While walking through Luang Prabang on Christmas Day, we stumbled upon one of the few travel agencies that advertised elephant tours with a “no riding” policy.
The agency workers are very passionate about animal safety and rescue. They have been spending the last 2 years in different sanctuaries and rescue projects across Asia, including the bear rescue center at the Kuang Si waterfalls and, most recently, the ECC in Sayaboury. They spoke about how difficult it is to keep the elephant population from decreasing – 400 of the estimated total of 800 elephants in Laos live in captivity and are used in the logging industry. Since elephant pregnancies last 22 months, and the babies need their mothers for at least 3 years after birth- making the females unavailable for work for a significant amount of time – breeding is actively discouraged by the mahouts (owners of captive elephants). Also, captive elephants fall under Lao legislation for livestock, as opposed to wild elephants, which fall under wildlife law. This makes it very difficult to protect captive elephants, as they are at the discretion of their owners.
This is where the ECC and other similar organizations come in. They work with the mahouts, give them fair wages in exchange for bringing their elephants into sustainable projects instead of cruel tourist camps or logging.
The ECC’s purpose is to support elephant reproduction by allowing the time needed for pregnancies and nursing, by buying land and restoring an ecosystem that enables elephants to live a sustainable life in captivity and, eventually, in the wild. This process is very lengthy and more bureaucratic than it is biologically and environmentally complex:
- Deforestation is a huge problem in Laos. Elephants and other animals have less and less natural habitat available.
- A lot of captive females are already over the age of 30 and have never bred – which makes them unable to become pregnant.
- Chinese tourists and businesspeople are interested in elephants AND bring an influx of cash. However, they care little about environmental issues – so it’s hard for NGOs to keep up or bet against rich Chinese buyers who want elephants for entertainment.
You can look up more information on their website and I also encourage you to take up a sponsorship at elephantconservationcenter.com
We were convinced that this is a place we want to visit. We booked a 2 day tour.
Tuesday, Dec. 27
After a 2,5h minivan ride, we arrived in Sayaboury, then took a boat across the lake to the Elephant Conservation Centre.
We received a brief introduction and the agenda for the 2 days, got the keys to our bungalows to drop our stuff and started the first activity: lunch at the enrichment area. We walked for about 15 minutes to another portion of the lake where lunch was served on a boat. There, we could watch two elephant moms and their babies take a bath and frolic around. It was so heartwarming, I got all squeaky-voiced and just wanted to pinch their wrinkly butts.They are majestic and, at the same time, incredibly funny. The babies are stubborn and comically unaware of their bulk, so they wobble around and trip over their mothers feet or even their own. In the water, they dive and splash but never leave their mother’s side.
Back at the centre, we met more of the elephants and got to experience them close-by as they took their daily baths. They were so gentle and we could touch and pet them. It was great to notice their personalities, some loved the attention, while others couldn’t be bothered with us.
The highlight of the day was when we got to meet each elephant personally – their names and histories and preferences. Six adult females and one male baby were brought in a circled enclosure with their mahouts. Our group was sat on benches on one side of the enclosure and the mahouts would bring their elephant to the front so that Khen, our guide, could talk about them. About 10 minutes into the presentation, one of the elephants let out a loud cry, a trumpet noise that made the rest of them shuffle nervously, cry even louder and huddle with their backs to each other at the center of the enclosure. One of them started peeing and the others followed suit, letting out steaming jets while continuing to trumpet and shuffle and stump their feet raising dust. Our initial reaction was concern, but the mahouts seemed unimpressed, albeit a little annoyed, and Khen looked amused.
This entire ruckus was caused by a cat. Jozef’s feline (Jozef is the sales and marketing manager at the ECC) was casually strolling about, when one of the elephants noticed it moving and cried alarm. It took about 10 minutes for the herd to calm down and the dust to settle. It’s been a long time since I laughed this hard. Seeing these giants so rattled by a minuscule cat was hilarious. Jozef came when he heard the noise and apologised for his pet’s behaviour. One of the mahouts joked that next time they will kill kitty. It turns out elephants have very bad eyesight and are startled by any sudden movements, regardless of the source. Everybody was in tears.
In the evening we met with the biologist, Annabelle. She gave us more information on the current state of elephants in Laos and what efforts they are making to ensure the continuity of the species ,as well as a sustainable life for the animals in captivity. It was fascinating and heartbreaking – but it motivated us to get involved!
We had a simple dinner of typical Lao dishes and went to bed early.
The night was short but very peaceful. We were in the middle of the jungle and could hear nature living and breathing all around. The sky was filled with stars, cicadas buzzed, frogs croaked, I slept like a baby.
Wednesday, Dec. 28
After a short breakfast we headed to the enrichment area again to meet with the herd and spend some more time scratching their wrinkly trunks.
Then we hiked up the hill for about 20 minutes to cross a hanging bridge towards the view point over the entire elephant enclosure. This is a valley of about 100 hectares surrounded by an electric fence where elephants can move freely. The fence is to keep the elephants from reaching outside of the ECC- owned land into farms or even villages where they risk killing people or getting killed themselves. Jozef guided us through the morning and answered all questions patiently. We stayed at the viewpoint for a while, observing the elephants from a distance. The outlook is fantastic.
We had lunch and headed back to Luang Prabang in the afternoon.
This has been a fantastic experience for us. Elephants are such gentle, caring beings and it’s heartbreaking to see them wasting away due to greed and ignorance. The ECCs efforts are very important in restoring the balance and bringing Laos closer to its old tag line “Land of a Million Elephants.” Please have a look at elephantconservationcenter.com or visit the animal rescue service of your choice today.