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Wild elephants

200 ~ 500

Alan Rabinowitz

Domesticated elephants

1,100 ~ 1,350

Richard Lair



FAO (Anon., 1995d)

The Lao PDR, called Laos in earlier days, was once known as meuang lan xang or what has often been termed ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’. Forest is said to presently cover 47% of the country, but the Lao PDR presently loses about 300,000 hectares of forest a year owing to logging and shifting cultivation (Phanthavong and Santiapillai, 1992). “Although the economy is diversifying, the high population growth rate combined with a continued reliance on natural resources for economic growth is resulting in increasing pressures on forested lands and other currently ‘unmanaged’ habitats,” wrote Salter (1993). He adds that agriculture and forestry combined constitute about 60% of gross domestic product. Economic pressures and the resultant deforestation in the Lao PDR are causing great damage not only to wild elephants but also to domesticated elephants, which have a perennial need for forests to provide both food for themselves and paying work for their owners.

Wild elephants

Dr. Charles Santiapillai, citing Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, says there are presently between 200 and 500 wild elephants in the Lao PDR (Pers. comm., 1996), a number much lower than other recent estimates. Vongphet (1988) estimated 2,100 to 3,300 wild elephants, a range accepted by Salter (1993) who said those numbers are “indicative only and are likely to be low.” Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) had earlier accepted Vongphet’s numbers.

Distribution of domesticated elephants

A very strong concentration of domesticated elephants is found in Sayabouri and Oudomsay on the northern stretch of the border with Thailand. The only other large concentration is found in the adjoining provinces of Champassak and Attopeu, around the town of Ban Khampo, near the border with Vietnam.

Numbers of domesticated elephants

All previous figures in the literature would seem to be reasonably correct, although there are some minor contradictions. McNeely (1975) stated that there were 902 domesticated elephants in Laos, and Olivier (1978b) accepted these figures, as did Sayer (1983b)

For 1993, the Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services (DLVS), working from data supplied by its officials in the 16 khwaeng or provinces plus Vientiane, report a total of 1,020 elephants. The figures in Table 8 are the first figures available by province {Bounkhouang Souvannaphanh, 1995}. A Forest Department official, Vongphet (1988), gave a significantly higher figure of 1,332 at an earlier date.

The figure of 1,020 elephants, boosted by a few uncounted animals gives a good theoretical minimum of 1,100; numbers could be significantly higher because surveys like the DLVS’s usually tend to undercount. The very precise figure of 1,332 given by Vongphet (1988) suggests a firm factual basis, so that even a decade later 1,350 domesticated elephants is a reasonable working maximum. Thus, there are probably between 1,100 and 1,350 domesticated elephants in the Lao PDR.

Table 8: Domesticated elephants in the Lao PDR, 1993 1






Champassak-Attopeu 2




Luang Prabang






Luang Nam Tha










1 Data courtesy of Bounkhouang Souvannaphanh, DLVS.

2 Two adjoining provinces, Champassak and Attopeu, were given as one because of DLVS administrative procedures.

Legal status and registration

Wild elephants are presently designated as a protected species, and a government decree prohibits trade in all wild species, including the elephant (Vongphet, 1993). Salter (1993) gives excellent summaries of all “Decrees of the Council of Ministers.” The Lao PDR has shown serious interest in acceding to CITES, which would be very welcome for wild elephants but do nothing to succor domesticated elephants. No body of law in the Lao PDR relates to domesticated elephants, and no law mandates registration but this lack of legislation is true of many matters besides elephants and should be seen as a clean slate rather than a void.

Institutions involved

The Wildlife Division of the Department of Forestry, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, is interested in domesticated elephants {Vongphet, 1995}. The Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services (with a head office in Vientiane with 11 people, including secretaries), Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, has also expressed interest in expanding their efforts.

Perhaps as a result of having such small institutions, the Lao officials would seem to be open to active inter-departmental cooperation, an absolute prerequisite for managing elephants. Quite unlike the bureaucratic animosity and compartmentalization often found in larger and more rigid civil service systems, Lao officials are universally energetic and enthusiastic.

Veterinary care and health

The DLVS has no regular program for treating elephants. Whether or not help is tendered seems to depend on the time, resources, and commitment of the individual veterinary officer. Veterinary care is thus probably extremely limited. DLVS veterinarians are competent, but, besides suffering a shortage of medicines, they lack the benefit of years of highly organized ministering to large numbers of elephants, such as in the large government ‘elephant camps’ of Myanmar, Thailand, and India. Training is needed to inculcate a systematic body of knowledge about veterinary medicine and general management of elephants. A particular goal should be prophylaxis against infectious diseases, particularly haemorrhagic septicaemia and anthrax.


It can only be assumed that there is a fair amount of capture of wild elephants in the Lao PDR. The source of replenishment of the approximately 800 elephants in Sayabouri and Oudomsay provinces would be of great interest. Without specifying either the catching technique or the age-classes caught, Salter (1993) says, “Small numbers of wild elephants are still captured for use as work animals, primarily in Sayaboury and Champassak....” Wild elephants are still plentiful in the Annamite Range, the spine of which forms the border with Vietnam, and in the provinces of Attopeu and Champassak lives an elephant-capturing ethno-linguistic group which is said to speak a Khmer-like language. Salmela (1980) states that a group of Kui who lived around Luangprabang in Laos moved to the Champassak-Attopeu area to capture elephants, but they left the area in 1717 to reach Surin by 1757; Sotesiri (1972) also says that some Kui lived in Champassak-Attopeu at that time.

Capture in this region is exclusively by mela-shikar. (See “Cultural dimensions,” page 97.) Any surviving mela-shikar capture is difficult to condemn outright, seeing as it would be highly selective and conducted using traditional techniques. One cannot help but wonder, though, if capture is conducted mostly simply to maintain numbers for local use or, more dangerously, to sell far afield. “Elephants are still captured from the wild, often in pit-traps, for the timber industry,” according to Santiapillai and Jackson (1990). Pit-trap capture would be interesting, particularly as the method would seem to have been little practised in neighboring and culturally-related northeast and north Thailand. (Pit capture has intrinsically high mortality rates and those who practice it should be prosecuted with great vigor.)

As for breeding, there is simply not enough evidence to hazard a guess. One safe assumption, however, is that with all Buddhist owners and mahouts there are no cultural prohibitions against breeding and thus a significant number of captive births. (One goal of any future survey should be to ascertain the balance of wild-caught and captive-born elephants.)


Gullmark (1986) says that at the time elephants sold for between US$2,000-5,000 but “the seller sometimes prefers to be paid in gold, silver or hard currency.” Present day prices are unknown but are surely determined by prices in neighboring Thailand - at least for those classes of animals desired in the Thai market. Lao owners, most of whom live reasonably near the Thai border, will often succumb to the temptation of hard currency. The average price for an adult elephant in Thailand is about US$6,000 (150,000 baht), which is 18 times the average annual per capita income in the Lao PDR (US$325).

The market

The Thai-Lao border is very long and very porous and many families have links on both sides of the border. Smuggling an elephant into Thailand, including fraudulently procuring legal papers, is relatively easy.

In the past, elephants were sold out of Sayabouri into Thailand, but Phanthavong and Santiapillai (1992) say that “this seems to have stopped after the imposition [in 1990] of a ban on logging in Thailand.” The Thai logging ban might have lessened sales, but equally it might have accelerated sales since the logistics of illegal logging favor elephants even more than do the logistics of legal logging. (And the huge profits of illegal logging ensure the presence of both the incentive and the money to buy elephants.) The trade is impossible to monitor without a strict registration program in either or both countries. Sending an elephant into Thailand takes only a walk or even a wade across the Mekong River in the hot season when the water is low. After being loaded onto a waiting 10-wheel truck, the elephant is whisked off on a midnight trip an will within hours enter the subterranean world of illegal logging perhaps hundreds of kilometers away. The elephant will likely die in that dark world or, if lucky, be rejected as a used-up husk - but in either case its provenance will probably have been long forgotten.

It is impossible to gauge the number of elephants smuggled into Thailand from the Lao PDR, but it could be high, particularly for logging elephants and calves. What is reasonable to assert is that all logging animals bought by Thais would be of working age, say 20 years or older, and most would be in good health. A good number of calves are probably sold into Thailand where their entertainment value fetches a premium price. (Within the Lao PDR, in all traditional societies far from the Thai border, calves are cheap because they can do no work.)

One intriguing thought is provoked by the remarks of Cambodian officials who stated that illegally-caught wild elephants were sold into Thailand, even though northern stretch of the Thai-Cambodian border is so risky as to be impassable. All Thai mahouts questioned were quite willing to talk freely about elephants smuggled from the Lao PDR or Myanmar but said that there was no direct trade from Cambodia. But elephants from Cambodia could be being conduited through the Lao PDR and only then smuggled across the highly permeable Thai-Lao border. This conjecture is made more plausible knowing that there is already a bustling trade in other wildlife products; Salter (1993) says, “Ban Mai on the Mekong River in Champassak Province has been identified as a major transhipment point for wildlife products originating in Laos and [wildlife products] being transported through Laos from Cambodia to Thailand.”


Timber work is the most common form of employment, although much skidding is probably of a rough-and-ready sort inseparable from general village work. Gullmark (1986) wrote that at the time only about twenty privately-owned elephants worked for the various State Forest Enterprises, all on a piece work basis; he states there were thought to be about 500 elephants at work but that, in his opinion, “they are used only occasionally to drag out a small number of logs per year and not in what could be called organised forestry work in the forestry industry.” Sayer (1983b) said that “there are said to be 500 employed in timber and transport.” After the obligatory observation that selective logging by elephants is less destructive to the environment than machines, Goppers et al. (1986) suggest that much of the forestry in the Lao PDR could be done much both better and cheaper by elephants than by foreign machinery. Richard Salter says that unemployment is a significant problem near the Thai border {1996}. A Thai veterinarian agrees, saying that unemployment is a big problem in Sayabouri {Phongkum, 1996}.

Given the climate and the poor state of the roads, it would seem likely that, as in the past, elephants are still used extensively in transport, particularly during the rainy season. Elephants will also be used in a myriad of other general jobs around the village such as threshing rice, building, plowing, etc.


All elephants are privately owned. The intriguing question is whether mahouts own the elephants they ride, as is the norm in neighboring northeast Thailand, or whether they hire out to non-mahout owners, as is the norm in neighboring northern Thailand. One would expect and hope for a very high degree of mahout ownership, but only a survey can clarify matters.


Given the Lao PDR’s long isolation and delayed development, it can only be assumed that most mahouts closely follow tradition and are highly competent. One possible cause for concern is that when the number of elephants decreases, so does the number of mahouts, and small numbers of mahouts can degrade the transmission of knowledge through decreased contact and through having ever fewer master mahouts, somewhat like a nuclear pile falling below critical mass. (Such a decline in standards of mahoutship is found in neighboring northeast Thailand, although there the loss has indisputably been accelerated by corrupting modern influences.)

Cultural dimensions

The population of the Lao PDR is about 4 million people with an average density of 15 people per square kilometer, making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, this tiny country hosts a bewildering array of ethnolinguistic groups.

According to ancient custom the Lao people have classified themselves into lowlanders (lao lum), middle-altitude dwellers (lao theung), and the mountain-dwellers (lao sung), or what is popularly termed ‘hill tribes’. Several officials averred that all mahouts are lao lum and all are ethnically Lao, but an interview with a distinguished linguist of long local experience {Chamberlain, 1995} indicated that he had met a group of mahouts near Luang Prabang who were definitely Khamu, a Mon-Khmer group which evidently came north out of Cambodia in the ancient past; the mahouts seen by Chamberlain might well be the same group of Khamu mentioned in Halpern (1961). In northern Thailand, the Khamu have a reputation of being superb mahouts, although their numbers have fallen greatly through assimilation.

One observer {Alton, 1995} who has long lived in the region, says that many mahout-owners in Attopeu speak a Khmer-like language, and it is possible, even likely, that these people are Kui. (The Kui are scattered widely across northeast Thailand, although the elephant-keeping Kui are presently limited to the provinces of Surin and Buriram and to adjoining areas of Cambodia.) The Kui have migrated throughout the region since long before the first Thais appeared, and in the elephant villages of Surin older people still remember hearing their grandparents talking fondly of a long ago sojourn in Attopeu.

Thus, while it is likely that while most mahouts in the Lao PDR are simply Lao, other peoples keep elephants. The ethnic composition of mahouts deserves some attention.

One intriguing cultural dimension is the existence of a ‘white elephant’ kept secretly near Vientiane. This animal, evidently a cow, is bound to provoke curiosity in every visitor with an interest in elephants because her image graces several postcards sold all around town while she herself - though once openly displayed in downtown Vientiane - is now kept at an unknown location in the suburbs. (No number of questions, whether to officials or the man on the street, could determine where.) Still, she does regularly appear in important parades, so perhaps her whereabouts are not really so mysterious. From photographs, this animal would appear to be very lightly pigmented, as light as the young cow pictured in the frontispiece of U Toke Gale’s Burmese Timber Elephant (1974) or the photograph of a wild “albino calf” taken at Yala National Park in Jayewardene’s The Elephant in Sri Lanka (1994c).


The only practical conclusion to be drawn about the Lao PDR is that much information of all sorts is badly needed before any management is possible. At very least, there should be a survey to gather, sift, analyze, and communicate whatever information can be garnered fairly easily, whether in offices, libraries, or the field.

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