Originally published on Instagram December 3, 2014.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit the Nam Ou Elephant Sanctuary near Luang Prabang in Laos. When traveling in Southeast Asia you see advertisements for elephant shows in all countries. On them are pictures of the animals walking around on their hind legs, kicking soccer balls, and having their backs overloaded with heavy tourists. I heard a lot about the mistreatment in places like this like during the high season they're often worked to the point of exhaustion.
Throughout Asia the concept of animal welfare is a relatively new one. Many cultures here historically do not hold the value that wildlife has the right to exist undisturbed. They view anything in nature as something there for their own use. These are very deeply seeded beliefs and I saw countless displays of it in the two months I spent traveling in China and have been reminded of the sentiment throughout Southeast Asia. Because of this, I had a lot of apprehension about taking part in any kind “elephant experience” here.
But then I learned there are basically no wild elephants left in Laos. The ancient name for this county was Lan Xang which means "Land of One Million Elephants." Today there are about 1,000 and over 70% of this remaining population have been put to work in inaccessible deep jungle logging camps. Here they knock down massive mahogany trees and drag them down the side of steep hills that are impossible for conventional, mechanized logging equipment. Ironically these animals are very well suited to the task of destroying their own habitat. I'll admit I knew nothing about this before coming here.
Some of the “mahout,” or elephant handlers working in parks like this learned their craft in illegal logging camps so are not crazy about having a lens on them.
Organizations like the Nam Ou Sanctuary offer constructive employment to the villages nearby and the park has proven to be a good thing for the local economy. Because land and animal conservation are not traditionally held values, it’s only through education and showing people alternative practices that long-term sustainability will be achieved. I’ve ascertained from those on the front lines that it’s a depressing uphill battle.
Elephants in Laos don't get a name until they’re 3 years old. This little one was born at Nam Ou Sanctuary and will be “Naughty Baby Elephant” for another year.
Had she the unfortunate luck to have been born in a logging camp, next year upon receiving her name she’d be taken from her mother and then tortured for several years to completely break her spirit. Essentially elephants in logging camps are used as living tractors and worked just as hard. The process used to get them to his state of servile submission is an absolutely brutal one that results in these animals being terrified of any human. It can often take years before a rescue is able to be shown to visitors.
The elephants at Nam Ou are all female rescues aged 20-45 or were born at the sanctuary. The process of getting an elephant here is costly, time intensive, and dangerous. It involves going to an illegal camp numerous times and observing the elephants working there. The management will always try and sell animals that are on the verge of death so sanctuaries with limited resources try and purchase ones not beyond rehabilitation. It's about 80,000 USD for one elephant and the price is going up as zoos in China and Korea are becoming more popular domestic tourist destinations. The sad reality is that these animals are much safer here in captivity than if left in the wild where they would certainly be poached or end up in a logging camp.
Part of the experience here is taking a short ride on the elephant with a mahout. It’s an amazing sensation feeling your bare foot against the elephant’s massive head.
I was initially skeptical but having such close contact with an endangered animal really does change your perception about their situation. It makes you care more. If most people alive could have this experience, it would likely improve elephant welfare worldwide. Such a shame that for most, a picture in a book or magazine is all they'll ever know about these remarkable creatures. This park is very concerned with their animal's well being and only allows them to be ridden for one hour at a time twice a day. Some of these parks, those in Thailand in particular, put their animals under too much stress so I recommend researching any company in Asia offering “wildlife experiences” before giving them your money.
After the ride the elephants are guided down to the Mekong River for a refreshing dip.
If ever in Laos, which is the most amazing country in Southeast Asia, I can’t recommend a visit to this elephant sanctuary enough. The organization responsible for the the Nam Ou park is doing excellent work in a totally unscrupulous business. Awareness doesn’t change anything unfortunately but is the only place to start.