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The Fight For Survival: Elephants in Laos

  • Phyllis Kaplan
  • 22 July 2013

This article was published by our friends at The International Ecotourism Society, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their Your Travel Choice blog.

Laos was once called the “the land of a million elephants,” but currently there are fewer than 900 alive: 450 domestic and 400 wild. There are only two births for every 10 deaths. Crunch the numbers. If this is not addressed, Laotian Asian elephants will be eradicated very soon.

ECC, Sayaboury, Laos

The Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Kaplan

Elephants have historically been used as “work animals,” particularly in Asia’s logging industry, worked to death hoisting logs. In this industry, one elephant’s work can feed many families. In fact, elephants are worked so hard that they do not have the energy to mate, nor does the mahout want the females pregnant, as this disallows the elephant to work. It can also cost the mahout a $500 fee for the male to impregnate her, too costly in a place where the average yearly salary is $1200. With a 23-month gestation period and then an additional two years to wean her calf, it is also too time consuming for mahouts and their families. A calf is born without an immune system therefore the need for colostrum is imperative. There is also the unlawful practice of poaching the wild animals for their tusks, as well as kidnapping for international zoos.

The Elephant Conservation Center

ElefantAsia has partnered with Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos, to address this sad issue. However, going to the ECC is anything but sad. For me it was transformative to be with these animals. Their personalities, intelligence, playfulness and extreme gentleness was always apparent. These elephants are treated well. I was elated to be in their presence as well as in the secluded beauty of the ECC in Sayboury.

Mae Boun Nam and Mae Kham Ohn

The two young girls, Mae Boun Nam and Mae Kham Ohn, are in love with one another! They cavort endlessly and refuse to come out of the water. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Kaplan

The Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) is a French non-governmental organization, where as a tourist you have several options to visit, learn and volunteer. The learning part is essential. The center has been for open just two years and houses a hospital with a veterinarian, nursery and hundreds of acres of jungle (an elephant eats 80% of the time therefore foraging in the jungle is what they require for sustenance). All medical care for all elephants is free, but the vets must often travel far to examine, diagnose and treat; this requires special permission from the government. The Center is also attempting to build an operating room, but the cost is nearly US$30,000.

There are four domesticated elephants that live at the ECC permanently, retired from the exploitative logging industry. The additional four elephants are two sets of mothers and their calves. The retirees are owned by the center, but the mothers and calves are owned by their mahouts and will probably return to logging after the nursing period.

Male elephant Phu Thongkoon

Elephants love to bathe. This is the male Phu Thongkoon. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Kaplan

Tourism, Another Option for Mahouts and their Elephants

The majesty of riding an elephant, feeling their gait, their slow and evenness, truly is a wonderful experience. The way in which they kneel to allow you to climb on them was something to behold. Precise and deliberate, they gently get their girth down and then up with so much grace.

But, even without riding them, just being near them is an amazing experience. Feeding them, walking with them in the forest, touching them, observing them, getting to know their individual personalities and intelligence and of course listening to the panoply of extraordinary sounds. Elephant language is loud, fascinating and diverse. For me it felt very natural to be among them, observing their behavior. And they love the water. Their antics during their twice daily bathing ritual was filled with play and amusement.

The Center hopes that the male Phu Thongkoon will impregnate one of the younger two females, but he has not been interested. The other elephant is 60-year-old Grandmere, Mae Dock, who at this point is too old to procreate. She was used in the logging industry and now is enjoying her retirement at the ECC. Mae Dok is a very tall, gentle giant who never gave birth.

This work is so important. During our stay (three days, two nights – the center was completely reserved therefore we could not do the six days we originally had hoped for), we learned about the rhythm of their days, how to command them (in Lao) and most of all how to appreciate them.

One may also sign on as a volunteer in any capacity you may be able to share, including office work. There is a weekly fee to volunteer, but this includes your accommodation and meals. Long-term volunteer opportunities are available as well. At present there are 25 full-time staff, most of them Laotian. Please peruse the ECC’s website for details about the important work volunteers can do and more details about the organization and what you can do to help Laotian elephants.

About the Author

Phyllis Kaplan writes a blog, TravelinWoman, having rebirthed her life as her daughter went off to college: traveling and volunteering around the world. Ubud, Bali, is now her second home along with Sandgate, Vermont.

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The International Ecotourism Society

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) is a non-profit association committed to promoting responsible tourism practices that benefit conservation and communities. Representing the voices of stakeholders from all corners of the world, TIES' global network supports and is supported by members from over 90 countries, who are leading the vital efforts to make travel and tourism more sustainable. Your Travel Choice Blog is an interactive platform supporting TIES' mission to engage, educate and inspire everyone to make travel choices that make a difference.
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animal conservation, Asia, Laos, local knowledge, personal experience, South-Eastern Asia, voluntourism, whl.travel,

3 Responses to “The Fight For Survival: Elephants in Laos”

  1. Duyducivan says:

    This article is an inspiration, Before I did the elephant ride on my tours in Thailand (Chiang Mai) And I was worried about elephant treatments. But fortunately, They are well-behaved and now The Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) is very essential

  2. Mathew Duong says:

    Great post. Sitting on the back of elephant in Cambodia was unforgettable memories last year. So interesting!Thanks for sharing your post with us.

  3. andy says:

    i also ride on elephants in India and must tell you great fun and yes i am always worried about their existence it is now becoming a global issue.

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