Scientists are carefully studying the incredible knowledge of the domesticated elephants of Laos. These pachyderms are genuine experts on their environment and inspire the therapeutic practices of their mahouts and local populations.
No offence to the rat in La Fontaine’s fable, but we sometimes need someone bigger (and bulkier!) than ourselves. In Laos, the formidable strength of elephants was harnessed for transporting goods and timber to the villages long before roads were built and the use of vehicles became widespread. Not only that, but they also contribute to developing the villagers’ practices in plant-based medicine. “In this country, once known in Lao as the ‘land of a million elephants’, the pachyderms play an important role in rural communities”, explains Jean-Marc Dubost, ethnobiologist and PhD student at PHARMA-DEV. “Their use of medicinal plants serves as a guide for the mahout family’s pharmacopoeia and the ethnoveterinary care they provide for their elephants. But as mechanisation and increasing agricultural encroachment distance them from village life, it is important to document this rapidly eroding knowledge”.
Prescriptions by pachyderms
Lao mahouts are simultaneously masters, guides and carers and spend several decades in daily contact with the same animal. They accumulate considerable insight on their behaviour and have observed that the elephants, which forage for food in the surrounding forests, select specific plants according to their state of health: “Among the extraordinary diversity of plants that make up their diet, some are particularly sought after by animals suffering from a particular illness, or by females during their gestation period”, explains the scientist.
Over time, this observation has led to a convergence of uses between humans and animals: the mahouts also use certain roots and barks consumed for therapeutic purposes by the elephants in order to treat their own illnesses and those of others. The fact that they use them in the same pathological context as their animals, unlike other villagers who also use traditional medicine, suggests that their practices were inspired by the pachyderms. But their trust in their elephants goes much further...
“Elephant dung is the basis of frequently used remedies”, says Éric Deharo, pharmacologist and IRD representative in Laos. “It is usually dried and processed by decoction or maceration and then used orally or applied to the skin, depending on the indications”. Many gastrointestinal or dermatological problems or cases of fever, for which mahouts do not go to the clinic, can be treated with these lotions and drinks. “This is another example of how the mahouts’ approach demonstrates the high level of trust they have in their animal’s instinct”, says Jean-Marc Dubost. “The reasons given for the use of zootherapyUse of animal products to treat oneself are generally symbolic: a millipede for treating joint problems, a bat for disoriented people, etc. But mahouts consider more pragmatically that elephants have a very varied diet rich in medicinal plants, making their droppings a sort of medicinal cocktail”.
Among the 114 plant species inventoried with the owners’ help as being part of the elephants’ diet, 72 are also used by healers in the region. In addition, the digestive system of pachyderms is not very efficient and almost 60% of the faeces is composed of undigested plant matter and probably contains many bioactive substances or even substances activated by the digestion process itself. But these shared practices between elephants and mahouts are in danger of dying out...
Mechanisation and preservation
Tractors and trucks are gradually replacing the power of elephants. No longer used in the villageAnd also requiring someone to care for them all year round1, the pachyderms are often sold or rented by mahouts to tourist centres where they are entrusted to inexperienced young handlers and treated according to veterinary biomedical practices.
To prevent the loss of this traditional oral knowledge, which is transmitted down through mahout family lines and is no longer perpetuated, scientists are collecting it and making it available to the Laos Elephant Conservation Center (ECC), which is a partner of the research project.
“This knowledge is encouraging the ECC to return to a less medicalised approach to caring for their elephants, based on the old mahouts’ knowledge and the animals’ ability to look after themselves”, explains the ethnobiologist. As a result, a new structure will be developed with experienced mahouts who will pass on their knowledge to the younger generation of carers employed in these centres.
In addition to preserving and perpetuating this cultural heritage for the well-being of the elephants, future research could focus on the substances of interest contained in the medicinal plants shared by the animals and their mahouts and on exploring the qualities of elephant gut microbiota.