Elephants in danger in Laos
A report by the Wildlife Conservation Society
The WCS Lao Elephant Project
"Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus)
With a high level of biodiversity, LAOS has some of the most significant forest areas remaining in Southeast Asia. The country also harbors one of the largest remaining populations of Asian elephants in Indochina. WCS works in Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area (NPA) to conserve an elephant population. In addition to surveys, a major aim of WCS s work is to develop a demonstration site that will serve as a model for reducing human elephant conflict nationwide.
With a high level of biodiversity, the LAOS has some of the most significant forest areas remaining in Southeast Asia. The country also harbors one of the largest remaining populations of Asian elephants in Indochina. WCS works in the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area (NPA) and surrounding areas to conserve a regionally important elephant population. WCS has completed surveys of the population and is now working to create demonstration sites that will serve as models for reducing human–elephant conflict nationwide.
The Human Aspect Nearly two-thirds of the Lao population lives in rural areas and practices shifting agriculture. On the borders of the Nakai-Nam Theun NPA, villages have reported increased human–elephant conflict, likely due to logging activities that have displaced elephants in adjacent areas. In addition, the construction of a large hydropower project will inundate a large area of the elephants’ habitat, and likely increase human–elephant conflict. It is critical to find management solutions that will protect rural livelihoods while protecting the elephant population.
Threats The main threats faced by elephants in Lao PDR are poaching for ivory, being killed as a direct result of human–elephant conflict, and habitat loss. Poaching involves both local and transboundary hunters. Reports of crop-raiding and human deaths caused by elephants are on the increase in the country. Habitat loss is caused by the conversion of land for agriculture, logging, hydropower projects, and infrastructure development.
WCS Activities The activities and projects of the WCS Lao PDR Program encompass three strategies: research, site-based conservation, and training and capacity building. The Nakai-Nam Theun NPA and adjoining areas, in the Khammouane and Bolikhamxay Provinces, represent Lao PDR’s largest and most diverse natural protected forest area, with outstanding biodiversity and landscape values, and contain what is likely one of the two largest elephant populations in the country. In 2007, we completed the first-ever simultaneous DNA-based and conventional dung count based surveys for an elephant population anywhere in Asia or Africa; the more precise DNA-based method produce an estimate of 132 elephants. WCS is continuing to monitor human–elephant conflict (HEC) throughout the area and has identified villages that are HEC “hotspots”. In conjunction with local people, WCS has begun to test novel methods of keeping elephants out of farmers’ crops at these hotspots. The methods are cost effective, easy to implement, and low maintenance to help ensure a self-reliant approach in the future. Since many of the area’s mineral licks that are used by elephants will be inundated by the hydropower project’s reservoir, WCS has also started the process of creating artificial mineral licks to replace the natural licks and to help reduce HEC in villages adjacent to the reservoir by providing attractants away from the villages. Working with the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC), WCS has also developed a long-term management plan for the elephant population in the Nakai area. All of these activities involve support for and training of national counterparts and government officials so as to increase national capacity to protect and manage elephants and other wildlife.
Important Next Steps
- Continue working with villagers to design and test low-cost low-tech crop protection methods that have proven to be successful at other human–elephant conflict “hotspots” in Asia and Africa.
- Promote the adoption of those human–elephant conflict mitigation methods that prove successful in the Nakai area in other parts of Lao PDR.
- Improve law enforcement on the Plateau and NPA to help combat elephant poaching.