VIENTIANE, LAOS — Connie Speight has swayed on elephant back through unforgiving jungle and has adopted nine of the high-maintenance beasts. At 83, the retired American teacher is back in this Southeast Asian country to help save what remains of the once-mighty herds.
Once so famous for its elephants that it was called Prathet Lane Xane, or Land of a Million Elephants, Laos is thought to have only 700 of them left in the wild.
"Lots of people in Asia tell you how elephants are their proud national heritage," says Speight, director of the Elephants Umbrella Fund rescue group. "But I tell them, 'It was your heritage, and what are you doing to bring it back?' Often precious little."
Elephants in Laos are better off than in many other nations that are home to the animals. The country has extensive forest cover and a sparse population. But here, as elsewhere, it's a race against time. Poachers, dam builders, loggers and farmers are taking a deadly toll on the endangered species.
"The situation will become very dramatic in about 10 years if nothing changes," says Sebastien Duffillot, co-founder of France-based ElefantAsia. At their current rate of decline, Laos' wild elephants could be extinct within 50 years, he warns.
Domesticated elephants number about 570, a 20% drop over the last decade. In all, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimates, as few as 25,000 wild and 15,000 captive Asian elephants may be left. A century ago, Thailand alone harbored some 100,000.
Speight attended a recent elephant festival organized by Duffillot's conservation group "to pay tribute to the emblematic animal of Laos."
One of several elephant conservation efforts underway, the three-day fair featured some 60 elephants. They demonstrated skills in logging, took part in Buddhist ceremonies and walked in stirring processions.
In their heyday, elephants served as the country's trucks, taxis and battle tanks. Laos is communist-ruled today, but it used to be a kingdom that kept its independence by sending elephants as tribute to neighboring China and Vietnam.
Organizers said they hoped the annual festival, first held in 2007, might persuade elephant keepers to use their beasts in the fast-growing tourism business rather than logging.
For many youngsters in the dusty Mekong River town of Paklay, the morning offering of fruit and snacks to the pachyderms was the first time they had touched an elephant's trunk.
Speight hopes that others in Laos will get the chance as Mae Dok, one of nine jumbos she supports in Southeast Asia, travels the countryside as an "ambassador elephant" delivering books to schoolchildren.
A female with a sunny disposition whose name translates as "Mrs. Flower," Mae Dok was rescued from a lifetime of logging labor and may be pregnant -- which sends Speight into rapture, given the dramatically declining numbers of breeding-age females. ElefantAsia estimates there will be only 46 domesticated breeding cows under age 20 in 15 years .
Speight, who taught natural history in Santa Barbara, has bought land for an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand and radio collars to monitor calves released into the wild in Sri Lanka.
"If Laos could become a model for what a very poor country can do, that would wave a flag in surrounding countries, some of which are useless," she says.
WWF and the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society are active in Laos, which has welcomed numerous foreign aid groups since opening up its economy in the late 1980s.
WCS co-director Arlyne Johnson says WCS is working with the government on plans to avoid human-elephant conflict, which occurs when dams, mines and other industrial development cut into the elephants' countryside and they roam into populated areas.