Sunday, 15 January 2012

For the love of elephants in Sayaboury, Laos

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Arriving at the centre by boat on a beautiful cool and foggy morning. You can just make out the huts to the right in the distance. The area around Nam Tien lake has been the heartland for elephants for many centuries. 

The idea of visiting the Elephant Conservaton Centre (ECC) in Sayaboury, was one of the precursors to me jumping on a plane to Laos.... and I am so glad I did, for so many reasons. One of which was seeing for my own eyes the wonderful work that the people at the centre are doing for the true welfare of the Asian Elephant.

The ECC is a privately run company which works in partnership with the French based not for profit organisation ElefantAsia.

If you want to climb onto a large seat on the back of an elephant for a 'trek' into the jungle or watch elephants 'perform' for endless streams of tourists then this is definitely NOT the place for you.

However, if you would like to learn about how you can help protect these majestic and beautiful animals, and get up close and personal with them without causing them any injury, then this IS your place, and what a place it is.

Arriving at the centre by boat on the waters of lake Nam Tien in the Province of Sayaboury is truly an experience like no other. It is another world, a world of silence and heartbreakingly beautiful landscape for as far as the eye can see. 

You can take the Tuk Tuk all the way from the town of Sayaboury but I advise taking the boat for the last leg..... the journey is too beautiful to miss.

We (myself and friend Gai) left our accommodation in the town of Sayaboury by Tuk Tuk, it was my first introduction into the world of Tuk Tuk transport and I loved it. They are not particularly comfortable nor do they offer you much shelter from the elements, but where would the fun in that be!

We were transferred from the Tuk Tuk to a boat for the last part of the trip to the centre, and I advise you to not miss this water journey, it is spectacular.

Visitors are able to stay at the centre in comfortable cabin type accommodation  instead of making the daily journey (and I will write more on this in my next post). Construction on additional accommodation in the form of a guesthouse will commence this year.

For certain reasons we decided to spend our nights in Sayaboury, (the choice is completely up to the individual visitor and to be honest I wished we had stayed at the centre....happily there is always a next time)! The trip from town including the Tuk Tuk and the boat is around 40 to 45 minutes.

On our arrival we were welcomed by BP (Bunton) our guide at the centre, with the same gentle friendliness that we had grown accustomed to in our short time in Laos.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
BP will look after you well...... be prepared, he loves a joke! 

The centre is currently home to 5 fully grown elephants and 2 elephant calves which inhabit the 106 hectares of protected forest (the majority of these 5 elephants having have come from the logging industry and from the Sayaboury region).

There was clearly much to experience here and much to learn in relation to the various programs being put into action at the centre, and it was more than clear that their work was extremely important to the survival of the ever dwindling numbers of Asian Elephants in Laos.

Cabin accommodation at the centre.....waking up to this landscape is pretty special. 

A little bit of background on the Asian Elephant

The Asian Elephant differs in a number of ways from the African Elephant.  Firstly the Asian elephant is smaller than the African, with their highest point being the top of the head rather than the top of the shoulder as in African elephants. Their ears are smaller and their diet consists of grass, leaves and roots, whereas the African elephant's diet consists only of leaves. (These are just some of the differences).

A major difference, is that the female Asian elephant does not have tusks, this is a positive, as it is the high value of ivory that feeds the ivory poachers and is one of the reasons behind the massive depletion of wild elephant herds in the world.

The Asian elephant inhabits a huge area of southern Asia, including; Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, norther Borneo and Laos, and are found in humid tropical forests or savannah land.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

Some of the wooden huts at the centre. All of them have been transported from other areas of Laos and re-constructed so as not to take any timber away from the forests and encourage logging.

Relationship between the elephants and the Lao people.
Back in the 14th Century Laos as we know it today was known as the Kingdom of Lan Xang (The Land of a million elephants).... and while there were never a million elephants in Laos the Lao people have had a special working relationship with these animals for centuries and the elephant is still their sacred national emblem.

In fact Asian elephants have worked with people for thousands of years and are still used today to pull the timber from the densely forested mountain areas of many Asian countries, areas often inaccessible by any other means.

Elephants continue to be an important part of the Lao peoples working life.  They are integrated into the mahout's (elephant owners) family, and considered an equal family member, staying with them for many many years. 

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
The complicity and trust that can exist between man and elephant is touching.

The main employer for elephants still today in Laos is logging. This is a difficult and dangerous job for both the elephants and the mahouts. The mahout and their elephant work together 7 days a week in order to earn a living and many of the elephants are too tired and busy from the work to breed.  Many of the logging elephants can suffer from broken legs, foot injuries, and abscesses, and there is also the ever present risk of death. Malnutrition and physical exhaustion are also a major problem for them.

Female elephants only have 4 to 5 babies in a lifetime, but in order to reproduce they need the time to mate.  The added pressure they face is that their ability to reproduce falls off dramatically from the age of 30.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

A mahout with his elephant and elephant calf at the centre.

Elephant calves are becoming rare in Laos as a mahout is not able to rest his female elephant during her pregnancy and lactation (a cow needs 4 years out of work for one calf). Without a working elephant the family is left without an income.  Additionally, the elephant calf cannot pull logs until it is 13 years old, so becomes a liability. All of this means that the mahout is not going to enable its elephant to breed, which on a social and financial level is easy to comprehend, however, it does nothing to  help the elephant population of Laos.

Currently there is only one birth per five deaths and only 1000 elephants remaining in Laos, with a prediction that by 2060 they will be extinct.

Most of the elephants in Laos are what they call captive elephants (working elephants), the numbers are falling dramatically with only 420 captive elephants left, compared to 800, 10 years ago.

Fifty years ago 70% of Laos was covered in forest, now there is between 30% and 40% forest coverage.

One of the areas where the Conservation centre steps in is to help both the welfare of the elephants and the mahouts.  The centre has come up with alternatives so that the elephants can be taken out of the dangerous logging industry, ensuring at the same time that the mahouts and their family retain an income.

The ECC describes itself as a 'haven for elephant reproduction, lactation, recovery and disease diagnosis'.

Relaxed and happy elephants and mahouts are testament to the success of the work being done at the centre

The centre's breeding incentive program offers these families a chance to continue earning an income from their elephant while it is breeding or looking after its calf. 

They do this by offering the mahout and his elephant a place at the centre where the mahout is paid for the work he does there.  The result being that the  elephant is removed from the dangers of logging and the mahout has the opportunity to be trained in a career in ecotourism through the centre's Mahout Vocation Program.

It is through this program that the mahout receives his training in the traditions of mouhoutship which have been conserved and passed down over the centuries, as well as English lessons and tourism guiding courses, which will all assist him in moving from a career in logging to one in ecotourism.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
The relationship between Mahout and elephant is a close and special one.

The centre also helps the mahouts and their elephants to mate and breed by offering their baby Bonus incentive package.

A mahout who works alongside their elephant in rice farming has the opportunity to accept a hand tractor from the centre to replace their elephant, who in turn goes to the centre to be mated and rested during its pregnancy. 

If the mahout would like to take his female elephant back from the centre after the 4 year period the calf may remain at the centre and continue to earn an income for its owner. (Elephants are privately owned in Laos).

These female elephants receive ante and post natal care from the vets at the centre as well as any assistance required during the actual delivery. The babies also receive much care, (their first two years before weaning are critical to their health).

Importantly, mahouts who agree to take part in the baby bonus program must sign a contract stating that the elephant born from the baby bonus package will not be used in logging.

Walking down through the forest to the nursery area

The mothers and calves are kept in the area designated 'The Nursery' (part of the natural protected forest), and was one of the first areas we visited on our first morning at the centre.

Seeing the elephants and their babies appear and walk down the forest path to the lake where we were waiting for them for our first introduction was exhilerating.......actually, we heard them before we saw them. The trumpeting of an elephant is extremely hard to miss and so much more impressive and emotive when you hear it in its natural environment.

Visitors cannot approach or touch the female elephants and their calves for the safety of all concerned. Naturally the mother elephants can get aggressive if they feel their baby is threatened in anyway. 

We were however only a few metres away from them and both mothers and babies were happy and relaxed and in the company of their mahouts at all times  (the babies were showing off just a little and quite playful with each other which was very sweet to see).

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

Picture of contentment. One of the babies takes a cooling shower in the lake.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
View looking to the centre while returning by boat from the nursery area.

The Ecotourism program allows visitors to enter the natural environment of the elephant, and in addition gives them the chance to contribute to the security of the elephant population in Laos, as well as to the continuation of the age old tradition of mahoutship. (Funds received through these ecotourism visits contribute to the costs of setting up and running the education and breeding programs at the centre).

Five percent of the centre's turnover is put directly back into ElefantAsia's conservation projects which assists elephants throughout the whole of Laos, not just the elephants living at the centre itself.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

Bath time at the centre is loved by everyone, mahouts, elephants and visitors.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

Note: (I will write about the various opportunities and activities for visitors at the centre and the accommodation options in my next post).

There is always the chance that 'tourism' may have a negative impact on the local people and the environment, and that is why the ECC state that they are not and never will become a destination for mass tourism. 

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Taking a stroll with the elephants (I'm on foot and not nearly as sure footed as they are).

The ECC also boasts of its own permanent elephant hospital.  Opened in 2011, with construction funded by the Beauval Zoological Garden, France. The hospital is run by a qualified team of in house vets ready to treat any incoming injured elephant or any elephant affected by illness or disease at any time.

Elefant Asia also have mobile veterinary clinics equipped with the necessary surgical tools, medication, sedative guns and microchips.  The team is on call  day or night for emergency missions throughout the country, and are able to reach most logging camps in Sayaboury within the day.  One of the many reasons they may be called out, is to sedate uncontrollable elephants during their period of musth 

Already the mobile service has checked on 400 elephants over the 5 years it has been in operation.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012
Baby elephant in mud and loving it.
The work being done at the Elephant Conservation Centre in Sayaboury is impressive and inspiring to say the least.

As well as being a place of immense beauty and relaxation, a visit to the centre provides an opportunity for the 'tourist' to interact with the locals and at the same time contribute to the welfare of mahoutship and the Asian elephant of Laos. 

Take the road a little 'less travelled' and go, you will not regret it for a minute.

© Copyright Millie Brown 2012

©copyright Millie Brown 2012
If you would like to show your support for the conservation of elephants in Laos you can help by spreading the word and clicking 'f' to share on facebook, thank you.
To visit their site go to -

Millie xx
These photos are copyrighted, please do not download :-)
©copyright Millie Brown 2012

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