Conclusion of Mekong Water Dialogues project marked with release of Mahout documentary

Vientiane, Lao PDR, 27 April 2015 – IUCN Lao PDR today marked the conclusion of the Mekong Water Dialogues project with the release of a documentary film, “Mahouts of Southern Lao: On the Red List”, on IUCN’s Mekong Water Dialogues project website ( and IUCN Lao PDR’s Youtube page. The objective of the film is to promote awareness about the long-standing traditions, such as the domestication and riding of elephants, of Beung Kiat Ngong wetland in Champasak province.

Procession of elephants and mahouts for elephant baci, Beung Kiat Ngong Ramsar site, Champasak

The tradition of domesticated elephant ownership and elephant riding has existed for centuries in Champasak province. However, over the years, the elephant population has dwindled. Ten years ago, there were over 90 domesticated elephants in Ban Kiat Ngong but this number has now dropped to 14, which is approximately half the population of domesticated elephants in Champasak province. Traditionally, calves were taken from the wild and domesticated, but in the late 1980s, in compliance with international conventions, this practice was banned. The population of already domesticated elephants at the time did not multiply because, customarily, elephants were only domesticated and not bred.

The “Mahouts of Southern Lao: On the Red List” documentary film was achieved through the recording of an elephant baci ceremony, and interviews conducted with village elders and mahouts (keepers and drivers of elephants). In Ban Kiat Ngong and Lao PDR, mahout culture is still in the living memory of many people, but it is unclear how much longer this will be the case. Among tourists who travel to Ban Beung Kiat Ngong to ride the elephants, there is little awareness of the rich heritage surrounding mahout culture. As it stands, tourists visit the village to ride the elephants and leave shortly after.

The documentary film is a culmination of the second phase of the Mekong Water Dialogues project which ended in 2014. Facilitated by IUCN in collaboration with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the project aims to improve governance on wetlands of international importance. As part of the project, a management plan for the Beung Kiat Ngong wetlands, designated as a Ramsar site in 2010 when Lao PDR acceeded to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Significance, was developed in January 2013. Part of the management plan included the development of an ecotourism plan, through which local communities can leverage existing cultural value of the site to promote eco-tourism. The eco-tourism action plan also includes the promotion of elephant tourism in the area, that could in turn provide an additional source of income for the communities and support biodiversity conservation in the area.

“We hope to highlight the ways in which local communities live in harmony with nature, while also looking to new forms of income generation by increasing the potential for sustainable and responsible ecotourism at the site,” said Mr Adam Starr, Country Manager for IUCN Lao PDR.

In October 2014, as part of Mekong Water Dialogues, IUCN released another documentary film, “Sacred Natural Sites in the Xe Champhone Ramsar Site: The Spirit of Conservation”. The film, also available on the Mekong Water Dialogues website, highlights the application of traditional beliefs and customs to ensure the protection and sustainable use of natural resources in the Xe Champhone wetland, IUCN Lao PDR’s other Ramsar site.

About Mekong Water Dialogues (MWD)
MWD is coordinated and facilitated by IUCN and supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. It was initiated to work with countries of the Mekong Region – Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam – to improve water governance by facilitating transparent and inclusive decision-making to improve livelihood security, human and ecosystem health.

For more information, please contact:
Wendy C. Atieno
Programme and Communications Officer,
[email protected]

Work area: 
Project and Initiatives: 
Mekong Dialogues
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