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Historically, Laos was known as the land of a "Million Elephants" or literally "Lan Xang" in the Lao language. Obviously, that was a bit of an exaggeration for a country that small, much like the "Emerald Buddha" that the Thais plundered in Laos. The conquering Thais evidenced their "compassionate" Buddhist faith by building the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok to enshrine the stolen image which was in fact, jadeite, and not carved from a giant emerald.

Interestingly, the "Emerald Buddha" was much like the holy grail to the Thai people and the people of Lan Xang. For 214 years, it resided in the temple below in what is now Vientiane, Laos.

In 1779, the Thai General, Chao Phraya Chakri, captured Vientiane and took the Emerald Buddha to Siam. He founded the Thai Chakri Dynasty which exists to this day. In fact, the most recent coronation of Rama X occurred on May 4, 2019. Two hundred thirty-five years prior to Rama X's coronation, Rama I constructed the Temple of the Emerald Buddha where the image has remained since. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha remains a sacred temple which is a favorite tourist stop for most visitors to Bangkok. As you can imagine, the battle for the control of Vientiane was waged using elephants. Apparently the "million elephants" of Laos were not sufficient to subdue the invading army of Rama I.

NPR News recently published an article by Ashley Westerman entitled A Million Elephants No More: Conservationists In Laos Rush To Save An Icon. The dwindling elephant population could result in the ultimate extinction of the iconic historical symbol of Laos. The Lao government and conservation groups estimate that there are only about 800 elephants left in the country-400 in the diminishing wild and 400 in captivity. "Both populations are not sustainable and are actually declining," according to Anabel Lopez Perez, a biologist from Spain with the Elephant Conservation Center.  

Deforestation prompted by neighboring China timber needs continues to diminish the natural habitat of wild elephants leading to human/elephant conflicts. Poaching of both wild and domesticated elephants is driven by the demand from China for elephant animal parts used in traditional medicine. Sadly, the only elephant conservation facility in Laos is the Elephant Conservation Center in Xayaboury, some 100 kilometers southwest of Luang Prabang.

The center has 29 elephants, most of which retired from years of work in Laos logging operations. The sunken faces of the elephants reflect their advanced years. The facility is managed by Antony Philippe from France. It speaks to the international nature of the center to have a French manager, a Spanish biologist and an American biologist as well. On the author's last visit to Luang Prabang, a mutual friend passed on a personal invitation from Antony to visit the center but there was not enough time to do so.

The Conservation Center is funded by visitors but has a good supportive relationship with the local government of Xayaboury. The authorities set aside land as needed for the elephant population while the center provides elephants for local festivals. Clearly, it is an ideal setting for retired logging elephants.

The Lao national government also has a reputation of being supportive of elephant conservation efforts throughout the country. Within the last thirty years, catching wild elephants and trading wildlife have been banned. Laws severely restrict the logging industry in its use of elephants. Nonetheless, Vientiane is a major smuggling center for illegal ivory.

Lao Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, stopped the sale of thirteen elephants to a safari park in Dubai for them ultimately to go to the center. However, despite these efforts, Chrisantha Pinto, an American biologist at the center, states, "If current trajectories continue there will be no elephants left in Laos by the year 2030."

Current trajectories mean the continued rate of deforestation, habitat fragmentation, human/elephant conflict and poaching. Moreover, the recent NPR News article on the new Chinese railway through northern Laos will further threaten the elephant population.  

At this juncture, NPR News is deserving of a tip of the hat as well as the author, Ashley Westerman - shown below, of their two recent articles on Laos.  

Ashley, thank you for your coverage of a small distant country that is very dear to those of us at The Elephant Story. Fifty years of involvement there has created a strong emotional bond with the place, the people and their few remaining elephants. We can tell from your writing you share our sentiments and look forward to meeting you one of these days.

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