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The care and management of domesticated Asian elephants in Lao PDR - Bounleuam Norachack


Domesticated elephants have played an important role in the socio-economic life of rural Laotians for centuries. They have used them for work, in religious and cultural ceremonies, and for carrying goods. Elephants have been (and still are) a main source of cash income for minority ethnic groups in Laos - a sort of living bank.

Domesticated elephants (Elephas maximus) have always been highly respected by the people and in former times the king officially assigned the elephant as the national animal. The king frequently donated elephants to neighbouring countries as a sign of friendship and friendly relations and to cement political ties.

Because of the loss of elephant habitats and a decline in food resources, the country's elephant population seems to have declined rapidly. The use of agricultural machinery for land clearing and land preparation and vehicles for transportation has made these tasks much quicker to carry out and more convenient than using elephants. But it has also meant a decreasing role for the domesticated elephant.

Forests are the habitats and food resources of Asian elephants and their well-being depends on there being sufficient forest cover. The forests of Lao PDR account for about 47 percent of the total area of the country, or approximately 11 000 000 ha, and are found especially in the northern part of Lao PDR and in the Southeast Region,"The Annamite range”. Large areas of forests were destroyed by the application of herbicide during the Viet Nam War. Trees have been cut down for rice cultivation, for crop production and other human needs. After the Viet Nam War, the government focused on the agriculture and forestry sectors and there was a national programme to expand their contribution to 60 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

The government also focused on infrastructure building up such as hydropower to meet the regional demand for electricity, road networks (interprovincial and interdistrict) to transport goods both for export and within the country, to facilitate commercial logging, to promote international investment and so on.

All of these activities caused the forests to decrease, resulting in elephant habitat loss and fewer food sources. Consequently, both wild and domesticated elephants are endangered. Moreover, domesticated elephant owners now have to take care of their own elephants without support from the government. This means they are rarely receiving sufficient food or medical treatment.

Wild elephants

As mentioned earlier, the forest cover of Lao PDR amounts to 47 percent of the country's land area, mostly in the northern part. Wild elephants are concentrated in Sayaboury province bordering Nan province of Thailand, in the southern part of country (Champasak and Attapeu provinces) and along the Annamite range, bordering Viet Nam (Salter, 1993).

Because of insufficient national funds and the absence of international funding, Lao PDR has never conducted a census of wild elephants, therefore what information on wild elephants there is very unreliable. Besides that, the number of staff specializing in this work is very small and the technical knowledge of how to conduct a systematic wildlife survey is very limited, therefore little data of any kind has been collected.

Until recently, many elephants were taken from the wild for use as draught animals, although this practice has waned recently. Hunting and habitat loss have caused the wild elephant population to shrink severely. The threats to wild elephants are still ongoing and conservation measures are required to ensure their long-term survival. The number of wild elephants in Lao PDR has recently been estimated as 200 to 500 [Lair, (1997), citing A. Rabinowitz's estimate provided by C. Santiapillai (personal communication, 1996)]. However, this number is much lower than Vongphet's (1988) estimate of approximately 2 100 to 3 300, and is considered to be conservative (Duckworth et al., 1999). Vongphet's figure was used by Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) and Salter (1993).

The Government of Lao PDR is aware that the population of wild elephants is very small and is committed to their conservation, but it requires international assistance to carry out a meaningful conservation programme.

As elephant habitats are shrinking and human population is increasing, human-elephant conflicts over competition for resources are likely to become more frequent. Typically, wild elephants destroy crops and houses and the elephants are shot. Hunting for ivory is a serious problem, particularly on the Thai and Vietnamese borders. Salter (1993) reported that 42 wild elephants were killed between 1991 and 1992 in the Nakai Plateau/Nam Theun area.

Table 1 shows the number of wild elephants killed between 1980 and 1996.

Table 1. Number of elephants killed between 1980 and 1996

Reported Location

Number of deaths


Nam Et



Nam Xam



Phou Phanang



Nakai/Nam Theun



Hin Nam No



Nam Phui





Domesticated elephants

Lao PDR was once known as"Pathetlao Lanexang”, which means the land of a million elephants.

The total number of domesticated elephants in Lao PDR was recently estimated to be about 1 020 (Lair, 1997). Since 1995 the Livestock and Fisheries Division in the provinces has collected data on domesticated elephants. In 1996 the number of domesticated elephants was estimated to be 922 and about 864 in 2000. They are concentrated in Sayaboury and Champassak provinces that border Thailand. These numbers are not complete as some provinces did not provide the required data (Department of Livestock and Fisheries, 2000).

Three elephants are kept in the zoo at Ban Keun district, Vientiane province. This zoo was established in 1994 with financial support from the private sector and is the first zoo in Lao PDR. The owners have limited experience of taking care of large animals. These elephants used to work hauling timber from the forests. They were captured in the forest in Sayaboury when they were eight years old. The animals have been trained to work with other elephants. They were placed in the zoo in 1997.

The distribution of domesticated elephants is shown in Table 2 and in Fig. 1.

Table 2. Domesticated elephants in Lao PDR






























Vientiane Muni.










































Luang Prabang












* Data not available

1 Estimates

Source: Department of Livestock and Fisheries

Fig. 1. Distribution of domesticated elephants in Lao PDR

Law and government policy

Approximately 95 percent of the Lao people are farmers, living in rural areas and subsisting on fish and wildlife meat. To conserve and offer long-term protection to the country's wildlife and its habitat, the government, with the technical assistance of IUNC (through the Lao-Swedish Forestry Co-operation Programme) and other international agencies, has been developing a National Protected Areas System (Salter and Phanthavong, 1989; Salter et al., 1991; Berkmuller et al., 1993, 1995a, 1995b). So far, 10 percent of the land area of the country has been decreed National Biodiversity Conservation Areas (NBCA).

A number of arrests (with subsequent prosecutions) have been made for killing dolphins, tigers, elephants and gaur and for trafficking in bears (KPL, 1991a-c; Baird, 1993).

On 13 July 1997, the first official National Wildlife Conservation and Fish Release Day took place, based on the Forestry Law of 1996. The principal constraints on further wildlife conservation activities are the limited number of staff and training courses on this specific matter.

In addition, the existing legislation needs to be reviewed and revised, for example:

On 21 October 1986, the first Decree was launched by the Council of Ministers, prohibiting the wildlife trade. This and subsequent Decrees do not focus specifically on wild elephants but cover all wildlife. The principal decrees and declarations are listed in Table 3.

Table 3. Principal legal instruments addressing wildlife protection in Lao PDR

Legal instrument

Key provisions

Decree of the Council of Ministers No 185/CCM - Concerning the Prohibition of Wildlife Trade. 21 October 1986

· Prohibits export of all wildlife

Decree of the Council of Ministers No 47/CCM - On the state tax system. 26 June 1989

· Lists types of natural resources, including various species of wildlife, aquatic animals, and parts thereof and their associated resources, tax rates and special fees: 67 species and species groups of wild animals are listed.

· subsistence level users of natural resources are exempted from resources taxes.

· New tax law of 1996 does not mention natural resources tax.

Decree of the Council of Ministers No 118/CCM - On the Management and Protection of Aquatic Animals and Wildlife from Hunting and Fishing, 5 October 1989

· Defines"wildlife” as state property and mandates MAF to manage it (including through public awareness programmes) and local people to use it pursuant to the regulations.

· Allows import/export of wildlife with specified authorization.

· Prohibits hunting of protected or endangered species (unspecified) except where human life is endangered.

· Prohibits hunting by means that lead to mass destruction (explosives, poisons, etc.).

Decree of the Prime Minister No 164, 29 October 1993

· Established NBCAs and declared chasing, hunting or fishing any species within them to be illegal.

· Explosives, chemicals, poisons, and others substances harmful to wildlife are banned in NBCAs.

· MAF may warn or fine anyone who disobeys the decree, and may confiscate illegal items.

Decree on Animal Management in Lao PDR No. 85/PM on 31 May 1993

· Confirms that all domesticated animals in Lao PDR are the property of Lao people.

· Domesticated animals must be registered.

· May warn and fine anyone who disobeys this decree.

· MAF is responsible for this decree.

Order 54/MAF on the Customary Rights and the Use of Forest Resources, 7 March 1996; followed by recommendation 377/MAF on the Customary Use of Forestry Resources

· Secures legal right for local people to use forest resources for subsistence, including the hunting and fishing of non-protected species.

· Customary right may be recognized by signed agreement or by law, and local people should be compensated for loss of customary means of livelihoods.

Decree 1074 of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 11 September 1996

· Prohibits wildlife trade.

· Prohibits hunting of protected species such as Asian elephant, Banteng, Saola, Douc langur, etc.

· Prohibits hunting during the closed season (breeding season) and/or by dangerous methods, and/or by the use of weapons, in NBCAs, protected areas and towns.

· Bans wildlife trade, except for research and/or conservation.

· Bans exporting wildlife used for food.

· Confers on PAFO responsibility to coordinate with other agencies to collect and register weapons used for hunting.

Declaration of the President No 125/PO on the Forestry Law approved by the National Assembly No. 04NA on 11 October 1996

· Grants state ownership and authority to manage wildlife.

· Prohibits possession of wildlife without permission.

· Mandates state to define two categories of protected wildlife.

· Prohibits hunting during closed season (unspecified) and/or by means of mass destruction.· Prohibits hunting of and trade in protected species, with certain exceptions.

· States that all guns and hunting equipment must be registered with certificates.

· Article 46, Part 5 establishes by law a Wildlife Day on 13 July annually.

Regulation on Animal Management in Lao PDR MAF No, 04 and 05/MAF, 2 January 1997

· Addresses the issue of domesticated animal production and animal products.

· Animal movement in and out of Lao PDR must be controlled and certified by DAFO.


Animal registration in Lao PDR is in its infancy, although the regional government has carried out a general animal census. The census recorded population data for all animals belonging to farmers in the region. It focused on domesticated animals, and included wild animals that had been captured and trained for work. Lao farmers show little interest in animal registration. They have limited technical knowledge about livestock production. As yet there is no standard form for registering animals. In order to make sure all Decrees, specifically Decree No. 85/PM, and the regulations pertaining to animal movement and animal products are obeyed, the Department of Livestock and Fisheries has drawn up a declaration giving the Department of Livestock officials at provincial level authority to implement them closely and has requested them to pursue and prosecute offenders. The declaration was signed by the Director General of the Department of Livestock and Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

In January 2001, the Department of Livestock and Fisheries co-operated with the European Union to establish a programme of animal registration by testing in five provinces in the northern part of Lao PDR. This focused on cattle and buffaloes only, and completely neglected elephants. Thus, the knowledge and experience of the Lao staff in this matter remains limited.

Organizations and their responsibilities

In Lao PDR, two Departments under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry are responsible for wildlife and domesticated animals:

Elephants' work

Almost all Lao people live in rural areas and are engaged in farming. Farmers use animals for draught as the rugged topography of the country and its poor economic conditions make the use of machinery more or less impossible. They use cattle, buffaloes, horses and elephant for work. All elephants are privately owned.

Elephants are trained to:

Veterinary care

Elephant health care is very rare because of the limited number of qualified staff, lack of veterinary extension workers, lack of veterinary kits, and a shortage of vaccines and medicines in the provinces. Many animal diseases are still widespread in Lao PDR. The main diseases are haemorrhage septicaemia, foot and mouth disease, and anthrax. The diseases have led to the deaths of a huge number of domesticated and wild elephants. In previous years a regular vaccination programme for elephants was not carried out. Vaccination campaigns on cattle, buffaloes and pigs have been conducted more regularly but even these are hard to implement in remote areas.

Veterinary staff have limited knowledge of elephant diseases and very little experience of dealing with them. Moreover, there is lack of national and international assistance to carry out an animal health care programme or to train staff to diagnose infectious and non-infectious diseases.


The data and information on wild and domesticated elephants has so far been very poor in Lao PDR. Registration of domesticated elephants is a new requirement of the government and so far has been a failure. The Department of Livestock and Fisheries is responsible for carrying out elephant population surveys and ensuring that elephants are registered, but because of lack of knowledgeable and experienced staff these tasks are proving to be difficult to implement. The general absence of national and international assistance, especially funding, is a major constraint.


1. A national elephant population census should be conducted. Without good data on the elephant population it is difficult to persuade international donor agencies to offer assistance in this area.

2. Efforts related to animal registration need to be strengthened.


Baird, I. 1993. Wildlife trade between the southern Lao PDR provinces of Champassak, Sekong and Attapeu and Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Prepared for TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Berkmuller, K., Phanthavong, B., and Vongphet, V. 1993. Protected area system planning and management in Lao PDR. Status report to mid-1993. Forest Resources Conservation Subprogramme, Lao/Swedish Forestry Cooperation Programme, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

Berkmuller, K., Southammakoth, S., and Vongphet, V. 1995a. Protected area system planning and management in Lao PDR. Status report to mid-1995. Forest Resources Conservation Subprogramme, Lao/Swedish Forestry Cooperation Programme, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

Berkmuller, K., Evans, T., Timmins, R., and Vongphet, V. 1995b. Recent advances in nature conservation in the Lao PDR. Oryx 29:253-260.

Department of Livestock and Fisheries. 2000. Animal statistical record. Lao PDR.

Duckworth, J.W., Salter, R.E. and Khounboline, K. (compilers). 1999. Wildlife in Lao PDR. 1999 status report. IUCN - The World Conservation Union/Wildlife Conservation Society/Centre for Protected Areas and Watershed Management, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

KPL. 1991a. Sekong sentences violators of wildlife preservation. KPL, May 16, 1991, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

KPL. 1991b. Forestry management in Oudomsay. KPL, June 8, 1991, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

KPL. 1991c. Men arrested and tried for killing rare animals. KPL, November 11, 1991, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

Lair, Richard C. 1997. Gone astray: The care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity. FAO/RAP Publication 1997/16, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (RAP), Thailand.

Khounboline K. 1998. The status of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) in Lao PDR. Conservation of the Asian Elephant in Indochina, Hanoi, Viet Nam, November 1998.

Salter, R.E. 1993. Wildlife in Lao PDR. A status report. IUCN, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

Salter, R.E., and Phanthavong, B. 1989. Needs and priorities for a protected area system in Lao PDR. Forest Resources Conservation Project, Lao/Swedish Forestry Cooperation Programme, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

Salter, R.E., Phanthavong, B., and Vongphet, V. 1991. Planning and development of a protected area system in Lao PDR: status report to mid-1991. Forest Resources Conservation Project, Lao/Swedish Forestry Cooperation Programme, Vientiane, Lao PDR.

Santiapillai, C., and Jackson, P. (compilers). 1990. The Asian elephant. An action plan for its conservation. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.

Vongphet, V. 1988. The status of elephant in Laos. Paper presented at Asian Elephant Specialist's Group Meeting, Chiang Mai, Thailand, January 1988.

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