Elephants become beast of burden employed by forest industry (credit: G. Maurer)

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The relationship between human and Asian elephant has lasted for millennia but in modern times it has been quickly changing.

Using the case of Laos, we investigate the consequences recent socio-economic changes have had on a system where human and nature are tightly interlinked. We study specifically the interactions between elephants’ owners, domestic elephants and their wild counterparts that once shared the same habitat.

We identify external drivers that impact elephant handling practices, such as the commodification of nature and land segregation between wild and village elephants. In the 1990s, elephants were traditionally used in a subsistence economy for occasional work, like carrying rice bags or firewood. Most of the year their owners released them into common forestland where they mated freely.

Since the 2000s, Laos opened up to the market economy, initiated land reforms and conservation policies. Elephants become beasts of burden. The forest industry employed elephants full-time. More recently the tourism industry has likewise begun to use elephants. Elephants are growingly considered as an investment asset. Owners ask for the payment of studfees in case of rare mating. Increase in agricultural crops and privatization of land prevent their release in common forests and national parks.

The handling system switches from a pastoralism-like system with the aim to increase animal stock to a ranching-like economy based on the increase of monetary capital. Permanent captivity is increasingly replacing the traditional mode of relation based on seasonal freedom, as elephants are tethered all year long and fed with agricultural fodder. The fate of village elephants becomes highly contingent on prices and market trends.

Economic liberalisation, land and conservation policies disrupt the system and impede its sustainability. Cultural and social changes also threaten the relation between humans and elephants. Owners’ sons do not want to pertain the harsh living conditions of their fathers and prefer office work on a computer.

We wonder if this long-lasting relation could survive modern times. The case of Lao elephants provides a daunting illustration of the fading relation between human and nature that needs to find ways to adapt to new globalized challenges.