Laos, once called “Kingdom of a Million of Elephants”, counts today no more than a small thousand. The fate of elephants in Laos, similar to the one of its neighbouring countries, has nothing to envy. Despite being worshipped, these magnificent animals with enormous ears are close to extinction in Laos.
Laos, « Kingdom of a Million of Elephants » ?
Laos, formerly known as Lane Xang, “Kingdom of a Million of Elephants”, sheltered a large population of elephants, and counted 40,000 of them only a century ago. Nowadays, Laos has no more than a small thousand. These are approximate figures, but they are close enough to reality, clearly demonstrating the decline of elephants in Laos.
An alarming decline as this emblematic animal may entirely disappear from the country in a few decades. This is even more paradoxical taking into account the fact that the elephant is considered sacred in Laos.
Elephants Sanctuary of Pakbeng, or “Rest Home” for elephants in Laos
Several elephants live in peace in the Elephant Sanctuary of Pakbeng.
Pakbeng, a small town on the banks of the Mekong, serves as a relay between two river towns, Huay Xai (Laos town on the border with Thailand) and Luang Prabang (Laos town in the colonial style). Pakbeng sees its stream of tourists arriving every day on its banks and disappearing in multiple guesthouses. Tourists arrive late in the day and depart the next morning, which leaves little time to enjoy and visit the place.
However, Pakbeng scenery is exceptional, truly relaxing and very green. Jungle is everywhere and the Mekong adds a finishing touch to the decor. Furthermore, the other side of the river (accessible only by a small boat) is the home to several elephants.
Here, no endless succession of tourist groups to ride on the elephant’s back, no logs to pull until exhaustion. Elephants are here in their “rest home”. A well-deserved rest as these elephants bear signs of abuse. Some are more abused than others.
Encounter with Thomas Bottino, 22, a young and enthusiastic manager of “Mekong Elephant Camp” in Pakbeng.
The sanctuary receives both the elephant and his master, called mahout, to allow some time for the elephant to recuperate and become fit again. The elephants arrive after years of intensive logging work.
“This elephant sanctuary is somewhat unique as here we offer the owner the possibility to leave his elephant in the sanctuary for some time against a monthly compensation as well as a pay for the mahout, sponsored in part by the “Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge”, said Thomas.
Paradoxically, elephants are used for the destruction of their own habitat, in particular, in the labour-intensive logging. Considered as working tools, many elephants find premature death from exhaustion or accident.
Demand for the precious wood grows every year. Removing trees from the forest demand strength and balance, and domesticated elephants seem to be perfect for this job. The elephants in Laos are small compared to their African counterparts but robust and precise. Their movements are slow but efficient. They can pull up to eight tons of logs per day, reach trees in otherwise inaccessible areas and they can work long hours. The best qualities for the logging industry.
Logging is an activity that involves removing trees (mainly precious wood such as teak and rosewood) and transporting them to a collection point. This is a lucrative business for the owner of an elephant.
An elephant is fragile despite its appearances but in the logging industry, the elephants are used to their last breath. “Logging is very physical activity and it causes accelerated deterioration of health of the elephant. Stress is huge as they have to work fast on the rough terrain (logging is illegal in Laos), and the mahouts aren’t necessarily kind while giving orders and accelerating the work pace”, explains Thomas.
In the logging camps, with its steady pace, the elephants don’t have time to eat properly. “An elephant eats between 150kg and 250kg per day. They need enough rest to digest their daily ration”, tells us Thomas.
Some elephants die of malnutrition, heart attack or accident on the steep and slippery terrain. Since the mahouts are paid according to the volume of collected logs, they make the wounded elephant continue working. “New residents usually arrive at the sanctuary emaciated and with various degrees of health disorders (gastrointestinal problems, infections leading to huge pockets of pus or other health problems)”, continues Thomas.
The Pakbeng Elephant Sanctuary receives the elephant and his mahout for recuperation that can last a few months or a few years depending on each case. The sanctuary is also a rest home for mahouts. During their stay at the sanctuary, they receive wages equivalent to those in the logging camps.
But the conditions are strict. It happened that Thomas had to take a decision to fire a mahout, who is too aggressive and unfriendly towards the animal during his trial period at the sanctuary.
Put to work at the frantic pace in the logging camps, the elephants get exhausted and don’t reproduce. In addition, their work full-time doesn’t leave them enough time to reproduce.
The reproduction of an elephant is a synonym of the loss of income for the elephant’s owner and the mahout. “During pregnancy (lasting 2 years) and lactation (about 3 years), the female is unable to work”, explains Thomas. In addition, the training of a young elephant begins only at the age of 10 or 12. During all these years, the young elephant is at the owner’s expense and doesn’t earn him any money.
One of the reasons of the disappearance of elephants in Laos is their extremely low reproduction rate.. The population of elephants in Laos is aging but isn’t getting replaced. For ten elephants who die, only one is born.
This represents a true challenge for the owner as “the maintenance of a captive elephant costs approximately US$ 30,000”.
Another challenge is to find money to inseminate the female. We were surprised to learn that “for a simple insemination, the owner of the male elephant demands US$ 15,000 from the owner of the female”. Thomas confesses that he doesn’t really have a plausible explanation for why such an amount or why such a greed.
Rides on the elephant’s back are a very popular activity offered to tourists in several countries in Asia. Riding tourists seems harmless and fun, but this activity has a hidden reality. Several cases of elephants dying from exhaustion have been recorded.
The elephant spends his day riding tourists on his back, having no time to rest, eat or drink. No wonder that elephants are exhausted at the end of the day.
There is another dark and disturbing side of the story. To become docile, elephants undergo a special training, called phajaan. This training aims to breaking the spirit of the elephant to make him docile and fearful of the man.
Young elephants are separated from their mothers, usually at the age of four. Chained and locked in cages, they are deprived of sleep, food and water, and repeatedly beaten in sensitive areas (sex, ears, trunk, for example). The process stops when the spirit of the animal is broken. The elephants, who become aggressive or crazy, are usually killed.
Half of the elephants don’t survive the ordeal, and if they survive, they will remember it for their whole life.
If the mass tourism industry is detrimental for elephants, why does the sanctuary accept tourists? We couldn’t resist from asking this question to Thomas.
“Tourists are necessary as they partially cover the running costs of the sanctuary”, confesses Thomas. But there are rules in order to prevent the case of Cambodia. In 2016 due to heat and relentless work, one elephant has died from cardiac arrest while riding the tourists.
“At the moment we offer the tourists the possibility to ride on the elephant’s back but using wicker chairs, which are much lighter compared to those made from very heavy rosewood or metal. But even this formula will change over time for more respect of the elephant”, continues Thomas.
The number of tourists is also limited. “During the high season we receive around 40 tourists a week, which remains manageable, and we don’t want that number to increase. For comparison, a conventional camp, whose revenues are solely generated by tourism, accommodates up to 40 visitors a day”.
Another factor contributing to their disappearance is the belief that the tip of the trunk and the genitals are considered aphrodisiac (particularly, in Vietnam and China). The hair on their tails and nails are also sought after by poachers.
Farmers constitute another threat to elephants. If a farmer spots an elephant in his garden, he won’t hesitate to kill him. With the expansion of land for agriculture, it becomes very difficult for wild elephants to meet and reproduce.
In the sanctuary of Pakbeng, elephants are taken away in the jungle. When they are without their mahout, they are attached to a long chain of 30 meters to protect them from farmers and poachers. It also makes it easy for the mahout to find them.
Fascinated by these animals, Thomas tells us more sad stories about their fate. He seriously doubts the continuity of this species in the coming decades.
Soon Laos without elephants?
Location: “Mekong Elephant Camp” is located in Pakbeng, a small town on the banks of the Mekong river in Laos, between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.
Transportation: how to get to Pakbeng from Thailand
Accommodation: There are many guesthouses in Pakbeng. There is no need to book in advance, it’s better to choose upon your arrival. The easiest way to see the elephants, and also more comfortable and luxurious is to stay at the “Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge”.
Additional information: Elephants take a bath in the river every day around 7 am. To see the elephants, to organize a small morning getaway to accompany the elephants while they bath or to arrange hiking, see the “Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge”.
We can suggest an amazing film “Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927)”. Shot in the twenties in Laos, the film evokes a time when Laos sheltered a huge population of wild elephants. It’s difficult to find it online – only some parts are available on YouTube.
To get an idea about the elephants’ health issues in the logging industry, you can read the stories of two French veterinarians (photos speak for themselves).