We were all very excited about our next experience in Laos. We were going to spend 2 days at the Elephant Conservation Centre in Sayabouri, 3 hours from Luang Prabang. After a bus ride, followed by a short boat ride across the lake, we arrived at the centre.
The Elephant Conservation Centre has been created to help elephants in Laos. For many years elephants were used to haul logs out of the forest in Laos. Being a “mahout” (elephant trainer and caretaker) was considered a well-respected profession. Now in Laos much of the land has been “over logged” so the government no longer allows logging in many areas, and the use of elephants for this work is prohibited. This has changed the role of the elephant and the mahout. Tourism has become a common use for the elephant with elephant camps offering visitors lengthy rides on elephants and mahout training sessions (which are really just elephant riding lessons). The elephants are often not well treated at these camps, since they are viewed as just tools for the business. They are not given enough time to eat or rest and are often not fed a well-balanced diet. At the Elephant Conservation Centre they want to educate Lao people about the proper treatment of elephants. They want to increase the number of healthy captive elephants in Laos and help the mahout profession regain the respect it deserves. They agree that tourism can be a good for Laos and the elephants but feel that it should centre around education about the elephants not riding and misusing them.
Our visit to the Elephant Conservation Centre began at the elephant museum where they have books and posters with information about elephants. We learned the difference between African Elephants and Asian Elephants:
- Asian elephants have 2 domes on their heads, while African elephants have 1
- African elephants are almost double the size
- Female Asian Elephants don’t have tusks (or they are very short and hidden) but both males and females African Elephants have tusks
- Elephants have pads on the backs of their feet
- The trunk has about 127 muscles and no bones
- Elephants do not see well. They have 3 eyelids and they are colour blind.
After learning about Asian elephants we got to visit with the elephants at the centre and a mahout showed us the three different ways to safely mount an elephant. Next, we each had a chance to ride the elephants. Elephants should be ridden on the neck, with your legs right behind the ears. It is not good for the elephant’s spine if you sit on her back, or if you mount a chair on the back to ride it. An elephant’s ears must always be free to move back and forth because this is how she stays cool and circulates its blood. Elephants should only be ridden for short periods (3 hours or so) because they need to rest and eat.
We followed the elephants to the jungle where they stay and eat for the night. Elephants eat about 250 kg each day and they can urinate up to 50 L at one time! Elephants eat about 18 hours a day and sleep for 4. They do not sleep consecutively but stop and sleep for a few minutes and then continue eating. When they sleep, their ears droop and stop moving but when they wake they start moving their ears again. We also saw the elephant garden, which was a large area in the jungle filled with different kinds of trees and grasses.
On our second day, we got to go and visit the elephant nursery where there was an 8 month-old baby elephant with her mother. Elephants weigh about 150 kg when they are born. They can stand up right away. Their mothers teach them how to swim and eat. Elephants stay in their mother’s tummy for about 22 months – a long time! They drink their mother’s milk for 2-3 years but they can begin eating small pieces of sugar cane from about 8 months.
After seeing the baby elephant we visited the elephant hospital. The vet technician told us about elephants’ health and illnesses. He also showed us the target training they do to prepare the elephants should they ever need shots and medication. For the target training the elephant is brought into a wooden enclosure and is fed treats every time she does what the veterinarian asks. For example, “foot up”.
We really enjoyed our visit to the Elephant Conservation Centre and we learned a lot. We wished we could have stayed longer. It was fascinating to watch the elephants and it was amazing to ride one.