When I was a kid, there were three places that I always wanted to go: The St. Louis Science Center, Six Flags, and the zoo. I can’t tell you how many zoo’s I’ve been to in my life. They’re all pretty much the same thing, except maybe a different animal here or there. If I had to note the Louisville zoo, I’d say it is interesting to see the albino alligator and that kick ass polar bear who swims up next to the glass. The Detroit zoo I loved because of the arctic monkeys. The Cincinnati zoo has the old reptile house, and the Indianapolis zoo has the butterfly garden. We can pretty much play out a day at the zoo in our minds, and there’s not a lot of excitement these days. Unless you’re taking your baby niece or nephew. I still love going, I love the animals. However, the feeling of being a kid comes few and far between anymore.
Today I got to be a kid again. This morning I woke up, had banana pancakes, and waited to be picked up to go to Elephant Village, a sanctuary, just outside of Luang Prabang. On the bus ride out to the Laotian countryside, I sat next to a fellow Ball State Alumni, which made me giddy with the reminder of how small of a world we live in. We arrived at the camp, which overlooked the Khan River. The elephants were awaiting us under a nearby shelter house. I walked up the path and strait to the elephants. Our guide, Mangon, gave us some time to immediately get acquainted with our extra-large new best friends. I got a couple of bunches of plantain-like bananas and rubbed the elephants’ trunks while I fed them. They were 5 big girls.
Then at a nearby hut, over coffee, (my favorite way to do things) we got familiarized with the cause of the elephant sanctuary. Laos was known as “The land of a million elephants.” But now, the elephant population has diminished to a mere 1,000. 460 of those remaining elephants work in the timber harvesting industry. This is very dangerous for them. The sanctuary was established to provide a permanent safe environment for the conservation of elephants in Laos. They have 8 elephants, one of which is a 3.5’ tall baby. Unfortunately, the baby was under medical supervision, so we didn’t get to see it. There are several sanctuaries around Luang Prabang, but this is the only one with a staffed veterinarian. I chose to attend this one because they rescue their elephants from logging camps and also focus on environmentally sustainable practice. They feed the animals food grown on the sanctuary grounds as well.
After our Q&A’s, we got to meet our elephants. Mine’s name was Mae San. She is 37 years old. Mangon rode Mae San on a visit to the elephant village in 2006. When he returned to work there in 2010, Mae San remembered him. She showed her remembrance by patting him on the head with her trunk. She’ll probably remember me as the guy who was stingy with the bananas. We got some mahout training first & foremost. Mahout is an Indian term which means “master.” So we learned how to master our elephants. Ideally, an elephant would only have one mahout in their lifetime of 50-100 years. Should a mahout die, traditionally the role would be passed on to their offspring. But Mae San got me for a day. I wish it could have been longer.
Here are the basic commands we learned:
“Seung Seung” – the command to get the elephant to lower it’s head/raise it’s knee for you to mount it
“Pie” – Commands the elephant to walk forward
“Dun” – Commands the elephant to walk backwards
“How How” – Commands the elephant to stop
“Sai” + a nudge behind the right ear – makes the elephant turn left
“Kia” + a nudge behind the left ear – makes the elephant turn right
“Hop” + a tug on one ear – makes the elephant kneel for dismount
“Aw Chai lye lye” + a trunk hug – let’s the elephant know the mahout is grateful
We walked our elephants through the jungle and got recognized with the commands we were taught. After lunch (and more coffee), we took them down to the river for a bath. Mae San kept stopping for food every chance she could get. It was really awesome to see how majestic she was, yet cheeky at the same time. She knew what she could get away with before she was scolded by one of the assistants. They were amused by her throwing her trunk back and spitting on me. She knew what would get people to give her the most bananas too. It was so much fun to watch her get completely submerged and let me scrub her ears. There was an 8 year old boy in our group, and I couldn’t tell who was having more fun, him or I.
When our time with the elephants was over, they headed back out to the jungle for a long walk, we headed down to the river for a boat ride, and the caretakers headed around the sanctuary for the elephant poo. Because the elephants eat fibrous foods, like sugarcane, their poo can be used to make rough paper. The camp takes the poo, filters it, and let’s it dry in the sun on giant cheesecloths. Viola, paper. Meanwhile, we headed up the river to Tad Sae waterfall by long boat. The river was a beautiful muddy mass, much like the Mississippi. It’s at the end of the rainy season now, so the current was heavier than normal. We spent some time jumping off of waterfalls and swimming before retuning back to the camp and then on to Luang Prabang.
I had such an amazingly fun day! I got to experience, first hand, one of nature’s largest animals in a truly breathtaking setting. I felt like a little kid again. As we were relaxing before our bus ride back, I was looking around: the river, the huts, the palm trees, the mountains in the distance. I was at the zoo… Or rather, I was experiencing the reality that a zoo can only attempt to capture. There weren’t any non-native trees, faux waterfalls, or overpriced ice cream stalls. There was just me surrounded by the real thing. I sank back in my chair and loved how rich my day had just became, having realized that. The first time I got close to an elephant, I was 5. It was at a tent circus in a Big Lot’s parking lot. I remember I had to share the four person saddle with my two step-brothers, who pushed me in the back. It was not a fun experience. But today I rode an elephant by myself through a real jungle. I jumped off of a real waterfall. What more could any little kid ask for? Maybe some over-priced ice cream.
Elephant tourism in Thailand.
In Thailand, the elephant population is a blend of both wild and domesticated elephants. According to Mangon, there are no wild elephants in Laos, only domesticated elephants who live in jungle-like sanctuaries. Unlike Laos, the Thai law states that it is illegal for an elephant to work in the logging industry. Outlawing this in 1989, many mahouts and their elephants were left without work. It takes about $1000 USD per month to provide for an elephant in Thailand, so elephant tourism is a temporary solution to feeding the domesticated pachyderms. The mahouts often have to leave their elephant in search of their own form of employment. Near the Burmese-Thai border, elephant poachers smuggle wild/free elephants into Thailand. These poachers forge the paperwork stating that the animal was bred, and sell it to sanctuaries at almost pure profit. This leaves domesticated animals who are trained without work alongside their mahouts. So it is very important to be aware of what kind of sanctuary you’re visiting.
Picking the right elephant sanctuary to visit, according to Mangon/Lonely Planet.
- Try to visit a sanctuary that has it’s own veterinarian. Veterinarians are very expensive. This ensures that the sanctuary cares about the health of their stars.
- Investigate where the camp gets it’s elephants. If they accept wild elephants, it might not be the most conscientious to it’s industry. This could also mean that they are involved first-hand in the elephant corralling industry.
- How many hours a day do they work the elephants? The elephants need exercise to be healthy. At least 4 hours of work a day is healthy.
- What is the elephant’s habitat like? Are they kept in shady spots with fresh water and food?
- Do the elephants look wounded? Do they appear to be treated well?
- Elephants should only carry 330 Lbs. If the mahouts want you to ride the elephants with 5 adults, request an additional elephant in hopes of not straining them.
- Try to find a place that simulates a natural environment for the elephants. If it’s a parking lot, the elephants can’t be too happy.