In February this year, an Emirati plane sat on the tarmac at Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport, waiting to board 13 Lao elephants for a flight to Dubai and “Safari Park”. A call from Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith’s office halted the transfer. The outright sale of Lao elephants is illegal, he said. The elephants stay in Laos.
The government turned to the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC), Lao’s only sanctuary that offers an undisturbed natural environment with professional staff (veterinarian, vet assistant, and biologist) and world-class facilities to protect and breed endangered Asian elephants.
The ECC also presents a responsible tourism destination, where tourists can observe or interact with Asian elephants, after they take a 2.5-hour van ride from Luang Prabang. ECC books overnight tour programmes to the Sayabouly Province sanctuary online and from its walk-in Luang Prabang office.
Luang Prabang-based ECC Hospitality Manager Jozef Coremans said, “The government halting the sale of the 13 elephants is a historic moment for elephant conservation in Laos. Elephants that are illegally trafficked abroad never come back to Laos. They will never be able to contribute to the conservation of their species in their home country.”
He added, “The 13 rescued elephants, originally trained to perform degrading circus tricks, are now free from abuse, and out of the hands of ilegal traders.” The elephants, aged five to 47 years, are enjoying life and behaving like elephants among the ECC’s existing herd of 16.
However, almost doubling the herd while adding 13 mahouts will cost the center an estimated $57,461 for the first year.
“The ECC can commit $30,000,”said ECC Co-Founder Sebastien Duffillot. “We need help for the remaining $27,461 to ensure the elephants have consistent care.”
The ECC launched an Indiegogo.com fundraising page in the beginning of May, with a goal of raising $28,000. Within 10 days, the campaign hit the $20,000 mark, and on 15 May, with 11 days to go, 206 backers drove the tally to $23,615, representing 84% of the goal.
The ECC broke down the center’s added costs into three categories: medical, food, and hiring 13 local mahouts. Veterinary expenses include tetanus vaccines, tuberculosis test, and the annual deworming plan for the new elephants at a total expense of $3,211.
The 13 new elephants eat 3 tonnes of food per day, which places a burden on the ECC’s 106-ha protected forest area, where they graze. To ensure they have enough food during the dry season, the ECC needs to hire three more local farmers for $8,250 per year.
Each elephants needs a personal mahout to guide them to new water and food sources, bring them to the hospital for veterinary care, and take them for their daily bath. Hiring 13 full-time local mahouts costs $46,000 per year, which covers their monthly salary, three meals a day, and on-site accommodation.
According to the ECC’s website, only some 450 elephants remain in captivity in Laos, most of which are involved in logging. The wild elephant population has dwindled to 300-400 pachyderms.
The ECC sits on 530 hectares on the Nam Tien Lake near Sayabouly Town. For an overnight stay, visitors will find bungalows lodging, dining facilities, and a natural swimming pool during their interactive elephant experience. The grounds host an elephant training area, feeding platform, yard and bathing area, hospital, dung paper factory, and mahout school.
The center offers three programmes. The 2-day/1-night “Discovery” introduces visitors to the elephants, and teaches about ECC’s conservation work with an overnight stay in a bamboo bungalow overlooking the lake.
The 2-night “Exploration” provides a relaxing stay where visitors learn all about Asian elephants and their biology, cultural importance, and the challenges of species conservation. Guests also have the opportunity to interact with the ECC’s elephant herd in its natural habitat.
Eco Volunteering (7 Days – 6 nights) presents an in-depth encounter with the elephants. During the week, visitors share the life of the mahouts and learn more about the lifestyle of impact on centuries of Lao culture. Participants also assist in the center’s development by joining in community work projects on the site.
For more information on responsible elephant tours to the ECC, click here.