The ELEPOP project aims to study and monitor Asian elephant populations in the Nakai Plateau, Lao PDR. In recent months, several field missions have been conducted to identify the distribution and number of pachyderms currently present in the Nakaï-Nam Theun National Park via their dung.

One of the largest elephant populations of Laos (Elephas maximus) is in Nakai Nam Theun National Park and surrounding areas, Khammouan Province. In 2008, a hydroelectric dam led to the flooding of part of the elephant population’s habitat. Prior to the impoundment, the population was estimated at 132 elephants, likely the largest and genetically diverse in Laos at the time. But it was suggested that it would be affected and disperse, due to habitat loss. Since the impoundment, elephants have moved closer to villages and human-elephant conflicts have increased across a wide region. The size of the elephant population has not been systematically monitored. Dr. Camille Coudrat (Director of Association Anoulak), in collaboration with Dr. Sabrina Locatelli (MIVEGEC-IRD) and Dr. Gilles Maurer (CEFE-CNRS-Montpellier) is leading the ELEPOP project, a study of the current status, genetic diversity, movement pattern of this population with implications for the national and global conservation of the species.

The objectives of the ELEPOP project are:                                                                    

  • Provide an estimation of the current elephant population size using a non-invasive genetic sampling survey of the population of Asian Elephants on the Nakaï Plateau and surrounding areas
  • Determine the genetic diversity, social structure and population dynamics of Asian Elephant on the Nakai Plateau and surrounding areas

The ELEPOP team is searching for elephant dung in Nakaï-Nam Theun National Park

© Chansamai Phanouvong & Meesouk Phetsompou

To study the elephants, we used capture-recapture population study methods based on DNA extracted from feces. For maximum capture probability, investigators must look for elephant dung in places where it is likely to be found, not in randomly selected plots. Therefore, study sites are places known to be visited by elephants, where fresh and reasonably fresh elephant dung has been found. These included salt licks, waterholes, and areas of human-elephant conflicts. Each location has been surveyed five times for up to 14 days with approximately 2 weeks’ interval between each survey session.

GPS tracklogs and locations of elephant dung samples collected, during the Survey Replicate #1 from 3rd to 17th November 2022

© ELEPOP project

In addition to field surveys, interviews of village chiefs and representatives covering the villages around the Nakai Nam Theun National Park were conducted. The information gathered were later used to refine the survey design and survey zones.

The Field Work Team was composed by Dr. Camille COUDRAT and Ms. Keomany LEUANGTHI (Association Anoulak), Mr. Chanthalaphone NANTHAVONG (Nakai Nam Theun National Park) and Mr. Oumchai (Nakai District Office of Agriculture and Forestry).

Fecal samples were stored in RNAlater and sent to Ventiane capital for DNA extraction. Dr. Camille Coudrat, Ms Keomany Leuangthi and Ms Mai Phuong Trinh (a Vietnamese McS Student at Lao TPHI) learned the DNA extractions methods under the supervision of Dr. Sabrina Locatelli in the lab premises of the University of Health Sciences in Vientiane.

In collaboration with Dr. Gilles Maurer, from the Association Beauval Nature and The Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology - CEFE, a host genotyping study focusing on Single‐nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) will start soon. SNPs are particularly cost‐effective and informative markers that can be used for a range of practical applications, including population census.