Asian Elephant in the Phou Xang Hae National Protected Area (NPA)- Increased population but challenges remain.

UN Biodiversity Conference (CBD COP 15) (Part 1) took place in a virtual format, from 11-15 October 2021. CBD COP 15 will review the achievement and delivery of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. It is also anticipated that the final decision on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will be taken, together with decisions on related topics including capacity building and resource mobilization.

October 21, 2021

Image by: SafeEcosystems Project Lao PDR

Lao PDR is one of the most biodiversity rich countries in the region with an abundance of biodiversity that supports diverse production systems for food, herbal medicine and tourism. The ecosystem provides essential services important to reducing poverty, securing livelihoods and economic development.

Asian elephants are a symbol of Lao PDR- a country once called “Lane Xang,” the Land of Million Elephants, by the virtue of their numbers. Nevertheless, these magnificent creatures have now been listed as one of the most endangered species in the country due to population decrease over the years. It is a matter of national pride to protect the elephants.

In the mid of 2021, an elephant population survey in the Phou Xang Hae National Protected Area was conducted by the Wildlife and Aquatic Management Division under Department of Forestry, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry with support from United National Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environmental Facility (GEF).

The purpose of the survey was not only to determine the number of elephants in the NPA, but also to find out the type of threats, as well as to examine the level of elephant-human conflicts with the surrounding communities.

Elephants are one of the 5 flagship species which have been supported as part of the Sustainable Forest and Land Management in Dry Dipterocarp Forest Ecosystem in the south of Lao PDR project. The project has been implemented over the last five years.

The survey found out that the elephants mainly live in two groups. One of the herds had their habitat along Huay Lom stream, which covered Phin, Phalanxay, Virabouly and Xe Pon district while the other herd had their habitat around the border of the National Protected Area, which connected to concession areas of Xepon Mining and Virabouly district.

It has been estimated the Asian elephants’ population between 35-40 as compared to 32 individuals in 2015, an indication of 12% increase in the population. Despite the positive increase, there are still numerous significant threats to the elephant habitats in the areas.

According to the survey results, Elephant-human conflict constituted the biggest threat to elephant conservation, accounting for 72% of the challenges affecting their conservation; destruction of property and crops as well as human death and injury resulted in retaliatory killing of elephants in few cases. Other challenges identified included illegal logging, clearing forest habitat for agriculture, mining, and road construction in the protected area.

The study also revealed that since 2007, 11 elephants had been killed; 10 of them were killed for the trading of ivory, tusk, skin and one killed as a result of elephant-human conflict. Expansion of agricultural areas close to the habitats of elephants, was cited as the main cause of human-conflicts in 23 surrounding villages located in Phin, Phalanxay, Virabouly and Xepon districts. 

Phou Xang He NPA was established in 1993, coverint an area of 109,900ha, in five Districts in Savannakhet province, namely Atsaphone, Phalanxay, Vilabouly, Phin and Xepon.  The activities supported by the project included ranger patrol, the development and enforcement of relevant regulations. Furthermore, zoning and income generating activities such as ecotourism were introduced.  The project also supported villagers on alternative approaches to sustainable livelihoods with the objective of reducing the reliance on forestry as their main source of livelihoods.

Learning from the survey findings and experience gained from project implementation, a number of interventions are required to resolve the identified challenges. The proposed interventions included identification and restoration of the elephants’ habitats, such as creating artificial swamp, and increased public awareness on elephants’ behavior and importance of conservation.   

It is also important to identify the agricultural areas and include soil fertility to reduce the pressure on wildlife habitat.  Community engagement will be critical.  The Asian Elephants are not only on List I of the Wildlife and Aquatic Law, but also on the Endangered Species Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As endangered species, it is with high value and importance for socio-economic development of the nation, as well as scientific research (National Assembly, 2007).

Elephant and biodiversity conservation in general plays a role not only in economic development but also sustainable management of natural resources, hence the need for cooperation to eliminate the challenges faced in their conservation.

From what used to be Millions of Elephants in the past, the number is brought down to just 300-400 individuals (excluded captive) at present in the entire country (Manivong, 2021). This is an urgent call for the protection of elephants and their habitats. The co-existence between wildlife and human beings are essentially needed for the generations to come.


Written by: Written by:

Mr. Thome Xaisongkham, Programme Analyst, 

Natural Resources Management, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction Unit, UNDP Lao PDR.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not the United Nations Development Programme.