ELEPHANTS IN LAOS
THE FORMER KINGDOM OF LAN XANG “LAND OF A MILLION ELEPHANTS”
By LARA IRWIN
Elephants are unique and multitalented animals. They are the largest living land animal and historically roam in Asia and Africa. The Asian elephant can weigh up to 11,000 pounds and stands anywhere from 7-12 feet tall. To sustain such a large creature, they need to eat over 70,000 calories of food per day and drink nearly 50 gallons of water. Elephants have the distinctive feature of their trunk. They use their trunks for eating, moving, playing, and transferring water. The trunk is made up of muscle and can lift an item twice its size, but also has the dexterity to pick up smaller items such as twigs or berries.
Elephants are highly emotionally developed animals. They have been known to create strong bonds with humans by showing happiness, empathy, and sadness. Their trunks can be used to show affection to each other by wrapping around one another like a hug.
Because elephants are so big, their movements are restricted. They can walk, trot, run, and even swim, but they can’t jump.
One well known feature about elephants is their phenomenal memory. The phase “An elephant never forgets.” is based on their ability to recognize paths and landmarks (such as water sources) and use that to navigate migration patterns. They are one of few animals to show high enough intellect to recognize themselves in a mirror, alongside apes and dolphins.
Sadly, the population of this beautiful and gentle giant is decreasing rapidly. The Asian elephant’s population used to stretch from Syria to Northern China but now only exists in small, isolated groups between India and Indonesia.
There is now about 800 elephants throughout Laos and around 50% are in captivity. They can live up to 50 years and generally live shorter lives in zoos. The Asian elephant is listed as an endangered animal. The cause is mainly due to hunting (poaching for their tusks) and the depletion of their natural resources and habitats.
Elephants’ tusks are very similar to human teeth. They are made out of dentin and each elephant has a set of “baby tusks” that eventually fall out and their “adult tusks” grow in.
To survive, the elephants will be depending on humans to conserve their land and protect the species from poachers, but we depend on them to. Humans need elephants due to the vital role they have in forest structure andthe impact they have on their ecosystem. They are a prominent part of the food web for the plants an animals they coexist with. There are organizations in Laos and globally who work towards the recovery of the elephant population. The World Wildlife Foundation is one that works to conserve nature and protect wildlife.
Elephants are widely celebrated in Asia and Africa, and you will see the symbol throughout shops and homes all over. Laos culture and history has strong ties to the Asian Elephant. Laos used to be referred to as Lan Xang (1354 – 1707) which translates to Land of a Million Elephants. It was thought that there were roughly 3000 elephants who roamed the land, making it one of the early defining traits of the country.
On February 20th, 2022, Laos celebrated the annual Elephant Festival in Xayaboury province. With some limitations due to covid, the festival persevered and continued the tradition. The celebration consists of a street fair where attendees can buy local crafts and foods. There are domestic elephants brought in for the festival. You can attend shows for viewing the animal as well as feeding or riding them. Celebrating the Elephant is a tradition that holds great importance. Many have said the symbol of an elephant represents intelligence, strength, and wisdom. We as humans, must protect this animal so we can show our appreciation and celebrate for years to come.