Laos: Land of a Million Elephants

May 31st 2019

I’m awake with the dawn at the Elephant Conservation Centre in north-west Laos. While the delightful sound of a gecko clicks somewhere north of my ear, I view my patio littered with small wings.  Last night I failed to turn out my patio light when I headed for dinner, and on my return the thick cloud of flying ants sent me diving into the haven of my mosquito net.  Resident geckos obviously had no such qualms and wing remnants identify my patio as the site of a significant midnight feast: not a single ant body carcass remains.  Yet, despite such carnage, as I look across the lake ‘peace comes dropping slow’, the urban rush I cycled through in Vietnam a mere distant memory. 

The ECC home now to 59 elephants, has been developed here as a French-based initiative at the edge of a man-made irrigation lake since 2011. The nearest town, Sayaboury, is a boat ride away so until a small songthaew boat chugs across the lake, so this morning I’m free to enjoy the early morning sounds of geckos and abundant birdlife (something strangely absent along my bike ride, but that is another story).  A total of 68 staff now work for ECC, and while mahouts stay here on site close to their elephants, other local workers are now arriving.

Almost all the funding for this elephant conservation work comes from visitors such as my 3 daughters, 2 small grandsons and myself, who have just spent 3 days together here.  Embraced into the culture of the endearing Asian elephant, now sadly endangered, and the passion of those that run this mission, it’s been a special time.  This week we’ve  followed elephants and their mahouts through the jungle, watched a baby elephant, under the watchful eye of her aunt, swim using her trunk as a snorkel, and lugged banana palms along dusty paths to hide them around a special ‘enrichment’ enclosure, watching three elephants swiftly seek out and crunch through our hidden treasures. We’ve admired giant beetles, tested 4 year old legs to their limit on steep forest tracks, kayaked and swum in the lake, but most of all, deepened our respect for the dignity of these slow-paced animal giants. 

I’ve taken the opportunity to remain for a week of volunteering while yesterday the rest of my family group departed, off on new life adventures across the world.  A day working in the garden yesterday had me in bed early, content to tuck myself under my mosquito net.  The rainy season is due but so far the earth remains hard and dry and hacking into hard clay soil with a very small blade welded to a piece of galvanised pipe (not very well welded either, I found out to my embarrassment) was a challenge.   I found myself more wearied even in this heat than cycling through recent mountain passes.  

 Laos used to be known as ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’. Traditionally they were a ‘pack horse’ for transport in every village, looked after by generations of mahout families, and revered in culture and religion. Then the logging industry grew with the arrival of Europeans with a desire for teak, with a new role for elephants and their handlers.  Today the teak has gone along with natural forest habitats and only 800 elephants remain, half in captivity with the rest still wild in National Parks. Tourist camps now provide the main source of income for mahout families, where overseas visitors can ride and be photographed with these magnificent creatures, but here at the Elephant Conservation Centre it’s a very different concept.

It’s an impossible expense for most mahout families to allow an elephant to give birth. Not only is an elephant pregnant, and therefore out of work, for 24 months but the suckling baby needs a further 2 years of fulltime mothering. So here at ECC, the focus is on breeding, with the ultimate goal to release elephants to regenerate wild populations in protected areas.  Mahouts bringing pregnant elephants are given food, accommodation for themselves and their elephants along with a small salary and training. Once mother and baby are ready and fit for work, they take them home or sell either or both to the centre.   The significance of this programme was recognised by the Lao Government last year, with a gift of 29 elephants impounded from illegal exports and land to extend the original 105 acres with which the centre was set up to over 500 hectares of secondary forest habitat.

My daughters,  grandchildren and I joined the 3 day programme that funds this centre.  Three years ago, arriving on a previous cycle journey, I never dreamt of returning with my family, yet like the elephant families we’ve been introduced to, our own group, matriarch, aunts, mother and youngsters now enjoy such special shared memories.   Its such a great concept, this social enterprise where tourists like us fund important conservation and education work while gaining so much ourselves.  I’m heading out now back to replanting the flower garden, an area looking somewhat neglected by  a hard-working staff team passionate about elephants.  It’s a joy to volunteer my limited gardening skills in practical support.  However, while today I’ll concentrate on the garden, each time an elephant comes past, she’ll have my full attention.  Surely such magnificent and dignified creatures merit the full respect of us all?   


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