You can’t furlough an elephant: How Laos’ Elephant Conservation Center is surviving the COVID crisis

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What would you do if rev­en­ues dried up but you had dozens of ele­phants to look after? The Ele­phant Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter (ECC) in Say­a­boury, Laos faced this situ­ation as COVID-19 lock­downs and travel bans bit in March 2020. ECC found­ing part­ner Sébas­tien Duffil­lot shares what they did.

The tour­ism industry has been par­tic­u­larly badly hit by the unpre­ced­en­ted COVID-19 pan­dem­ic since March 2020. For many oper­at­ors it has meant bank­ruptcy or at least freez­ing oper­a­tions and fur­lough­ing staff.

The situ­ation has high­lighted the fact that tour­ism — a non-essen­tial activ­ity — is an industry that is hit both first and hard­est in a glob­al crisis. It has exposed the travel & tour­ism industry’s fra­gil­ity, rely­ing as it does on the free­dom of people to travel.

A tour­ism sec­tor with which I am very famil­i­ar, and which is pop­u­lar among many vis­it­ors to South­east Asia, is ele­phant tourism.

In this post I will describe the steps we at the Ele­phant Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter of Laos (ECC) have taken since the start of the pandemic.

Our exper­i­ence has been very dif­fer­ent to those of most tour­ism busi­nesses, includ­ing hotels, resorts, and res­taur­ants. The main point of dif­fer­ence is that we are cur­rently in charge of 30 elephants.

Live anim­als under human care can­not be fur­loughed nor made redund­ant. And neither can their caretakers.

"Live animals under human care cannot be furloughed nor made redundant. Neither can their caretakers." Image supplied by the Elephant Conservation Center, Laos.
“Live anim­als under human care can­not be fur­loughed nor made redund­ant. Neither can their care­takers.” Image sup­plied by the Ele­phant Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter in Say­a­boury, Laos.

This means that for an organ­isa­tion like ours that used to employ 70 staff before the pan­dem­ic, we could sus­pend jobs for only 30 of them. After about a year without vis­it­ors, we had the dif­fi­cult job of ask­ing all per­son­nel asso­ci­ated with the hos­pit­al­ity part of our busi­ness — tour guides, drivers, house­keep­ers — to leave the company.

Our team of 24 mahouts, how­ever, are essen­tial to the ele­phants. They can­not be let go. We also have to retain veter­in­ary staff to ensure that our herd receives the best care. They all need food and accom­mod­a­tion, mean­ing that we have to employ kit­chen, main­ten­ance, and tech­nic­al staff to keep the place running.

All told it is with a team of about 40 people and high oper­a­tion­al costs that the ECC has been sail­ing the angry seas of the COVID era until now.

What makes us special?

Inter­na­tion­al travel and tour­ism may take off again, but it looks like it will be a while before we can get back to pre-COV­ID levels. It will be a long time, in my opin­ion, before we can fully recov­er and gen­er­ate the kind of income we were used to.

So, in order to avoid bank­ruptcy, we are ana­lys­ing what makes us spe­cial and what are our strengths and weaknesses.

We now ask ourselves reg­u­larly: “How can we sur­vive this crisis?” and “What can make us resi­li­ent to this and future dra­mat­ic changes in our busi­ness environment?”

We real­ise that besides being a place open to tour­ists — who pre-COV­ID con­trib­uted a whop­ping 85% of our turnover — we also have a long his­tory as a con­ser­va­tion and edu­ca­tion­al organisation.

We have star­ted look­ing at our facil­ity as the per­fect place for research­ers, stu­dents, and sci­ent­ists who are keen to study ele­phants and their ecosystem.

What oth­er place can offer a group of 30 Asi­an ele­phants — calves, juven­iles, cows, and bulls — to study in their nat­ur­al habitat?

Our fully equipped endo­crino­logy lab and ele­phant hos­pit­al, 4G inter­net access, vehicles, rooms, and res­taur­ant can eas­ily accom­mod­ate those inter­ested in fieldwork.

And we can lever­age our ongo­ing part­ner­ships with the Smith­so­ni­an Insti­tu­tion; the French Nation­al Research Insti­tute for Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment (IRD); the Depart­ment of Bot­any, Fac­ulty of Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and the Fac­ulties of Phar­macy and Veter­in­ary Medi­cine, Nation­al Uni­ver­sity of Laos; the Fac­ulty of Veter­in­ary Medi­cine, Chi­ang Mai Uni­ver­sity, Thai­l­and; Inter­na­tion­al Ele­phant Pro­ject; Ele­phant Care Inter­na­tion­al; Asi­an Ele­phant Sup­port; and the Asi­an Cap­tive Ele­phants Standards.

We have turned to these part­ners to express our need and want to diver­si­fy our activ­ity; to cater to the spe­cif­ic needs of their sci­ent­ists, research­ers, fac­ulty, and stu­dents and wel­come them to our premises.

We know that it will take time to suc­cess­fully trans­ition to a sus­tain­able mod­el that does not rely so heav­ily on tourism.

How­ever, adopt­ing this strategy has already brought pos­it­ive results:

  1. Our team has developed a com­mon vis­ion and now share com­mon goals in a time of dis­tress. This has brought new hope and energy to what we do.
  2. Choos­ing this dir­ec­tion has­n’t meant com­pletely drop­ping our pre­vi­ous core busi­ness of wel­com­ing lay people as tour­ists. We look for­ward to offer­ing them an even deep­er exper­i­ence when they return.
  3. The strategy takes the ECC fur­ther along in its found­ing mis­sion to become a con­ser­va­tion centre for Asi­an ele­phants. Work­ing along­side sci­ent­ists and con­ser­va­tion­ists as a core activ­ity (rather than an occa­sion­al one) will doubt­less raise our sci­entif­ic stand­ards and credibility.

Edu­ca­tion has been integ­ral to our work since founding.

Through our many edu­ca­tion­al activ­it­ies and pub­lic­a­tions, includ­ing mobile lib­rar­ies, our Kids in Con­ser­va­tion ini­ti­at­ive, and “The ele­phant: an Asi­an Sym­bol” exhib­i­tion, we have built capa­city with­in our team to teach in Laos and abroad.

That’s why we are invest­ing more this area.

For example we have pro­duced a tour­ing exhib­i­tion in France that gen­er­ates an income for the ECC. We are also devel­op­ing an edu­ca­tion­al kit for the French pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Closer to home, we are devolop­ing an ele­phant museum in the World Her­it­age town of Luang Prabang.

All of these pro­jects can and do bring in rev­en­ue for our con­ser­va­tion work.

Doubt and depression is not an option

To con­clude, once we finally under­stood that a return to pre-pan­dem­ic con­di­tions was unlikely in the near future, redesign­ing the ECC mod­el became a press­ing necessity.

It is abso­lutely vital that we diver­si­fy our activ­it­ies based on our strengths and ongo­ing part­ner­ships. To ensure a bright future for all our stake­hold­ers, we need to estab­lish a firm base and build on it through our exper­i­ence and expertise.

To rethink one’s activ­ity and busi­ness mod­el is not an easy task. But to give up to doubt and depres­sion is not an option when one is in charge of endangered animals.

Sci­ence and edu­ca­tion have become the centre of our vis­ion for the future. We know that tour­ism, sup­ple­men­ted with crisis phil­an­thropy, is unsus­tain­able in the long run.

For us, diver­si­fic­a­tion is the way we feel we should go. And so far it has brought with it a shin­ing light of hope for our pachy­derms, people, and partners.

Fea­tured image (top of post): One can­’t simply fur­lough a bull ele­phant and his mahout. Image sup­plied by the Ele­phant Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter in Say­a­boury, Laos.

About the author

Sébas­tien Duffil­lot (photo by Kiko Peltier)

Sébas­tien Duffil­lot is a found­ing part­ner of the Ele­phant Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter in Say­a­boury, Laos as well as co-founder of the NGO Ele­fantAs­ia. An act­ive mem­ber of the IUCN Asi­an Ele­phant Spe­cial­ist Group (IUCN SSP AsESG) and the Asi­an Cap­tive Ele­phant Work­ing Group (ACEWG), Mr Duffil­lot also serves as pres­id­ent of the NGO Des Ele­phants et Des Hommes. Sébas­tien is author of The Ele­phant Cara­van (Act­es Sud, 2003) and Walk­ing with Giants (Act­es Sud, 2016).

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