Laos was once majestically known as Lane Xang – Land of a Million Elephants. Today, however, the outlook for the Asian elephant population in Laos is bleak. Only 1,000 remain and their numbers are steadily decreasing. An estimated 560 still work in logging, the industry that is primarily responsible for their slow demise.
Throughout Laos, deforestation is destroying the elephant’s natural habitat. According to a Deutsche Welle report on illegal logging in Laos, only 40 percent of the country remains covered in forest. What does this mean for the elephants? Herds get trapped in patches of forest or “green islands” surrounded by farmland and urban development. Migration routes are blocked. The food supply is insufficient to support these herds and since they are unable to leave, inbreeding occurs, leading to genetic diseases and weaker populations.
If current trends continue, the wild Asian elephant population will become extinct within the next 50 years.
Logging is also dangerous and hard work. Malnourished elephants are required to move heavy loads on steep terrain and injury is common. They are sometimes given amphetamines so they can work long hours.
Yet simply putting a stop to logging is not a sustainable solution. The work of one elephant supports dozens of people in Laos, a developing nation where as much as 73 percent of the population lives on less than US$2 a day. When logging was banned in Thailand in 1990, well over 2,000 elephants lost their jobs. Domesticated elephants are expensive to keep and care for – they require a tremendous amount of food and water every day – so owners were forced to release them into the wild, where they sometimes slowly starved, or to kill them.
Fortunately, tourism is offering one positive solution.
Alternative Employment for Elephants
In Laos, former logging elephants have found new employment and a healthy, peaceful life at camps such as The Elephant Village, 15 kilometres outside of Luang Prabang. At its stunning location overlooking the Nam Khan River, visitors can get up close and personal with Asian elephants, the planet’s second-largest land animal, whose mass is surpassed only by the African elephant. Travellers learn that despite an elephant’s hefty size, it is a remarkably gentle, sensitive and agile creature.
For the more adventurous, the “Living as a Mahout” program is an unforgettable experience. Travellers learn what it takes to be a mahout: how to climb onto an elephant, ride it bareback and “steer” with commands. The highlight is riding the elephant into the river for its daily bath.
Camps like The Elephant Village provide work and income for locals, protect the land, take both mahouts and elephants out of logging, ensure the animals get proper veterinary care and educate visitors on the issues. Visitors leave with a greater appreciation for both the animals and the mahouts.
A word of caution: this does not mean all elephant camps are good. Many have sprung up throughout Thailand and Laos so it is up to travellers to research a camp’s reputation and quality.
Arranging Responsible Elephant Stays
ElefantAsia is another company that has dedicated itself to the protection of these animals. At work in Laos since 2001, ElefantAsia recently opened a new sanctuary in Xayaboury, a province in northern Laos.
In their brochure, they provide tips on how to choose a quality camp and what to look out for. Here is a summary:
Does the elephant have bloody puncture wounds on its forehead?
This is a sign of abuse from the ankus or metal hook used by mahouts as a guiding tool; when used properly it should leave no mark.
Is there enough food for the elephants to eat when they are not working or giving rides?
Elephants spend 14-18 hours eating each day. Gathering and supplying food should be an obvious activity. And while it’s fun to feed them bananas, they need a varied diet. You should see staples like bamboo and grasses.
Is there sufficient water and shelter when they are not giving rides?
Elephants drink up to 100 litres of water a day and suffer when exposed to too much sun. They must have access to fresh, clean water at all times and have shade available.
Is the elephant enclosure clean?
Cleanliness is vital in preventing the spread of disease. Dung should be regularly collected and urine should be washed away. Also, the dung should be round, solid lumps. Diarrhoea is a sure sign that the elephant is ill and shouldn’t be working. Inform the mahout/staff immediately.
Are the elephants flapping their ears and swinging their tails?
A healthy elephant is in constant motion. They flap their ears to fan themselves and swing their tails to drive off insects. Being very still can be an indicator of ill health.
Are elephants repeatedly swaying their head back and forth?
Elephants that have been chained or hobbled for too long will swing their heads repeatedly in an exaggerated manner. It can be an indicator of stress, boredom and poor care.
If you see signs of abuse or neglect, speak up and let management know.