Laos’ elephant population has decreased fifty percent in thirty years. A newly published study by the French Beauval Nature Association for Conservation and Research says the elephant population is dependent on the socio-economic practices of Laos. If current trends continue, there will be no elephants in Laos by the end of the century.
Currently, most elephants in Laos are used for labor in the timber industry and the tourist industry. Since elephants have a long gestation period and wean their young for two years, owners have not planned well for reproduction, citing short term economic concerns of lost work time. Therefore, elephant owners either do not devote time to reproduction or they send a mother back to work too soon, jeapordizing both her and the baby’s health.
This has greatly contributed to loss of population. In addition, since most of Laos’ elephants are now in captivity, the gene pool is getting smaller. Certain males and females are chosen for breeding, disrupting natural selection.
The study shows the long term economic benefits of allowing elephants extended maternity leave from work. It also encourages breeders to allow wild elephants to mate with captive ones, thus expanding the gene pool.
A suggestion by some researchers is for the government or corporations to compensate owners for elephant maternity leave. This would allow the owners to treat elephants better without fearing loss of vital income for their family. Along with conservation (halting the destruction of habitat), smart breeding practices and elephant maternity leave will help stabilize (or even increase) the elephant population in Laos.