The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) population is in global decline. Anthropogenic factors that have led to this decline include deforestation, agricultural expansion, human-elephant conflict and poaching. Asian elephant populations have also experienced inadequate management and population planning. Outdated population estimates suggest that between 30,000 and 50,000 wild Asian elephants remain.
The captive Asian elephant population is between 15,000 and 18,000 individuals, but has traditionally been viewed as separate from wild populations. Elephant ownership has occurred throughout Asia for at least 4,000 years. Wild and captive populations of elephants are in decline. Receiving even less conservation priority than their wild counterparts, captive elephant populations require strategic planning if mahouts, businesses and governments wish to benefit from the future use of captive elephants.
This thesis addresses historical and current constraints facing the captive elephant population of the Lao PDR and makes an unprecedented advancement into understanding both their anthropogenic and biological limitations. To assess the future of captive elephants in Laos, this thesis examines the four major contemporary issues influencing their population: key social and political characteristics threatening population survivorship; Lao mahout and elephant-based industry changes; captive elephant population viability; and the role emerging elephant-based tourism has in elephant reproduction.
Despite their cultural and economic importance, Lao captive elephants have until now remained under-researched and inadequately managed. Chapter 2 critiques the various geopolitical and social reasons the Lao PDR has become a forgotten range nation of the Asian elephant. Captive elephant numbers in Laos have declined from over 1,000 individuals 20 years ago, to presently under 500 elephants. Despite the decline, the Government of Laos is yet to provide human or financial resources for species conservation. Traditionally used for village work, 53% of mahouts and their elephants are currently employed in the logging industry where there is a lack of reproductive opportunity afforded to captive elephants. Capture of elephants from the wild is banned, leading to only a small number of calves entering the population. With Laos’ tourism industry still developing, elephant-based tourism is becoming an important source of mahout employment; but, conservation and tourism planning is imperative for this industry to persist.
Chapter 3 provides a comprehensive study of Lao mahout demographics and industry changes. Hundreds of mahouts and their families directly rely on the use of elephants. Yet captive elephants are no longer needed in the same capacity as they once were. Through socio-economic surveys of mahouts this chapter examines the problems mahouts experience with elephant work and ownership. Results indicate while most elephants and mahouts are still employed in logging, this is decreasing and employment in tourism is growing. The tradition of mahoutship is disappearing. It is comparatively cheaper for tourist camps to hire inexperienced men to work with elephants, rather than older traditional mahouts. Older mahouts may be shut-out of the tourism industry, despite their expertise and willingness to work in this field.
Chapter 4 is the first quantifiable examination of the Lao captive elephant population ever undertaken. I applied population forecasting software to predict the persistence of the captive elephant population. Using demographic data from the Lao National Elephant Registration Database, I assessed current management practises and created six alternative management scenarios. Results indicate that under current management practises the captive elephant population in Laos is likely to be extinct within 112 years. Population supplementation, increased fecundity and reduced mortality rates may provide the population a further 100 years of perpetuity. Further research into mortality rates and an embargo on elephant exports from Laos is recommended.
With elephant-based tourism a growing sector of the Lao tourism industry, an understanding of elephant camp practises towards elephant reproduction was considered essential. Chapter 5 examines the attitude camp managers have towards elephant reproduction, as well as gaining valuable insights into tourist market demographics and tour operator perceptions of elephant-based tourism. Through interviews with the managers of Lao elephant camps and tour operators, this chapter shows that despite the increasing popularity of elephant-based tourism, most elephant camps do not encourage elephant reproduction. Changing visitor demographics is likely to alter future visitor expectations, although all elephant-based tourism is under threat if more calves do not enter the population.
This thesis provides all stakeholders with an essential insight into the Lao captive elephant population. Management recommendations from the first five chapters are given in Chapter 6, highlighting the need for a national mahout training centre and the implementation of a national management plan for captive elephants. Young mahouts and the tourism industry would benefit from elephant management skills learned from older mahouts. Equally, mahouts, INGOs, elephant camps and the government need to work together to increase elephant reproduction rates and halt calf exportation. Thesis recommendations combine local employment needs and species conservation, while providing the international community with a management framework, essential awareness and unparalleled research on Lao mahouts and captive elephant populations.