Laos was once known as the land of a million elephants, but today the country can't afford to part with even eight of these majestic creatures.
Villagers and environmental groups are protesting the Lao government's decision to loan eight elephants to Japanese zoos at a time when these mammals have become so precious in the land-locked country.
The elephants will be shipped under a three-year agreement between the Japanese and Lao governments, reports have said.
They are to be taken from the forests in northern Xayaburi province to several zoos, including a safari park just outside the Fukushima evacuation zone following the meltdown of the nuclear reactors there during last year's earthquake and tsunami.
A representative from the environmental group WWF in Laos said that villagers who revered and took care of the elephants are unhappy with the move, likening it to giving away "national treasures."
"We object to this," the representative told RFA's Lao service.
According to WWF, the Lao government has exported elephants in the past to other countries, including China.
Officials at the Lao Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry refused to comment on the issue.
Japan has also been criticized for taking the elephants away from Laos.
"Why the government of Japan seeks eight elephants from one of the most poverty-stricken, secretive nations in Southeast Asia is a question worth asking," wrote Ingrid Suter of the University of Queensland in The Conversation, a Melbourne, Australia-based publication for the university and research sector.
"Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, all signatories of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fauna), have thousands more elephants than Laos; surely it makes sense to source zoo elephants from their shores," she said.
Suter, who volunteers for international nongovernmental organization ElefantAsia, said that from both conservation and economic perspectives, Laos simply cannot afford to lose eight more young elephants, even though Japan is a top aid provider to the Southeast Asian nation.
"Once officially named 'the land of a million elephants,' today Laos is struggling to maintain a population of a mere 900. The Vietnam War, forest degradation and poaching have seen Asian elephant populations crash almost to the point of no return."
It is estimated there are between 500 and 1,000 elephants in Laos, the WWF said. "The main threats facing Asian elephants are habitat loss and the resulting conflict with humans, and poaching," it said in a recent report.
Illicit ivory trade
A study published in July said that Laos has emerged as a hub for the international illicit elephant ivory trade, with large shipments of products made from the tusks of the majestic creatures heading to China.
Based on a survey by wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic, 2,493 pieces of ivory, including jewelry and raw tusks, were found openly on sale in 24 retail outlets mostly in the capital Vientiane, compared to just over 100 ivory items observed in nine shops in 2002, the network said in a report.
Information from vendors in the August 2011 survey indicated that the ivory originated from local elephants in Laos while prices were advertised in U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan rather than in the Laotian kip, clearly suggesting an international clientele, a fact confirmed by most vendors, according to the report.
Data from recent seizures also suggest that Laos may be playing a transit-country role for African ivory.
Reported by RFA's Lao service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.