Pak Ou, Laos

Land of a Million Elephants : VIDEO

April 11th, 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.

The landlocked Laos People’s Democratic Republic is often referred to by another, more ancient name: The Land of a Million Elephants. Yet as the country’s jungles are increasingly cleared to make way for economic development, human and elephant populations are coming into conflict more than at any time in the past - and it is almost always the elephants who suffer as a result.

With less than 400 wild elephants estimated to remain in the nation, many have been co-opted into the tourism or logging industries. According to the Elephant Conservation Center, there are currently more elephants engaged in the logging industry in Laos than there are wild.

Despite the precarious situation of the country’s elephants, we also found a deep bond between people and elephants outside of the northern city of Luang Prabang. Son Phet, a young elephant handler, to describe how he felt about the female elephant, Khoun, who was under his care for more than a year, his response was unashamedly tender: “She is everything. My friend, my family, my wife.”

“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.”

This is a story about a river, elephants, and their complicated relationship with humanity.

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