A Chinese state-owned enterprise said on Saturday that it will build a U.S. $40 million elephant conservation and breeding center in northwestern Laos’ Sayaboury province and develop it into a for-profit tourist attraction by the end of the year.
At a celebration of the first World Elephant Day in the province on Aug. 12, the Sino-Lao Tourism Investment and Development Company Ltd., announced its plans to build the center in Sayaboury city for a species that has become increasingly scarce in the Southeast Asian country.
Company manager Mu Yian Yu told attendees through an interpreter that the company will invest $40 million in building the conservation center during the upcoming dry weather season which begins after October.
“The Sino-Lao Tourism Investment and Development Company will develop the center this year,” he said, adding that provincial officials have granted the firm a 50-year land concession for the center.
“In two years we will have boats, hot air balloons, and elephant shows,” he said.
A Sayaboury official, who requested anonymity, said the Chinese firm is building the elephant center as a tourist attraction.
“They are developing a tourist attraction in Sayaboury about two kilometers (1.2 miles) from here,” he said.
“It will be a big business,” he said. “The Chinese investor has already done some publicity. It’s all business nowadays. They are doing it for profit. Now they are spending U.S. $900 to feed a single elephant each month.”
The company rented about 50 elephants from Sayaboury residents for an event that attracted about 500 people to mark World Elephant Day, which was established on Aug. 12, 2012, to call attention to the plight of Asian and African elephants at risk because of illegal poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict, and mistreatment in captivity.
“Every year we will mark this day and organize some activities to call on people to protect elephants and their habitat,” Mu Yian Yu said at the ceremony.
A Sayaboury resident who attended the event said he believes the Chinese are building the center in order to protect elephants in Laos and not to export them back home.
“The Chinese are doing business in our country,” said the Sayaboury resident who declined to be named. “Their purpose is to convince people to protect the elephants. These are all Lao elephants. I believe they will not sell these animals to China. They have a conservation center that can train them.”
Officials of Sayaboury province and the Chinese company estimate that there are about 850 elephants in Laos, half of which are domesticated elephants. In Sayaboury province alone, there are 250 domesticated elephants and 150 wild ones.
Not to everyone’s liking
Not everyone is a fan of wildlife conservations centers like the one the Chinese will build in Laos.
Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, told RFA’s Lao Service that wildlife conservation efforts need to be backed by law enforcement to be effective at increasing animal populations.
“I never agree with the breeding programs for domestic elephants,” he said. “For instance, in Thailand … the population of elephants always increases because of real conservation [efforts] and enforcement of the law.”
Though Laos does have such a law, poachers continue to kill elephants for their tusks and hides, which they sell illegally, mainly to China.
“We have the law, but we do not implement it,” he said “It is not because of the law but the problem is that it is not enforced.”
“Lao is now considered a global market for wildlife,” he said, adding that the trafficking of wildlife has been increasing in the country.
Wiek said if there is no further deforestation and elephant hunting in Southeast Asia, future elephant populations might increase because of areas along the Thailand-Myanmar border where elephants can roam freely and breed naturally.
“To talk about elephant conservation, we must make laws to protect against deforestation and the illegal ivory trade,” he said.
Furthermore, Wiek questioned the motives behind centers that breed elephants in captivity.
“In fact someone may think that breeding elephants to have many calves is called conservation. That does not increase the number of elephants in the forest, but rather it is only breeding for business.”
Laos became a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty protecting endangered plants and animals, in May 2004. The convention banned the ivory trade in 1989.
Though deforestation, particularly from illegal logging, is the main reason for the declining elephant population in Laos, pachyderms are also hunted and killed by poachers who smuggle their ivory tusks and hides outside the country.
Lao officials are known for the lax implementation and enforcement of laws prohibiting illegal logging and the smuggling of illegal wildlife, and border officials can easily be bribed to look the other way, experts say.