China Railway’s Kunming bureau recently announced that a 36-kilometer long fence will be built along the Singapore-Kunming Railway project to protect wild elephants in southwest Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna region. This is a positive step, but it does little to allay concerns of the railway’s impact on elephant populations along the rest of the 3,900 km (2,400 mile) track of the Pan Asia Railway Central route. This is particularly so in Laos, where total elephant numbers are now below 1,000, and where vehicle collision is only one of many potential threats arising from China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
If current trajectories continue there will be no elephants left in Laos by the year 2030. In just 12 years, we could see the complete eradication of elephants from a country that once was known as “the land of a million elephants” (Lan Xang). So how did we reach this crisis point? What are the most daunting challenges for the future? And can Laos’ elephant population survive the advancement of the BRI?