Laos is sometimes referred to as the land of a million elephants. Regrettably there are no longer anything like that number of the large beasties left. In fact, we were advised that there is probably less than a thousand altogether, including something like 500 wild and a touch under 500 domesticated – all up. Elephants are still revered and loved by the populace but there is increasingly less land available to accommodate them.
On Emma’s South East Asia to-do-list was a visit with some elephants. We had hoped to do so while in Chiang Mai, Thailand but the only elephant parks we were interested in were all booked out. There are a lot of elephant opportunities for travelers but only a few of them make a genuine effort to do what we would consider the right thing by the elephants. We are not into circus tricks, elephant riding (it’s really bad for their backs) or exhausting work day after day supporting the tourist trade.
So it was that we landed upon a visit to the Elephant Conservation Centre about two hours drive out of Luang Prabang, Laos. The ECC elephants are not wild, they are well and truly domesticated. But for a domesticated elephant in Laos, this is elephant heaven. No working 12 hours a day dragging logs out of steep forests with chains around your neck and no beatings with canes around the legs to tell you what to do. Nope, these elephants have an onsite elephant hospital, they are trained with positive re-enforcement, they are fed or provided access to the 200kg of food they need every day, get four or so hours a day to themselves just to hang out and be elephants and have their lives ‘enriched’ with elephant puzzles and games.
We arrived at the centre by ‘speedboat’ across an artificial lake created by the damming of the Nam Khan River. It is a stunning spot, with the Centre’s bamboo huts and restaurant perched on a little peninsula jutting out into the lake.
Lah, our guide greeted us with his flamboyant accent and slightly camp ways. He was great, extremely knowledgeable and finished every burst of information with, “ya, it is like this’.
The Centre was set up in 2007 by a couple of French guys and a Laos business man. They currently own 7 elephants including one big male, 5 females and baby boy. Two other mothers and babies are also there on a contract with the centre which has 106 hectares of land. This contract ensures the elephants owners and mahouts are paid while the mothers are on maternity leave – they actually call it the baby bonus program! So while after the contract is complete the elephants may go back to work in the community, at least the babies will have longer to grow up in a natural setting with their mothers. If the centre would like the mothers and babies to stay they would need to pay around US$60,000 for each pair and they would need more land. The current site is only just big enough to support those elephants already there. Getting more land is a complex and delicate process of working with Laos government officials.
The young Belgium fellow running the place explained the games required to cultivate relationships within the government and the difficulty competing with Chinese interests in land in the area. Influence comes with privileges bestowed and the Centre can’t afford to pay for the Laos official’s children’s education the way the Chinese can. We got the impression the rug could be pulled out from the centre at anytime.
We first met the elephants for their afternoon bath. We wandered down the hill and right in an amongst them as their mahouts urged them into the water. It was a thrill to be up so close to them and a pleasure to watch them roll and loll about in the water, suck water up with their trunks and spray it all over themselves and to play around. One elephant sat down on its haunches and used its trunk just to continually splash the water in front of it, just like people would in a pool.
At the mahouts urging they all climbed out of the water, some more gracefully than others, where we fed them from a platform, trunks coming at us like… I’m not sure what it was like, snakes squirming in mid-air maybe? Then we walked with them up into the hills where they spend each night. The mahouts were lifted effortlessly up to sit on their heads as they marched off into the forest. We watched the sun set over the lake from our little bamboo huts and looked forward to what tomorrow would bring.
It brought a trek into the hills to find the elephants. We hiked up hill and down dale, following along with the mahouts. One of whom had a thing for singing loudly which was entertaining. The elephants are chained at night. Long chains loosely applied around the leg so they can graze a fair sized area. The centre cannot be fully enclosed and the elephants can’t be left to roam for their own safety. If they drift off into the surrounding farms the centre has to compensate for the damage done or worse still, there is a good chance they would be shot.
We retrieved the large beasties and walked with them again through the forest. At one point Mae Dok, the oldest elephant of the herd stopped grabbed a small tree and unceremoniously ripped it from the ground no doubt using most of the 150,000 muscles in her trunk. Amazing. We all laughed and she set about devouring her prize.
Down by the waters edge the elephants took another bath, before we were unexpectedly offered a chance to sit up on their necks for just a minute or two. This we understand is fine, and quite unlike the chairs used to carry multiple people on other elephant’s backs.
The elephants were then turned out to play. Free time for elephant socialising. We watched from platforms high on the hillside above, one of them high in tree across a suspended bridge. This was uneventful, quiet grazing, until elephant trumpeting rang out across the forest. The elephants hurried to group together where more trumpeting followed. For large animals without predators they are remarkably flighty. We later discovered that the obnoxious American we had shied away from at dinner the night before had just left on his motorbike with two or three others, freaking the elephants out in the process.
We spent time in the afternoon watching and learning how they train the elephants. This training is not circus tricks, but useful skills to enable them to be checked over and treated if the need arises. For such big animals it is important to be able to safely check under their feet and behind their ears. Emma used to use very similar techniques with her horse. The trainer would request a foot with a tap and if the elephant correctly placed the foot where it was supposed to go the mahout offered food rewards – we marveled at how fast an elephant can eat!
Our last morning with the elephants we were put to work setting up the ‘elephant enrichment’ area. Elephants are smart and as was explained to us, looking after their physical health is only half the challenge. Without mental stimulation they can still suffer enormously with impacts including that they won’t breed. This is a problem given only two elephants are being born at the moment for every ten that die.
We were dealing with clever elephants we were told. They had been playing these games for quite a while and needed a challenge. ‘Be mean’ the Spanish biologist Annabel told us ‘these are level 10 elephants’. We tied pieces of sugar cane up in long yellow bags made from old firehose, hid them in tyres, and then jammed the tyres inside other tyres and put them over stumps. We hid the cane in barrels suspended in trees and scattered food throughout the area. Then we sat back as the elephants were let in and they set about, with almost visible smiles on their face, tackling the problems we had set them.
The care for the elephants wellbeing, the relationship they have with their mahouts, the experience for visitors without compromising the elephants’ welfare all made this a special stop. Wild elephants would be better, but they’re not all wild and they never will be. We wish the ECC all the best in their efforts show that elephants don’t need to be exploited to provide a sustainable livelihood.