The five day workshop was presented in the Lao dialect and covered:
- Revision of the current Lao PDR Livestock Management Decree.
- Revision of legal obligations regarding domesticated elephants, including the movement of elephants from districts, elephant buying and selling taxes and the reporting of elephant births and deaths.
- The implementation of revised elephant registration forms.
- The establishment of yearly reports regarding elephant statistics for each district.
- District cooperation with ElefantAsia’s Elephant Care Mobile Unit and government official’s role in reporting any changes in domesticated elephant populations to ElefantAsia.
- The possible future implementation of microchipping domesticated elephants.
- Initialising a national domesticated elephant database.
- The use of modern medical products for domesticated elephants.
- The benefits elephant trekking/ecotourism can bring to local districts.
- Future potential challenges domesticated elephant ownership may face in Sayaboury.
- The benefits ElefantAsia can propose to mahouts willing to undertake domesticated elephant breeding.
Summary of Activity 2.
Whilst ElefantAsia have a successful Elephant Care Mobile Unit, it is district officials and veterinarians that have many legal obligations to fulfil and have the most regular contact with sick or injured elephants. For this reason it was considered vital that officials gain a comprehensive understanding of their legal requirements and veterinarians received detailed information regarding elephant healthcare and product usage. All workshop attendees received written documents regarding the seminars for their future reference, see example of the training documents in Appendix A – in the Lao language.
The knowledge and capacity of government officials and veterinarians in the field of domesticated elephants care and management has greatly improved since the 2008 meeting. ElefantAsia continues to have ongoing communications with all district representatives, via either telephone or during district field missions.
Activity 3: Elephant Care Mobile Unit
ElefantAsia’s Elephant Care Mobile Unit (ECMU) continues to go from strength to strength. As stated in the Mid Term report, ElefantAsia hired Ms Chanthavong as the Sayaboury Programme Officer. With ElefantAsia’s ECMU now permitted to travel to other provinces, Ms Chanthavong’s position description is now as the Mahout Liaison Officer, however her duties remain the same with more added responsibilities. Ms Chanthavong has proven to be an ideal employee, (see comments in Activities 1 and 2) with her contract with ElefantAsia extended until at least December 2009.
The initial plan was for Ms Chanthavong to undertake training at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in 2008. However this was not possible due to the centre’s entry requirements. The Thai Elephant Care Centre needs all attendees to have base line knowledge of elephant biology, physiology and healthcare. As Ms Chanthavong was newly employed by ElefantAsia, her training at the Thai Elephant Care Centre was postponed until her professional and technical skills were of a high enough standard. She has since gained the necessary skills and has undertaken two weeks training at the centre.
The initial proposal was for Ms Chanthavong to reside in the District of Paklay. This has not occurred, as she has family in the capital of Laos, Vientiane. As a result Ms Chanthavong spends half of her time on ECMU field missions in Sayaboury and other provinces. The remainder of her time is spent in ElefantAsia’s Vientiane office writing up field mission reports, elephant medical reports and translating elephant registration cards into the English language.
Table 1 depicts all ECMU visits from the IEF funding period – October 2007 – December 2008. Ms Chanthavong and Mr Phouang have been present during all ECMU field missions and were responsible for:
- Domesticated elephant health checks and disease diagnosis.
- Report writing of all field missions, medical status and medications given to elephants. This has been invaluable documentation leading to the scientific analysis of diseases and disorders observed in domesticated elephants in Laos. See Appendix B.
- Communications with mahouts and elephant owners about elephant preventative healthcare and post treatment recovery advice.
- Domesticated elephant registration.
Table 1: ElefantAsia’s Elephant Care Mobile Unit. Field missions during IEF funding period 1/10/2007 – 19/12/2008
Summary of Activity 3.
The EMVU is an invaluable asset for domesticated elephant healthcare in the Lao PDR. Ms Chanthavong and Mr Phouang have shown their commitment and dedication to the ECMU. Without their employment domesticated elephants in remote areas of the Lao PDR would suffer from sicknesses and injuries which would otherwise go untreated. See Figures 6, and 7 for examples of Ms Chanthavong and Mr Phouang working with the ECMU. The EMCU receives wide international attention, with film and radio media visiting the unit on a very regular basis to record the positive work undertaken by the ECMU team. View Appendix C for the latest article regarding the EMVU. Full media reviews can be sent to the IEF if requested.
Activity 4. Awareness raising – Elephant Information House.
Construction of ElefantAsia’s Elephant Information House was completed in July 2008. As stated in the IEF Mid Term Report only one elephant centre was constructed instead of the two originally proposed in the initial IEF application. The original Elephant Information House was moved from Vientiane to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre city of Luang Prabang in March 2008. This decision was made as Luang Prabang is a more compact and easily accessible city for visitors to walk around than Vientiane.
The Elephant Information House is staffed by a Lao national Mr Vong, and is open six days a week from 9am – 4:30pm. International volunteers also spend time assisting at the centre and/or distributing Elephant Information House posters and brochures throughout Lang Prabang. As shown in Figures 8, 9, and 10, the centre contains information signs, local handicraft products and provides information about how to chose a quality elephant camp or elephant trek in the Lao PDR. Brochure design, printing and distribution was undertaken to promote the Elephant Information House, see Appendix D for an example of the brochure design and promotional stickers. There are plans to open the centre at night, but with the famous Luang Prabang night markets occurring each evening ElefantAsia are still deliberating whether this will be a cost effective decision.
Summary of Activity 4
By visiting the Elephant Information House, national and international visitors to Luang Prabang can improve their knowledge regarding the conservation management, status and threats facing Asian elephants in the Lao PDR. The Elephant Information House promotes environmentally sustainable and fair ecotourism projects in Laos, and is a unique educational resource in a nation where environmental interpretation is still a rarity. ElefantAsia intend to expand the educational capacity of the Elephant Information House by designing and distributing more interpretative material regarding domesticated elephant requirements, and how visitors can chose quality elephant tourist camps to visit.
LAO CAPTIVE ELEPHANT CARE & MANAGEMENT PROGRAMME
PROJECTS NOT FUNDED BY THE IEF 01/10/2007 – 31/12/2008
Activity 5. Domesticated elephant registration and microchipping.
Since the 2008 Application for IEF Financial Support, ElefantAsia has made significant progress in the field of registering domesticated elephants in the Lao PDR. Activity 2 in November 2008 (the training of District level livestock officials and veterinarians), introduced a new registration scheme to government officials and veterinarians. Since then, the ECMU has registered an approximate 380 domesticated elephants using ElefantAsia’s registration card, see Figure 11 for an example of ElefantAsia registering an elephant. Figures 12 and 13 depict the important information obtained using ElefantAsia’s registration system. All registration cards are kept with ElefantAsia’s ECMU veterinarian Mr Phouang at the Sayaboury Department of Livestock and Fisheries office. Copies are taken to ElefantAsia’s head office to be translated into English with information then entered into a database system.
Table 2 is an example of the domesticated elephant registration information thatis entered into the database. With translations and registration ongoing the elephant database is not yet finalised. However ElefantAsia currently has a PhD candidate from the University of Queensland, Australia undertaking research with the organisation. Part of the candidate’s research will be to complete the elephant registration database and perform robust scientific analysis in order to assess the best methods of population and conservation management for domesticated elephants in the Lao PDR.
ElefantAsia are currently in the process of having microchips and microchip scanners imported from the United State of America. Microchipping of domesticated elephants by ECMU staff is anticipated to begin before the end of 2009. Microchipping was unable to occur earlier to due to unavoidable governmental delays in gaining a Memorandum of Understanding regarding microchipping from the Government of Laos. ElefantAsia anticipate that the microchipping of domesticated elephants will safeguard wild elephants from capture for domesticated use, will decrease the incidences of international border smuggling, as well as having many other conservation benefits for both wild and domesticated elephants.
Summary of Activity 5
The registration and microchipping of domesticated elephants are ongoing projects. Fortunately both can easily occur during routine visits and veterinary checks by ElefantAsia’s ECMU. ElefantAsia anticipate that some education regarding why elephants should be microchipped will be required for mahouts. Education about microchipping will be incorporated into mahout training sessions already held by ECMU staff Ms Chanthavong and Mr Phouang. Once the registration and database are completed, ElefantAsia will undertake further effective domesticated elephant conservation strategies.
Activity 6. Mahout training: Elephant Care Manual
The Elephant Care Manual (ECM) is completed, however is still awaiting printing and distribution. Figure 14 is a copy of the Front cover of the Lao ECM. Many delays occurred during the production of this project, including:
- Difficulties for ElefantAsia Lao staff in translating technical words from the English to Lao language, requiring the reediting of many sections.
- The Lao version is an approximate 140 A4 pages in length. Given its size there were extremely long and time consuming proof reading periods by three Lao national ‘veterinarians’.
- Due to their lack of educational schooling some Lao mahouts prefer visual diagrammatic explanations rather than text. Additional photos and drawings had to be included in the Lao ECM version. These were time consuming for artists to draw.
- There were many long periods of workplace absence due to health reasons by ElefantAsia’s government counterpart Dr.Hahn. Dr.Hahn was responsible for the ECM translation, resulting in ElefantAsia only able to proceed with the ECM while Dr Hahn was fit enough to do so.
- ElefantAsia are now waiting for a ‘Publication’ number for the ECM from the Lao Ministry of Information and Culture. Once this is received, ElefantAsia must take the publication number to the Lao National Library to receive an ISBN number. This may take several weeks.
Despite these delays ElefantAsia designed and distributed an 18 page abridged version of the ECM. Figures 15 and 16 are excerpts from the booklet, which covers basic topics such as how to clean and dress wounds, correctly make injections and the proper usage of basic medical products such as eye cleansers, balms and worming medications. This booklet has already been distributed by ElefantAsia’s ECMU to an approximate 350 mahouts.
Summary of Activity 6
The ECM has been the project that has encountered the most unexpected and unavoidable delays. However mitigation strategies were applied in the form of an abridged version of the ECM. ElefantAsia have learned from this project and understand that English Lao technical translations are not as straightforward as it initially appears. However ElefantAsia are still extremely proud of the Lao version of the ECM, as it is one of only a handful of technical books and the only elephant related veterinary text currently existing written in the Lao language.
The veterinary care of domesticated elephants in Laos
Florence Labatut, DVM
Ingrid Suter, Bach Env.Man (Hons I)
ElefantAsia, NAHC, Vientiane, Laos, www.elefantasia.org
The domesticated Asian elephant is quickly disappearing in the Lao PDR. Only approximately 480 domesticated elephants remain in this range state. Since 2007 a mobile elephant clinic has worked in the logging and tourism industries to treat domesticated elephants and advise mahouts and owners. Data shows that 347 domesticated elephant were registered within this timeframe with 422 medical disorders treated by the MVU (about 80% of all domesticated elephants in Laos). The main disorders were abscesses caused by overworking in the logging industry in the north and digestive complaints in the south. The
problem of inadequate access to veterinary drugs and the need for training of official veterinarian staff remains. Domesticated elephant reproduction rates are very low, with only 20 animals under 10 years old and the future of the species unclear.
This article provide an analysis of the sanitary situation of domesticated elephants in the Lao PDR, a country where the elephant holds a significant status both culturally and as a animal used in logging and more recently tourism.
Once a commonly occurring species, it is now estimated that only 1,200 elephant remain in compared to tens of thousands at the beginning of the 1900’s (Chadwick, 1991). About 480 are domesticated, an 40% of the remaining population (Maurer and Duffillot 2009). The domesticated population has an extremely low birth rate resulting in an ageing population with only 20 domesticated elephants under the age of 10.
The legal status is dependent on the elephant’s classification. Domesticated elephants are viewed as livestock and are managed by the national Department of Livestock and Fisheries. Wild elephant administration is undertaken by the Department of Wildlife and Forestry. The Lao PDR became signatory to the CITES convention in 2004, therefore trade and international sale of this globally endangered species is subject to regulation. The government of Laos banned the capture of elephants from the wild for domesticated purposes in the late 1970s.
Domesticated elephants in the Lao PDR are mainly employed in the logging industry in the north, and tourism in the south (Maurer and Duffillot 2009). The traditional use of elephant for transportation still occurs in small remote villages where there is employment for immature and unemployed logging elephants. Elephants tend to be only used in areas where the terrain is steep and roads rare, creating access problems. With the banning of logging in Thailand, and concern this may happen in Laos owners are intensifying workloads to maximise financial gains. This has lead to domesticated elephants being overworked with no time allowed for elephant reproduction.
Tourism is a growing industry, 1.7 million tourists visiting Laos in 2008 up from 500,000 a decade ago ( LNTA, 2009). Though new camps are established each year, elephant trekking is still in its infancy.
Employment for domesticated elephants is currently low but could be significant in the future. Several elephants are employed in both logging and tourism.
Several ethnic groups possess traditional knowledge of elephant care and breeding such as the Tai Leu tribe in northern Laos and the Kui tribe, southern Laos. However as the image of a mahout is not highly regarded for younger generations, a widespread loss of knowledge regarding traditional medicine and elephant care has occurred.
To rectify this situation, ElefantAsia, an International Non Government Organisation working for the protection and conservation of Asian elephants in the Lao PDR initiated domesticated elephant conservation projects in 2002. Surveys on mahout socio conomic needs led in 2006 to the commencement of the country’s first Mobile Veterinary Unit (MVU). This MVU is based on a similar model used at the Lampang Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand. Information on traditional elephant care and knowledge was translated from Thailand and elephant medical needs recommended from Fowler & Mikota (2006) and Evans (1910). The MVU is an all terrain vehicle, fully fitted and equipped with veterinary medication. It is based in Sayaboury Province, a north west region of the Lao PDR, which contains an
approximate 80% of all remaining domesticated elephants (Maurer and Duffillot 2009). Though most field missions occur in Sayaboury, the provinces of Champassak, Saravane, Luang Prabang, Oudomxay and Vientiane are also visited.
The MVU team consists of one Lao government official from the relevant province and officials from the specific district visited. Officials are responsible for planning each mission and informing mahouts of the MVU’s intended visit. ElefantAsia employs a multi lingual mahout liaison officer to gauge the needs and requirements of mahouts, as well as acting as a translator between officials, mahouts and any foreign veterinarians joining the mission. Free elephant care training and first aid kits are also given to mahouts. The mahout liaison officer trains mahouts in the proper administering and application of supplies, with all
instructions listed in a free booklet written in the Lao language.
Proactive annual missions are organized to different villages and districts at prearranged meetings. Reactive emergency missions are initiated when needed. All medical treatment and supplies are given for free but to install a sense of ownership mahouts must purchase their own drugs for use when the MVU is not present. Most mahouts can afford veterinary expenses. An adult domesticated elephant is worth an approxiamate €10,625 and can earn up to €1,667 for two months work in the logging industry (Labatut, 2009a). A two day course of antibiotics for an average elephant costs approximately €7, with owners recommened buying 10 rounds of antibiotics if long term therapy is required. While these can be considered expensive purchases
in a least developed nation, the MVU shows elephant owners that the price of medicine is relatively small when compared to the animal’s value.
Materials and methods:
Data was collected between December 2007 and July 2009 from field mission medical reports detailing all medical problems observed and treated. Desticated elephants are registered using a standardised registration form which contains a unique elephant registration number and documents details including the elephant’s name, sex, origin, weight, gait and any medical history and care received. Details are entered into a national domesticated elephant database.
From the period December 2007 to July 2009 medical care was administered to 347 individual domesticated elephants, 55% female, 45% male. Employment varied with 78% working in the logging industry, 10% in tourism and 12% village work or unemployed at the time of treatment. Deaths vastly outweigh births, with an approximate one birth for every 10 deaths.
The reasons given for an elephant’s death are unreliable as post mortems rarely occur and mahouts fear repercussions for the occurrence of possibly preventable deaths. Additionally, the death of a domesticated elephant was previously only notified to Department of Livestock and Fisheries when annual livestock taxes were due, making disease diagnosis impossible. However the notification of deaths is slowly being reported more frequently. From January 2009 – July 2009, 10 domesticated elephant deaths were recorded in the Sayaboury Province. Causes given for these deaths include tusk fractures, diarrhoea, overworking, old age, poaching and septicaemia.
Figure 1 indicates the most commonly occurring disorders observed in domesticated elephants treated by the MVU in the Lao PDR. Figure 2 is a breakdown of the less frequently found disorders. Percentages are calculated from a total of 315 individuals with 422 medical conditions recorded and analysed.
As shown in Figures 1 and 2, most disorders can be associated with work in the logging industry; abcesses cause by chains, superficial wounds and eye problems due to chronic irritations. Complaints are more commonly observed in districts where elephant breeding is a new activity and mahouts are young and professionally inexperienced. Domesticated elephants in logging camps are often observed in very poor conditions with chronic and long lasting medical conditions. These areas also possess higher indicences of inexperienced mahouts being killed by their elephants.
Figure 3 shows the parasitic species recorded in a study of 13 elephants in 2008. Digestives strongles are the most common parasite. A good deworming programme can decrease parasites by nearly 95% after using drugs. For the MVU programme, two drugs are used: Mebendazol for elephants without symptoms of externals parasitises and Dufamec for elephants showing external symptoms.
Ventral oedema is rare. Dufamec is successful in treating external parasitises however it is an irritant and can cause numerous abscesses at the site of injection. This can unfortunately make mahouts distrustful about modern medicine. For this reason, Mebendazol was used 84 % of the time.
Incidences of uncontrolled musth have increased due to the decline in traditional knowledge and musth management. Some elephants are still employed rather than being seperated and isolated in remote areas as recommended in Gale (1966, pp 45 55). Five emergency visits were undertaken in the last 18 months to logging camps to tranquelize uncontrolable bulls and in 2008 one bull was shot and killed by his mahout to prevent injury.
Given geographical and infrastructure constraints, surgery or minor operations are not possible. The only big pathological conditions which can be successfully treated and cured onsite are the treatement of severe abcesses. Veterinarins with the MVU can open abscesses with a scalpel but this should only occur if the mahout agrees to allow the elephant to rest and not work for several days after the procedure.The abscess wound is cleaned and flushed with an antispectic solution such as dilluted Betadine. Once clean an antibiotic spray containing oxytetracyclin is applied. Oxyblue Spray brand is ususallly used for this purpose. Negasunt, an insecticidal powder is also applied to protect the open wound from flies. Intra muscular broad spectrum antibiotics such as penicillin streptomycin 50ml is provided to animals which have an abscess greater than 10 centimetres. The freshness, consistency and location on the body of the abcsess is also a consideration for antibiotic use.
The duration of a course of antibiotics for treating an abcess is dependant on the size and age of the abscess. Vitamin therapy is sometimes administered in the instance of weightloss or marked apathy in the elephant. Recovery is predicated on the post treatment advice taken on by the mahout.
Eye discharge is common (15% of all cases treated) due to dust conditions. Eye discharge only becomes a cause for concern when the discharge changes colour, consistency or frequency. A low to moderate eye discharge is common in 90% of all domesticated elephants observed in Laos. Eye problems observed in domesticated elephants can be seperated into two catagories: Chronic diseases such as cataracts, corneal opacity, blindness, and acute diseases associated with red eyes and continual running fluid. An eye flush with physiological fluid such as Opsar is advised when running fluid is moderate. In the cases of red eyes or signs of eye infections an antibiotic eyedrop containing chloramphenical like Archifen is applied. Without proper diagnostic tools available in the Lao PDR, the use of eyedrops cntaining corticoids is not possible.
Disgestive disorders such as diarrhoea and constipation account for 10% of cases seen. These are observed more frequently in elephants living in southern Laos where the weather is drier and sources of clean drinking water fewer.
Foot care treatment in Laos is very simple and works on the “maximum restraint” technique. Mahouts are advised to put their elephant in an area of the forest where there is sufficient food and water within a very mall spatial area. Two baths per day are also advised to prevent imflammation, after which an analgesic balm such as Counterpain should be applied in the instance of a fracture or chronic limping.
Other diseases observed but only rarely include dermatitis and gential infections. Dermatitis is generally treated by improving skin health. The best remedies in the Lao PDR for his is to ensure the elephant has an increased number of baths, is dewormed and disinfected on a regular basis. Diagnosis of dermatalogical etiology is not currently possible in the Lao PDR. Gential disorders are diagnosed by changes in the colour and smell of urine. Usually problems observed are at a chronic stage. Urinary infections are treated with antiboitics such as oxytetracycline with courses reccommended for at least 15 days.
The MVU plays an essential role in supplying much needed veterinary treatment to domesticated elephants. Visiting 73% of the population, the MVU can reach a high percentage of domesticated elephants. However, there are a number of factors that limits elephant veterinary work in Laos.
Currently there are no veterinary schools in the country and the majority of the 80 Lao national veterinarians were trained decades ago. The country lacks laboratories capable of detecting major infectious diseases such as turberculosis, EEHV or pox fever, so veterinary treatment is reliant on symptomatic observations rather than etoligical diagnosis. The MVU has no labaratory equipment to perform pathology. This also limits treatment of digestive isorders so after animals are dewormed, traditional dietary changes are given such as feeding sticky rice, coconut leaves and tamarind for diarrhoea. If persisting antibiotics such as oxytetracyclin are reommneded for a period of five days. Constipation in domesticated elephants is treated by feeding Chinese watermelons or palm leaves.
The remoteness of logging camps makes access to certain areas difficult. Acquiring medical supplies in such areas is also difficult and most drugs used are imported from Thailand directly to ElefantAsia headquarters in Vientiane. As rural areas do not carry most medicines required for elephant healthcare and there is a risk of spillage if medical supplies are transported. Medicines are preferred if they are readily available at provincial or district pharmacies.
As it is the elephant owners and mahouts that care for domesticated elephants on a daily basis, and post treatment rehabiliation is reliant on the mahout, it is essential that they are provided with basic medical and product training. Local education about the animal’s conservation status and the need for reproductionis also critical if the elephant population is to recover. To improve veterinary skills, a short educational booklet written in Lao is being distributed. This gives practical information regarding elephant care, product use and dosage rates. The Elephant Care Manual (2005) from Thailand will also be translated and given free to all elephant owners, mahouts and tourist camps working with domesticated elephants.
Currently domesticated elephants in Laos are not vaccinated against preventable diseases.This is due to a fear amongst mahouts about vaccines, and a lack of understanding about the need for preventative medicine. One of the MVU’s current projects is to provide mahouts with a clear understanding of preventative medicine techniques and benefits. Once mahouts and elephant owners are educated, a vaccine program can be implemented within field missions.
Instances of treatment are similar to those found in other areas. Endo and ecto parasites were the second most common disorders and were also common in Sumatra (Stremme et al, 2007). Instances of foot diseases in domesticated elephants are minor (10% of cases) when compared to those of captive elephants in zoos (Culti et al 2001). In most cases no pain or discomfort was shown by the elephant. Nevertheless foot infections do occur mainly after working accidents, UXO explosions or damage from foreign objects. In severe cases treatment and care for these problems is often very prolonged with no artifical support such as plaster casts available in Laos. Unfortunately this means any elephant that cannot physically support itself is destined to die.
We would like to thank all the staff working with the MVU, especially Mr Sebastien Duffillot and Mr Gilles Maurer. The assistance of Mr David Bowles from the RSPCA is gratefully acknowledged his support for the MVU and his useful comments on the draft.
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Article published in the Wall Street
Journal, September 2009