National Animal Health Centre
PO BOX 3804, Vientiane, Lao PDR
Tel/Fax: 021 252 058
ElefantAsia Veterinarians checking an elephant at Khiet Ngong
The Elephant Situation in Laos
Laos, which was once called the 'land of a million elephants' is now home to less than 1,500 elephants. Of these, an approximate 500 are privately owned. Most of the 500 domesticated elephants in Laos work in the logging industry. The remaining portion work in the tourist industry, complete small tasks around villages or are unemployed.
Owners of logging elephants are often reluctant to let their elephants breed and many of the females are overworked, subsequently making them physiological infertile or simply too exhausted to breed. Many elephants employed in tourism are in a healthier condition and do less physically demanding work. This makes them better candidates for reproduction. Unfortunately, owners of elephants working in tourism are still often hesitant to breed their elephants. For many owners, there are simply no males in the area with which to breed their female elephants. Other owners are scared that their female may get hurt during breeding or have limited knowledge of exactly when and how to breed their elephants. All these factors have lead to the reproduction rate amongst domestic elephants in Laos becoming dangerously low. This, in combination with declining numbers of wild elephants means that the Asian Elephant is at high risk of becoming extinct in Laos.
The Elephants in Khiet Ngong
There are currently 13 elephants in Khiet Ngong village; 11 females and 2 males. The mahout association of Khiet Ngong estimates that around 2000-4000 tourists visit the village to ride the elephants per year. This results in significant income generation for mahouts and their families, as well as other providers of goods and services within the village like the owners of homestays and restaurants. Moreover, an Elephant Festival is organized every year during the month of February in Khiet Ngong. This event drives a many Lao people and tourists to the region.
Of the 11 females there are several which could potentially become pregnant. The 2 males are coming into sexual maturity and hence could make potential breeding partners for some of these females. In general, the elephants at Khiet Ngong are in good physical condition and this further strengthens their breeding potential.
ElefantAsia’s Veterinary Team checking elephants at Khiet Ngong
Reproduction in Khiet Ngong
A calf has not been born in this region for several years and given the tourism business is continuing to grow, it is crucial that reproduction rates increase in Khiet Ngong to ensure the sustainability of the operation. In addition, simply having a baby elephant at Khiet Ngong would provide a great attraction for tourists and is likely to result in an increased number of visitors to the village. Lastly, having so many elephants that are in good condition, are kept close to each other and participate in only light physical work is a unique situation in Laos. Hence, increasing reproduction in these elephants is an important part of a bigger vision, to save the Asian elephant in Laos.
The Khiet Ngong Reproduction Project
In order to breed elephants, owners and mahouts need to have a basic understanding of elephant biology and reproductive techniques. For example, female elephants can only be bred in oestrus, a one week stage of their 4 month reproductive cycle. Given how small this window of opportunity is, it is crucial that owners are able to recognise when their elephant is in this stage of their cycle, so arrangements for mating can be made . A healthy mature female has a regular sexual cycle, and so will come in oestrus every 4 months. Thus, it can be easy for a skilled mahout to anticipate breeding session and make arrangements with the owners of a male.
ElefantAsia is an INGO dedicated to the conservation and protection of the Asian elephant in Laos. The veterinary team has been working in Pathoumphone District for more than 2 years, providing regular care to the elephant and trainings to the owners . In July, the ElefantAsia veterinary team, with assistance from the mahout association and local livestock officials launched a small scale project aimed at creating opportunities for reproduction amongst the population of elephants at Khiet Ngong. On July 14 th 2010, a workshop was held that gave owners and mahouts the opportunity to learn more about elephant reproduction and to meet owners of elephants from surrounding areas. There was also a demonstration on a technique used in Thai tourist camps to detect oestrus amongst females : the “genital inspection test” (oestrus is the time of a female elephants cycle within which she can be bred). The following day, the owners and mahouts were able to practice this technique again, under the supervision of the veterinary team.
In order for successful reproduction to take place, oestrus detection must be carried out at least twice a week over a long period of time. The ElefantAsia veterinary team hopes that the elephant mahouts and owners can eventually conduct oestrus detection twice a week completely unassisted and that in the future, successful reproduction can occur. However, before this is possible the ElefantAsia veterinary team would like to continue to monitor and assist with oestrus detection as often as possible.
Oestrus detection at Kiet Ngong - The Reproduction Workshop
Collaboration between Kingfisher Ecolodge and ElefantAsia
Given the close proximity of the lodge to Kiet Ngong and its commitment to environmentally and socially responsible tourism, ElefantAsia invited the Kingfisher Ecolodge to assist with this project. The direction of Kingfisher Ecolodge accepted immediately to provide accommodation and food for the ElefantAsia veterinary team, as well as local transportation. This assistance greatly reduces the cost of the field work described above, which is of major importance for this kind of project organized by an NGO like ElefantAsia.