff later said they were looking for wild elephants for ‘research’ purposes and would be visiting the Nakai Plateau in central Laos as well as the Nam Phoey Protected Area, one of the few areas where wild elephants still roam free in the world.

Under CITES such activities in wildlife preserves is generally considered illegal, but analysts believe Japan is allowed special access to its areas because it is a major investor and contributor to Laos’ annual budget. Conservation groups have recently protested Japan’s plans to transfer Myanmar elephants, some living in the wild, to Japanese zoos.

Elephants in Laos fed by a mahout. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is big money to be made in elephants. Sayaboury’s provincial government agencies are now considering granting land to the China-based Discovery Company, which has said it wants to conduct elephant conservation in parts of the Nam Phouey forest reserve.

Local activists, however, worry the deal could possibly be a front for poaching and wild elephant trafficking. Border controls cannot be relied upon to stop the trade, as seen at the unregulated trade at Boten in the north, particularly considering China’s rising economic clout in Laos.

The traditional view is that elephant numbers have been decimated by poaching for ivory. While Laos lost some elephants to that trade, there is now a more insidious threat: the poverty of its mahouts and the comparative wealth of prospective Chinese buyers.

Laos’ logging industry, legal and illegal, is now largely automated. Most of the country’s valuable forests have already been cut and authorities have reacted to international and local pressure by restricting the export and unregulated movement of its timber.

With those changing economics, mahout families that own unemployed elephants are caught with an almost insurmountable task: finding 250-360 kilograms of food and 150 liters of water per day for each of their charges.

Luang Prabang,Laos - December 30,2016 : A mahout and an elephant at The Elephant Village outside of Luang Prabang, Laos on December 30,2016.
A mahout and elephant outside of Luang Prabang, Laos on December 30,2016. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

State welfare is not available for most of the Lao population, including pension plans for mahouts, despite being a nominally communist state. The tourist industry offers some economic relief, but not enough, and environmental depletion adds to the pressure on mahouts just to keep their elephants alive.

It has thus become much easier to procure Laos’ jumbos. The Wildlife Conservation Society, an advocacy group, identified at least 34 elephants being moved from Laos to Chinese zoos in 2016, based on media reports. The actual figure was likely much higher when illegal and informal trades are taken into account.

The tourist industry offers some economic relief, but not enough, and environmental depletion adds to the pressure on mahouts just to keep their elephants alive

Chinese entrepreneurs are paying especially high prices to train elephants locally before sending them for commercial exploitation in Chinese circuses, zoos and wildlife parks. One source familiar with recent transactions said Chinese buyers pay mahouts as much as US$900 per month per elephant to train them in circus tricks.

The rental arrangement lasts for as long as five years before the buyer exercises an option to take ownership and send them to China to work as circus acts, the source said.

Wildlife investigator and filmmaker Karl Amman says the going rate is nearly U$25,000 per elephant, with prices rising for those that can perform tricks. Amman has documented cases of elephants sold on to institutions within China for as much as US$250,000, a mark-up prohibited under CITES to discourage speculation in animals.

Circus elephant balancing on the ball in circus
A Chinese circus elephant balancing on a giant inflated football. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Two elephants, a mother and calf, previously housed at the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) were purchased together earlier this year by a Chinese entrepreneur for US$72,000.

“We can’t compete,” said Sebastien Duffilot, co-founder and director of the ECC. “Those of us who are wanting to purchase elephants for breeding and conservation don’t have that sort of money. No one in Laos can match the US$900 per month. It’s distorting the market. If this continues we have lost the battle for Lao elephants.”

Khampiew Phommahanh deputy head of the Sayaboury Department of Information Culture and Tourism, is keen to make money for his province through elephant tourism. The ‘Lao Elephant Festival’, initiated in 2007 by the ECC, was originally designed to honor the great creatures and the skill and wisdom of their Lao mahouts.

It was taken over by the Lao government in 2012 and by all accounts is now a sad spectacle, with elephants coerced into doing tricks and feats unsuited to their mammoth body structures.

Commercial export of any CITES-classified animal, according to the letter of the regulations, is illegal unless it comes from a CITES-approved captive breeding facility – none of which exist in Laos

That type of exploitation seems set to rise. Chinese company Jong Liew Tourism Development Investment was recently granted a 104 ha land concession to establish “Elephant City – Elephant Festival Every Day” in Sayaboury province, a venture it characterizes as “tourist entertainment” that will be designed to cater mainly to Chinese tourists.

Google Earth images reveal some buildings have already been built and local villagers have been paid to vacate their land. The project, which will include an elephant breeding unit, will require as many as 200-300 elephants and mahouts for its shows and presentations.

Those designs, however, have caused a local stir among certain officials who view elephants as a source of national pride.

“The local government does not agree to allow the company rights to control elephant activities in Sayaboury because elephants belong to Lao people,” Khampoul said. “[The Chinese] cannot take over everything.”

An elephant's eye is richly decorated with paint in a parade at the ElefantAsia festival in the Hongsa district of the northern Lao province of Xayabouri on 18 February 2007. Only about 2,000 of the animals survive in Laos, formerly known as Xan Lang, the "Land of One Million Elephants," say the festival organisers. AFP PHOTO/Frank Zeller / AFP PHOTO / Frank Zeller
An elephant’s eye at a parade in the Hongsa district of Sayaboury, Laos in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Frank Zeller

Conservationists admit estimates of the number of remaining elephants in Laos are approximate figures – no-one really knows for sure in the country’s opaque and under-regulated society.

While Lao has established a national multiagency enforcement agency, known as ‘Lao Wen’, it does not appear to have made much difference in curbing the ongoing domestic and international trade in wildlife.

To preserve elephants’ biological integrity in Laos, conservationists say that herd numbers must remain around 200. Below this number, for genetic reasons of survivability, elephants would be functionally extinct in the country.

Those who work and live closely with the animals say they are like Renaissance paintings: the more you study them the more secrets they reveal. An ever-expanding research base shows just how extraordinary elephants are in terms of language, instinctive geo-spatial knowledge, social interaction and recognition of enemy voice inflection.

But none of these extraordinary attributes will save their lives or stop them from becoming badly exploited circus fodder. Amman reckons that China is buying up the elephants knowing that their numbers are dwindling in the Mekong Region, transactions he cynically refers to as a “Chinese hedge against extinction.”

Pandas have been a great revenue generator for China as the animals are rented out for millions of dollars per year to zoos worldwide. As the number of elephants drops in Laos, Amman says, the more valuable they will become. “If they go extinct in Laos, the Chinese can charge whatever they like to view them in captivity in China.”

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