Pak Ou, Laos

Land of a Million Elephants

April 25th, 2016

The wild elephant is one of Laos’ national symbols, but the expansion of civilization is pushing humans and elephants closer and closer together.

Outside the northern city of Luang Prabang, we explore the relationships between humans and domesticated elephants. Over four days we learn about the bond formed between the animals and their handlers and the realities of the ecotourism and logging industries use of elephants.

“When I came here, I didn’t know anything about elephants. I was a little afraid of them,” Son Phet admitted. A 24-year-old mahout, or elephant rider, Son Phet did not look afraid of the giant animal anymore as he stood fully upright on its head. Khoun, the 47-year-old female he was partnered with, hardly seemed to notice his weight.

After the last week of investigating the impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams on the local populations, we had come to an elephant camp outside Luang Prabang to try and learn more about the relationships between people and animals along the Mekong. We had seen shockingly little wildlife during the the last months of travel. Apart from a brief visit to a national park and bird conservancy in Vietnam, most the animal populations and habitats we’d encountered had been in bad shape. We needed to be reminded that the Mekong was a river that was not solely the domain of humanity.

Admittedly, visiting a man-made camp where elephants were closely tied to their human partners was not the purest means of learning about the lives of the animals. But as Laos had an estimated population of just 400-600 wild elephants remaining, with our limited resources we stood little chance of interacting with them in their natural environment. Even with this compromise in mind, we felt it was important to try and gain some understanding of the enormous mammals' situation in 21st century Laos.

After all, the country’s historic nickname was Lane Xang - the Land of a Million Elephants.

Courting an Elephant

“I heard that one of the older mahouts had a motorbike accident,” Son Phet explained when we asked what prompted him to become a professional elephant handler. “I knew about this place because my village is quite nearby and I had played with elephants a little before, and so I decided to apply.”

The process of learning to control with an elephant, Son Phet told us, was an involved one. Captive elephants form a special bond to their handlers and will stubbornly refuse to listen to anyone they do not know. They are highly intelligent animals and can remember and understand a surprising variety of command words, but if they don’t trust a person they project an air of quiet indifference and simply will not move. And weighing at roughly 3 tonnes, there is little a person can do to compel them against their will, save extreme physical violence.

For Mahouts like Son Phet, whose job security depended on being able to control his elephant while keeping it in good health. Abusing the extremely valuable animal (buying an adult female can cost far more than a luxury SUV) would be a sure way to get fired. On top of this, beating an elephant into submission could create short term acquiescence, but in the long run made sure the mahout would live in perpetual danger.

“Elephants hide their emotions,” Son Phet told us when we asked him about the risks involved with his job. “It can be very difficult to tell if they are happy, sad, or angry. If you treat them badly they will hide their feelings, but they will never forget. They will wait and let you think everything is ok, but they might wait until you are alone with them in the jungle and then kill you. They don’t forget.”

The thought of such a powerful creature biding its time behind a mask of calm until it could exact the ultimate revenge on an abusive human was both fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. Of course Son Phet was taught this when he accepted the job, and so knew that the only way to gain real control required time and patience.

The basic formula was simple: stay in nearly constant contact with them for roughly a month until sufficient trust was earned. That contact involved everything from feeding the elephants, playing with them, and bathing them in the Mekong to keep them cool and clean. Except for when the elephants were taken into the jungle where they slept for the night, the mahouts were seldom out of sight of their animals, even long after a trusting relationship was established. Yet like any relationship, complete control was always out of reach. “You can never really have 100% control,” Son Phet explained. “The best you can do is maybe 95%. They can always choose not to listen.”

When we asked Son Phet to describe how he felt about Khoun after spending more than a year together, his response was unashamedly tender: “She is everything. My friend, my family, my wife.”

Beasts of Burden

As much as we were moved by the close relationships between man and elephant we had witnessed over the last few days, we knew that Khoun and the other animals at the Luang Prabang camp were not free in the true sense of the word. They were treated with absolute compassion and kindness, but still they remained indentured to their owners and spent nearly every day carrying tourists on their backs. Yet from our research and pre-trip conversations with elephant experts, we knew that employment in the ecotourism industry was far preferable to the other jobs elephants were often forced into.

According to the Elephant Conservation Center, there are currently more elephants employed by the logging industry in Laos than there are wild. Laos is rich in valuable hardwoods such as teak, and its mountainous terrain and the low budgets of many logging operations mean hiring industrial machinery is not always the most effective option for harvesting lumber. Elephants, with their enormous strength and ability to navigate both on land and in water, are often recruited into the labour force.

The owner of the camp where we’d been staying agreed to show us where we could see the use of elephants in the logging industry for ourselves, and so early on our final morning in Luang Prabang we were dropped off at a small crossing on a minor tributary of the Mekong. As we sat in a leaky fishing boat that served as the only means of crossing we could hear the distant sound of something crashing through the water well before we saw it.

When the elephant, a 35-year-old female names Seub, round the bend in the river, it was a truly awesome sight. Outfitted with a thick harness it dragged a massive section of a freshly felled tree at the end of lengths of heavy looking chains. It was the first time we had actually experienced the full extent of the animal’s power; with each determined heave forwards it was apparent just how strong it was as it heaved the log over a sandbar and into the flowing river beyond.

Its mahout sat cross-legged on Seub’s head just above the river’s current as the elephant swam steadily across to the opposite bank, the weight clearly much easier for her to manage with the aid of the water’s buoyancy. Once ashore, the mahout barked commands to the Seub, provoking the final burst of power needed to beach the log. Seub was then unhooked from her chains and let to a thicket of dense grass to graze for a while before heading back across the river to haul another section of teak.

In all, Seub would be able to make roughly 10 of these trips in a day, earning around $150 for the loggers for every cubed metre of lumber she delivered. If she wasn’t sick or tired and worked at maximum speed, her mahout told us, Seub could pull more than $10 000 worth of wood across the river in an 8 hour work day. It was difficult and dangerous work for both the elephant and her mahout, and since many small scale logging operations were illegal the risks were substantial.

Back at the Luang Prabang camp, we talked with Son Phet about what we had seen. “I’m a bit worried,” he said about the future of elephants in Laos. “We used to be ‘the land of a million elephants’, but now we’re just a few thousand. They can be valuable, and people sometimes hurt them [while trying to earn money with them]. When I see this I wasn't to tell people to stop so that we can keep elephants in Laos for future generations.”

Note: We had not gone to Luang Prabang to pass judgements. In an ideal world elephants would be left alone to live without human interference, but reality is not ideal. As populations grow and forests are cut, the habits of humans and elephants are coming closer and closer together, and it is likely that the best hope for a thriving elephant population in Laos is through captive breeding. From what we had seen, the life of an ecotourism elephant was far preferable to that of a logging elephant.

For anyone looking to get involved, the Elephant Conservation Center works to repurpose logging elephants into the ecotourism industry, expand the country’s elephant population through breeding programs, and protect the habitat of the wild elephants remaining.

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