Did you know that Laos used to be called 'The Land of a Million Elephants?' They figure there are approximately 800 left... and only 400 of those are currently in the wild.
... very sad.
As I may have previously mentioned, I really wanted to visit a TRUE elephant sanctuary while either in Thailand or Laos. Since learning more about the hideous and horrendously unethical elephant tourism trade whilst in South Africa, I had my list of demands for this perceived sanctuary.
No close contact or interaction.
No tourist feedings.
No tourist bathing.
No touchy selfies.
My demands were miraculously met... by Mekong Elephant Park on the Mekong river, in Laos.
Hats off to this incredible crew that have stepped RIGHT up and have created a safe place for the elephants they've rescued. These majestic beasts have endured such devastating torture in their lives... and for so long. Mekong Elephant Park is truly dedicated to the preservation of elephants in Laos and does everything within their power to give the elephants a chance to live the rest of their lives in a natural environment.
So many elephant 'zoos' or 'tourism businesses' simply add the word 'sanctuary' to their operation, but the elephants continue to suffer. Tourist activities, such as bathing, silly tricks and selfies only continue to contribute to elephant cruelty. Imagine the damage done by excessive and repetitive bathing with each group of tourists showing up for photos. The mental anguish and severe anxiety would be nothing short of crippling. This is without even touching on physical damage endured after years of this style of abuse.
Mekong Elephant Park has been very active in saving elephants from their previous lives of logging operations, hard labour, elephant-riding camps, circuses and inhumane working conditions. Of course, there is only so much money and so much room... and they have to heavily depend on donations from tourists to pay for vet checks, elephant care, staff/mahouts and food.
Elephants naturally spend approximately 80% of the day feeding and can consume up to 375lbs of vegetation within a 24 hour period. Imagine requiring 80% of your day to eat, while being forced to work 10+ laborious hours, enduring devastating abuse the entire time.
Why more people aren't stepping up to put an end to the injustice is incomprehensible.
The sanctuary runs a strict rehabilitation program, where they teach (or re-teach) the elephants to forage and feed themselves. Apart from positive reinforcement treats, they need to be able to learn to survive back in the wild. Many of the elephants were ripped away from their families at such a young age, forced to live out almost their entire lives in captivity and have become totally dependent on humans for whatever meals they received.
Now there are no human interactions, apart from their mahouts.
A mahout is, essentially, an elephant's keeper. It is a dying profession, but usually a mahout would be assigned to an elephant as a young boy, and they would remain bonded to each other throughout their lives.
With more of the world becoming more educated in regards to blatant animal cruelty, some rapacious people see 'saving the elephants' as another opportunity to continue to exploit them. By simply adding the word 'sanctuary' to a tourist operation, it suddenly adds false merit. 'Sanctuary' makes it appear as though the elephants have been saved when in fact, they are suffering exactly the same fate as before.
Every captive elephant is subject to a brutal training process known as the crush. Most are torn from their mothers as babies... then isolated, chained, starved and brutally beaten until they are submissive enough to perform... and be ridden.
Their spirit is completely broken. Literally crushed.
Every elephant has a story.
Unfortunately it is not normally a happy story. Almost never, in fact.
In Thailand, all wild and all white elephants are property of the government and the King. Due to a rapid decline in numbers over the years, they are now classified as an endangered species and most profitable sanctuaries and zoos have veterinarians on site to make it have the appearance of being ethical.
I spent quite a lot of time looking into each one of the sanctuaries scattered around Thailand and Laos; reading reviews, blogs, websites... and finally decided on Mekong Elephant Park. Bonus for me that it was so conveniently located as well. This was the reason for my two days in Pak Beng during my slow boat excursion.
There were six elephants in the Mekong Elephant Park; Mae Kham, Mae Nin, Mae Nat, Mae Ping, Baby Boua and Kham Khoun.
Mae Nin (neice) and Mae Nat (aunt) had both worked together in the logging industry for over 40 years. Mae Nat had even done circus time in Japan before being found and relocated to Mekong. Mae Nin had partially raised Mai Ping after her mother was sold to China. Mae Ping was the mother of adorable Baby Boua.
Wendy, the manager of Mekong Elephant Park, was bound and determined to get as many of the family members back together as she could, and she succeeded in reuniting Mae Ping, Mae Nin and Mae Nat after a long 15 years apart. They say elephants never forget and this was evident at their reunion. Since reuniting, they have not left each other's side. They can always be found together.
Wendy managed to track down the mother of Mae Ping (and sister of Mae Nat), but unfortunately she was still in China and was never going to be able to come back to Laos.
Mae Kham, the eldest and matriarch of the herd, also worked in the logging industry for over 40 years, resulting in numerous scars and frightfully torn ears. Just by looking at her, you can tell what a hard life she has had... and because of this (and her age), she is slightly more pampered than the rest. Her mahout does everything he can to make sure she is happy and comfortable at all times. Apparently she doesn't like green bananas at all and when she refuses to eat them, it often forces him to seek out alternative delicious treats for her.
One of the elephant treats is the vitamin ball. This is made up with a mixture of sticky rice, plum tree bark, sugar cane, tamarind... and some other ingredients, but I can't really recall what they were. At one point during the day, we all got to join in and help concoct these delicacies. Each of us was given a sharp knife and cut it all up. If we thought that was difficult, it was nothing compared to the mushing & crushing machine. It was a big, wooden teeter totter... us controlling the one end with our foot while the other end's nub worked as an enormous grinder.
The elephant's magic bullet.
Kham Khoun is the only male at the sanctuary and absolutely adored by all the females. The end of his trunk is missing, due to an accident with a machete, but he still manages to feed himself, despite his handicap. In the few times we observed Kham Khoun with the rest of the herd, he was being cuddled to the point of claustrophobic by the females.
We also heard the heartwrenching story of the passing of one of the beloved elephants. She had been pregnant, but unfortunately the baby died before she could give birth. A special veterinarian was called in to do an operation and remove the calf from inside of her. Three days afterwards, while showing excellent signs of recovery, the elephant keeled over and died. It was a traumatic moment, leaving the staff and other elephants devastated. The mahout was so distraught, he left the project immediately and has not worked with another elephant since.
Elephants mourn too.
They grieve lost ones and they cry.
Elephants are known to bury their dead and pay tribute to the bodies and to the bones.
The crew decided not to let the mother and baby see the dead elephant, as Baby Boua was only 2 months old. They were afraid of a panic movement, thinking it might cause distress and turmoil, especially with a new calf running around. For months, Mae Ping searched the jungle for her friend, calling to her... but she never answered back...
I spent most of the day trying desperately to hold back my tears.
Sadness and devestation was nearly always temporarily abandoned with the appearance of Baby Boua. We could have stood and watched her frolic for hours. She was the star of the show and she absolutely knew it. She was spirited, sassy and mischievous to the point of being downright naughty at times. She loved to play, pushing the boundaries... AND her mahout off the trail sometimes, galloping along in her cheerful and frisky manner.
When Baby Boua was born, she gave hope to the future of elephant species facing the threat of extinction. Everyone at Mekong Elephant Park adored her, as did we.
Our interaction with all the elephants was ALWAYS purely observational. We stayed far back and were only permitted to take photos from a safe distance. There were no tricks or games. We just stood there and watched as the elephants grazed or came bounding down the trail. There was a simple fence up, but it only acted as a way of demonstrating 'this is your area' and 'that is theirs.'
It was a wonderful day...
All the feels...
Find out more about Mekong Elephant Park's story here - Mekong's Story.
My hope is that anyone reading this will think twice before contributing their time and/or money to anything that isn't sustainable, preservational and ethical... whether it be elephants, turtles, monkeys, koalas, kangaroos, dolphins, camels... or any wild animal...
Don't even get me started on zoos and aquariums... 💔