On the international level, there’s a generalized perception of elephant tourism in Southeast Asia. The universal consensus is that the tourism industry is terrible for elephants and it should not exist – the best place for elephants is the wild where they can roam around freely without human intervention. From a western point of view, these notions are perfectly reasonable. On the other hand though, to expect a developing nation like Laos, which is dealing with its own social, economic and political issues to adhere to the same standards is unrealistic, to say the least. To make matters worse, the international media and various wildlife organizations completely villainizes and condemns any places or tour companies that support or even promote elephant tourism in this part of the world – and it’s so utterly deterring.
The plight of elephants in Laos is a complicated one. Although laws exist to prohibit the hunting and capturing of elephants in the wild, it is not enforced – at all. The laws exist more as a formality than a conscious effort to preserve the wild elephant population. Simply put, the wild is a very precarious place for elephants to stay. Likewise, there are laws banning the use of elephants in the notorious logging industry, but again, the lack of any enforcement does little to mitigate the use of elephants in this field so now you’re left wondering if there’s any hope for these gentle trumpeters of nature.
FINDING AN UNLIKELY REFUGE
Hope seems bleak for the 800 or so remaining pachyderms of Laos, which is quite unfortunate for a place once called ‘the land of a million elephants.’ Although hope does seem quite bleak, it’s certainly not lost. There exists a place where elephants can be safe and at the same time earn their keep in this uncertain reality. I’m talking about tourism of course. Yes, you read correctly – tourism. When you see the words ‘tourism’ and ‘elephant’ together you’re probably cringing and images of two or three tourists sitting on a seat that’s strapped onto the back of an elephant or maybe even worse, elephants doing belittling tricks or some sort of unnatural performance appear in your head and you’re thinking – oh no. You’re a terrible person! Free the elephants! Or something to that effect. Of course, your apprehensions are understandable as elephant camps in this part of the world are notorious for exploiting their herd. Sadly, due to the negative perception being cast on elephant tourism as a whole, it makes it very challenging for places putting in a genuine effort to protect the elephants of Laos in a logical way.
In Laos, the tourism industry is the safest place for elephants to be. Anyone who tells you otherwise has never lived in Laos and are speaking through generalizations. Even the worst camps in Laos are more humane than the working conditions that elephants have to endure in the logging industry and perhaps even safer than being in the wild where they’re at constant conflict with the human population. With that said, some camps treat elephants better than others but to be sure, consider Elephant Village in Luang Prabang, Laos.
ELEPHANT FRIENDLY RIDING POLICIES
Elephant Village is not just about elephant riding. In fact, that’s just a small part of the overall experience. On top of the riding, which is bareback and one guest per elephant with a mahout (elephant trainer) sitting right behind for safety reasons, guests get to interact with elephants, learn more about them, and most importantly, contribute to their conservation in the best possible way. We limit the time the elephants under our care are used each day. The rides begin at around 8:30 am and depending on how many guests there are could last till around 1:00 pm. During the low season, which is eight months out of the year, elephants do less than two hours of riding. After all the riding is complete guests have the opportunity to bathe the elephants in the river and then they’re brought back to their nesting ground in the jungle to enjoy the rest of the day at leisure.
COMPLETE ELEPHANT EXPERIENCE
What makes Elephant Village so unique is how ethical and educational the experiences are. It’s these little extra bullets in the tours that make the experience, on the whole, more immersive and worthwhile. Every tour includes elephant feeding, a visit to our two baby elephants, our elephant hospital, museum, photo gallery, and elephant dung paper making station – I kid you not, we make paper from elephant dung. We then make a variety of souvenirs from the dung paper and sell it to visitors. The earnings from the souvenirs are used to buy more food for the elephants. After the elephants eat and digest the food, the perpetual cycle starts again. An Asian elephant eats between 200 to 600 lbs. of food and produces just as much dung each day so there is plenty of paper to be made.
On top of providing a safe home for elephants, we are also very environmentally conscious. In an effort to reduce the use of plastic bottles, we give every guest participating in one of our tours a reusable aluminum bottle that they can fill up and refill with water at one of our many water station setups around the camp. After the tour is finished, guests take the bottles home with them to reuse again and again. Likewise, we require our staff at both the campsite and the office to use the same eco-friendly bottles. We have also installed waste and recycling baskets in the surrounding villages to discourage local littering habits. This is all in an effort to reduce our carbon footprint on the environment. These seem like small initiatives from a western perspective but you have to remember that these concepts are quite new to Laos, a country where slash and burn practices are still widespread and people seem to think it’s a good idea to create makeshift landfills on the side of frequented roads because it’s convenient.
SUPPORTING THE COMMUNITY
We also strive to be socially responsible. About 95% of our staff are Lao nationals. On top of that, over 80% of them are local villagers who were traditionally farmers and fisherman. By employing some of them we are allowing them the opportunity to experience a new way of making a living — a sample of things to come as Laos continues to develop as a nation. We also support the local community by purchasing goods from nearby villages, goods like elephant food and produce for our restaurant. Additionally, we donate clothes and other useful items to the more remote villages nearby and urge our guests to do the same. Furthermore, we visit the same villages to hand out school supplies and even snacks to the school children to promote learning.
WHEN IN LAOS
If you’re planning a trip to Laos and would like to interact with elephants in a meaningful way – and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you? After all, Laos is ‘the land of a million elephants’ – please seriously consider Elephant Village. It’s more than just a simple elephant ride. That’s just a small part of a more intimate, educational, and overall fulfilling experience. You’re looking at a place that genuinely has the welfare of elephants in mind and is doing what’s necessary to keep them safe and make their lives easier in the less than ideal reality. Your patronage will not only contribute to elephant conservation but also the local communities that are learning to adapt to the changing world around them.
By: Phet Khanya
Elephant Village Sanctuary & Resort
Saving elephants through responsible tourism