To the circus : conservationists warn of elephant exodus from Laos
Once worshipped as gods, the endangered elephant population of Laos is under threat from a legal loophole
Fiona MacGregor guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 10 August 2010 11.57 BST
It may be known as the Land of a Million Elephants, but conservationists are warning that the imminent exportation of more than a third of Laos’s remaining domesticated elephant calves to a Chinese circus could prove disastrous for the endangered species.
Once worshipped as gods, the animals are still considered sacred by many in Laos, but loss of habitat and tradition means there are now just 20 domesticated elephants under the age of 10 left in the country. The agreement with the circus company will see seven of these youngsters, along with four older animals of breeding age, exported from the remote Thongmixay district, in Laos’s Sayaburi province, to southern China this autumn.
Although Laos signed up in 2004 to the CITES international agreement against trading endangered wildlife, a loophole is being exploited. Elephants are being taken out of the country on "long-term loans" to zoos and circuses in foreign countries but are never returned.
With the most recent government estimates suggesting there are now as few as 600 wild and only 480 domesticated elephants left in the country, hopes for the survival of the species in Laos are pinned on breeding programmes involving the domesticated population. The loss of so many young elephants will place that under threat, the NGO ElefantAsia has warned. The group has official responsibility for the animals, having been charged by Laos’s department of livestock to manage the Laos Elephant Care and Management Programme.
"We are very concerned to see so many elephants – especially young ones and females – being exported to foreign countries," said Sebastian Duffillot, co-founder of ElefantAsia. "The best and healthiest animals have been leaving the country steadily for several years despite existing laws condemning the export of live elephants."
Korea and China are the main destinations for the "loaned" elephants. Because elephants are privately owned, ElefantAsia has no mandate to prevent the animals leaving the country. "Laos needs to protect its elephants by any means if the country wants to keep a sustainable population," said Duffillot.
Although companies from these countries pay the animals’ transport costs into the country, they often renege on paying return costs, leaving it impossible for the elephants’ owners to take their animals home if and when their contracts eventually runs out. In one such example it is understood that 19 elephants were sent to Korean circuses in 2002/3, all of which have now been sold there and not returned to Laos. It is understood the elephant handlers - mahouts - in this latest deal have been offered $150 dollars a month to work with their elephants in the Chinese circus. This represents a considerable income in Laos, where average earnings are just $30 a month.
Traditionally known as "Lane Xang", meaning "land of a million elephants", the working relationship between humans and elephants in landlocked Laos, one of the world’s least developed countries, dates back 4,000 years. The rapid decline in numbers is due to a combination of habitat loss, poaching and animals being killed after threatening people and their property.
Elephants are still held in high esteem in Laos culture, where the religious mix of Buddhism and animism sees them considered sacred beings. Women bring their babies to be blessed by elephants, but the reality of life for the average domesticated elephant is far from divine. Most working elephants are used as labour in logging camps. Grim working conditions and long hours take a toll on their health as elephants are used to destroy the forest homes of their wild relatives.
ElefantAsia is keen to encourage mahouts to turn away from the logging industry and use their animals in sustainable, welfare-conscious tourism projects.
The organisation is involved in a number of breeding programmes including the recent launch of an innovative maternity leave scheme for elephants in which mahouts are given financial incentives and offered alternative work if they breed their elephants – a process which can take an elephant out of work for four years, with a two-year gestation period and a further two years spent nursing their baby.
But if Laos keeps losing its elephants to other countries such projects will simply not be possible. "The law against all forms of exportation of live elephants must be enforced more firmly if the Land of a Million Elephants wants to keep its population alive," said Duffillot.