Just as the pandemic was beginning in February, my husband and I traveled to Laos and Cambodia. It seems like a lifetime ago now when there was so much uncertainty. As we talked to local drivers and tour guides, they talked about this potential threat. As a driver took us to the airport through the teeming streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, to the outskirts where it seemed the hotels just stopped, he spoke about what it could do to his livelihood if tourism was affected.
A few weeks ago I saw an article on the elephants in Thailand returning to their homes from tourist camps. Without tourists, the locals are suffering and do not have the money to pay for the land, the food, and the salaries of those who work there.
Elephants Brought us to Laos
We visited one such elephant camps in Laos. It was one of the reasons we visited the region. They are a vital – and tricky – part of the culture of Thailand and Laos, once known as Land of a Million Elephants or Lan Xang. There are only about 800 Asian elephants left. About half live in the wild and half are kept by humans. Some are used for logging and others are used for tourism. Both can be hard on the elephants.
We had seen contestants of The Amazing Race riding elephants in Laos. It looked amazing and my husband tapped on his phone and within minutes found the location.
“They are sending me a coupon for 20 percent off,” he said.
Within months we had booked our trip to Luang Prabang, Laos. But as we learned more about the place and its people, we realized we didn’t want to take part in riding the elephants.
Researching Ethical Elephant Tourism
As we had watched the contestants riding the elephants we assumed it was ethical, since it looked more humane than other methods, where elephants were fit with giant “howdah” chairs, but as we researched more, I just didn’t feel comfortable riding elephants even bareback.
Often elephants are beaten into submission or chained in order to get to the point where they would allow a human to ride them. And, even though they are large animals, supporting humans, with or without a howdah on their back is painful.
I began to search for a place where we could spend time with elephants without compromising our integrity.
Where Conservation is More Than a Catchphrase
Though a lot of the tourist spots used the word “sanctuary” or “ecological”, Mandalao Elephant Conservation provides refuge to elephants and does not use the word conservation lightly. Elephants there have been rescued from other tourist facilities or logging camps.
Here they roam free and do only what elephants do naturally. That is eat, play, walk, and poop, according to our guide. Any tourist interaction here is centered around the elephant and what the things they need to do to maintain a healthy weight. We signed up for the Communicating with Elephants tour, which was described as feeding snacks to the elephants and then walking with them through the jungle. I knew I was doing the right thing by not riding the elephants, but I was a little afraid I would have minimal time with the elephants. I was so wrong about that!
Up Close and Personal with the Elephants
Mandalao, is about a half-hour away from where we were staying in Luang Prabang, on the banks of the Nam Kahn river. On the way there we were filled in on what was to come and many facts about the elephants. It was clear how much our local guide knew and loved these animals. On our tour, there was only one other couple from France and the four of us first sat down with the Project Director, Prasop Tippraser.
He was a founder of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center and an expert who told us about the work they do and his work with elephants for 30 years. He created the center’s positive reinforcement training which uses no hooks or tools to make elephants respond, just bananas. Later we noticed one of the elephants we met had a scar from a bullhook at another camp, a hole in one of her ears.
We next made banana treats for the elephants, combining sticky rice, tamarind, and salt and inserting into a baby banana before heading across the river to where the elephants live chain-free. When we arrived, two female elephants, Mae Tu and Mae Mahn, who would be our companions for the afternoon were bathing in the river.
After they joined us up on the banks, behind only a tiny wooden fence, we fed them bananas from the basket we brought over with us. They grabbed them with their trunks like muscular little fingers and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. They ate and ate and ate until there were no more bananas. Then, the fun continued as we walked with them through the woods for another 45 minutes or so.
As they walked, they explored, stopping, grabbing at branches, and dusting their wet bodies with dirt. And we were right there with them. Any concerns I had about not spending enough time with them was definitely not warranted. We had so much time with them, we hugged and kissed them, and it was definitely an experience I will never forget.
Tourism is Struggling
As with the elephants in Thailand, the tourists at Mandalao have stopped coming. They have decided to keep their elephants and have received some grants, but need help to support the elephants and the mahouts that work with them. It costs about $500 a month to feed one elephant, and they have 13 elephants, a total of $6,500 a month. As such, they have started a Go Fund Me campaign. You can also learn more about them through the video at that page.
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“All elephants should be viewed at a distance, with a clear separation between people and animals. Animals should be allowed to engage in natural behavior without human guidance or direction for the benefit of tourists. Although mature ex-working elephants may need a sanctuary, they do not benefit from being touched or played with by people.”
I appreciate your love for elephants and Mandalao does look better than many other elephant tourist attractions but there’s one big looming question: What do the elephants want? Do they really want to interact with people they don’t know? Are they given a choice when and how they interact? Do they have the option of not participating?
I prefer to support elephant organizations that follow one simple rule: No physical contact between visitors and elephants or any other wild animal. No feeding, bathing, hugging, kissing, etc. Not only does it usurp the animal’s freedom of choice, it’s simply dangerous to be in such close contact with a wild animal.
I know you were in Laos but there are elephant organizations that are creating new models of tourism, such as the Mahouts Elephant Foundation in Thailand —
Another wonderful organization in Thailand is Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary — https://www.blesele.org/
You can learn more about what constitutes ethical elephant tourism at http://www.elemotion.org/
If you (general you) want to express your love for elephants, there is no finer way than by respecting their autonomy, intelligence and ability to make choices for themselves.
I understand your concern, but here is why I felt comfortable with Mandalao. It doesn’t make the elephants perform or interact with humans unless they want to. We interacted them as we walked with them through the forest only as they wanted to approach us and didn’t bathe them.
One of the founders, Prasop Tipprasert is a pioneer of elephant conservation originally from Thailand who has been working to save the dwindling Asian elephant population for 30 years. The elephants are not caged and allowed to roam free. They forage for 50% of their diet, and we fed them treats as it is one of their favoirite things to do and also one of the ways the vets feed them pills when they are sick.
Mandalao is endorsed by Responsible Travel and World Animal Protection. Here is a study on human animal interaction with African elephants that supports that elephants human interaction is a personal preference: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2017.00060/full#h4
What a fantastic experience. I love elephants and I wish that there were more organisations that truly cared and looked after them in the way that they deserve. Such beautiful animals.
I can’t believe I was able to see them so close up. They were so gentle.
Elephant are such gentle giants. I pray tourism can return to normal soon. Great post!
Thank you Robin! I hope so too.
What an amazing trip! I’m so glad you found a place that only supports, not exploits, elephants.