Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Elephant Conservation Center, Sayaboury, Laos
Visited: May 2018
Surrounded by lush jungle in Sayaboury, Laos, near Luang Prabang, the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) chose this location for its proximity to the largest herd of wild elephants in Laos. They hope that one day the elephants rescued by ECC will live among the wild herds.
Laos is known as the land of a million elephants, but there are now only about 900 left in the entire country. They are a mix of Asian elephants which are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List and African elephants which are vulnerable to becoming endangered. Half remain in captivity, working in the logging and tourism industries. Poaching and habitat loss caused by logging are the two leading causes for this significant decrease in the Laos elephant population.
Mea Bounnum (left) and Dohkhoon Muang (right) enjoy an afternoon dip together.
Stress and exhaustion from mistreatment and overwork also add to the decreasing number of elephants in Laos. Premature death and the inability to mate under such horrific circumstances are not uncommon.
After several attempts Mea Bounnum is finally able to convince Dohkhoon Muang to leave the water.
It has been 7-years since the ECC set out to rescue Laos elephants and increase their numbers by removing them from the stress of captivity and providing them with a safe environment where they can recover from the mistreatment they have endured and live in normal, healthy conditions for reproduction and happiness.
Reproductive hormones of male elephants can rise to up to 60 times their regular testosterone levels when they enter what is called a musth about twice per year. This causes them to become highly aggressive. Outside of captivity, their herd will run them off during this time to ensure they do not mate with any offspring they may already have. Many reserves will not take males due to concern that they may be too difficult to control during a musth. However, with a focus on natality, the Elephant Conservation Center is home to males and females. During the musth, the males are still separated from their herd as they would be in the wild.
Mother and baby : Mae Khram & baby Noy, born at ECC after Mae Khram's arrival.
Elephants at ECC have attempted to mate which is a success in itself for the ECC, because it means they have successfully lowered the stress levels of these elephants. There has not yet been a successful full-term pregnacy at the center, which could be due in part to the amount of stress the adult females have endured in their lifetime.
There are two young elephants that have been rescued. They have not known mistreatment for so much of their lives, bringing hope that they may mate successfully one day at the facility, or perhaps after being successfully returned to the wild, which would be the most ideal scenario.
From Left to Right: Mae Khram, Mae Khien, baby Noy & Mae Bounnum.Elephants are introduced and form bonds and hierarchy on their own. Those who do not get along are not forced to be together. There is plenty of room for them to roam separately.
The long-term goal is to return as many elephants to the wild as possible. Unfortunately, this is not as simple as just opening a cage and allowing them to roam free. Elephants are social, familial creatures. They move in herds that are formed not necessarily by relation but by compatibility.
The ECC staff help elephants learn to hunt by hiding food and alternating the hiding place. Mr. Phongsavath steadies a ladder for Mike as he hides food for the hunt.
Like all animals, elephants must hunt for food in the wild. When raised in captivity they are deprived of the skill development needed for independent survival. Not knowing how to survive they tend to turn up in villages if they escape captivity on their own looking for food and terrify people which often leads to people or elephants getting hurt.
DohKhoon Mieung successfully sniffs out a meal.
The Elephant Conservation Center helps elephants develop hunting and socialization skills. Ideally, small herds will form and gradually be reintroduced to the wild and eventually released to live on their own. This takes a great deal of time and effort. In captivity they have handlers called mahouts. The mahout profession is commonly handed down from generation to generation and one mahout’s salary can be the primary income for an entire village. As the number of captive elephants gets lower, finding work has become more difficult for mahouts.
Mae Bounmi Noy (right), Mae Khoon One (left) enjoy a snack on their way to the river with Mahout Mr. Souban.
Human interaction is limited as much as possible and happens almost completely through the mahout. Because the elephants come from captivity, they have been conditioned to follow commands. Working with a mahout is familiar and helpful in transitioning them to their new environment and freedom.
Each elephant works with a single mahout. They do not have the best eyesight, so elephants learn the voice of their mahout and are able to decipher it from other human voices. Working for the center provides income for the mahouts and those in need of lodging live onsite. Some mahouts do own their elephant. In this situation, they have brought the elephant to the ECC to live and work with them here rather than making a living by forcing the elephant to carry tourists on its back or tow logs.
More mahouts and elephants making their way to the river.
Only humane, positive enforcement is used with the animals at ECC. The mahouts must adhere to this. The onsite clinic monitors the health of the elephants closely. This can require that the elephant stand inside what is called a crush, an open metal structure that helps calm them but that they can freely walk out of. To be examined in the crush, the elephants must be trained to follow a series of commands.
If elephants were meant to bathe with people, they would fit in bathtubs.
These giants tug at our hearts with their gentleness and intelligence. However, we must not forget that they are wild animals. Most people know now that they should not ride elephants but are not aware that bathing or swimming with them is not great for them either.
Here is a video of elephants bathing without interruption. Pounding the water with their trunks is and expression of play and happiness. It is also something they cannot something do near people because they would smash us. Making an animal change its natural behavior for us and our selfies is obviously not what is best for them.
An elephants IQ is 80% that of an average human being. If we tell ourselves that they are not smart enough to know the difference between captivity and freedom we are the fools. As responsible tourists, it falls to us to educate ourselves as to which activities are harmful to wildlife and the planet we all share.
Bring a good lens and observe from afar.
There is more than one video circulating on the internet that shows an unsuspecting tourist being tossed aside by an elephant once the animals’ patience had been tested one too many times. I am certain that this was a scary and upsetting experience for the tourists, but when these things happen it not the fault of the animals.
DohKhoon Mieung is one of the youngest elephants to be rescued by the center.
Legitimate reserves rescue elephants from dreadful lives. They need support to continue to do this and hosting visitors is how most generate enough income to cover their cost. Inviting people to limit direct interaction with elephants and simply observe them is starting to happen at more reserves. It may not sound as exciting, but it's actually incredible and provides far more insight into these animal then throwing a bucket of water on them. More importantly, it is better for the elephants who have worked for the man long enough.
Thank you to the ECC for inviting me and being incredible and informative hosts.
The Elephant Conservation Center has rescued more than 13 elephants this year. By bravely and patiently working to return elephants to normal conditions and eventually the wild, they are accomplishing greater achievements and raising the standards for conservation in Laos.
The center resides on 530 hectares of land. Each elephant requires a minimum of 10 hectares of land to be housed properly. Elephants eat about 10% of their body weight daily. For a typical adult this is between 200-300 kg/ 450-650 lbs.
Elephant conservation is expensive.The ECC do not receive any funding from the government. Much of their work is made possible by revenue from visitors, volunteers and donors.
You can find more information and plan your visit at the Elephant Conservation Center website. Free transportation from Luang Prabang, Laos is available through the center.
Elephant Conservation Center
Tel : +856-20-96590665