Meet the people determined to save the elephants of Laos


Nigel Richardson, The Telegraph

Date Published


See link for many photos.

The elephant urinated in a fire-hose gush and his mahout (driver/keeper) cheered. ‘See?’ he said in Lao, pointing at the torrent of water darkening the red-earth road. ‘It’s clear!’

The relief was infectious. Walking behind the elephant, Anabel Lopez, a 28-year-old conservation biologist from Madrid, grinned and gave a thumbs up. For three days, Lopez explained, the elephant had been producing red urine and the worry was that he was peeing blood – possibly the sign of a life-threatening illness.

‘On the other hand,’ she said, ‘we put the elephant in the forest and he ate green papaya, which makes elephants pee red. We hoped it was that but we weren’t sure.’

Now their minds had been put at rest and the mood lightened. ‘It’s nice to become obsessed together and happy together,’ said Lopez as we swung down the red road, part of a caravan of 12 elephants and their 60-plus human followers travelling hundreds of miles across the forested hills of landlocked Laos.

The jungle that surrounded us forms the dense green heart of Indo-China. A thousand years ago it was said to be inhabited by a million elephants, and in the 14th century this trope of plenty became the name of the first Lao kingdom: Lan Xang, Land of a Million Elephants.

The idea of the elephant remains integral to the Lao people’s sense of national identity: a triple-headed white elephant featured on the flag of the modern Kingdom of Laos (which ended when the Communists established the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975); and tourist handicrafts sold in the night markets of Luang Prabang and the capital city, Vientiane, are covered in elephant motifs.

But the Asian elephant itself, Elephas maximus, is thin on the ground. The country’s notional million have been reduced, by habitat loss and poaching, to an estimated 750-850 (the total population, across Asia, is put at no more than 50,000; officially classified as endangered).

Unlike the African species, which, in Lopez’s phrase, is ‘super wild’, the Asian elephant has been kept and worked by man for thousands of years, and the current population in Laos can be divided roughly equally into wild and captive.

“We’re talking about one forest, one elephant population and a group of people. It makes sense to start knowing these people, gaining their trust”

Ninety per cent of captive elephants work in logging (thereby destroying the very habitat they need to survive), while the rest give rides in tourist camps. Birth rates of both wild and domesticated populations have plummeted in recent decades.

‘The situation in Laos is critical, not sustainable,’ Lopez told me as we walked in the wake of our shambling giants. ‘If we don’t change things, the elephants will disappear.’

Hence the Elephant Caravan, a call to action backed by regional, national and international agencies, which trumpeted through the jungles of Laos for six weeks in late 2015.

The brainchild of a 43-year-old French conservationist called Sébastien Duffillot, the caravan left Paklay, in north-western Laos, in late October 2015 and reached Luang Prabang, 400 miles to the north-east on winding jungle routes, in early December, in time to feature as the star turn in celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the city’s designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In-between it crossed Sayaboury, a remote province with strong cultural ties to elephants, where villagers greeted its appearance with looks of amazement.

For what a sight it made – a rolling pageant of elephants, mahouts, actors, musicians, conservationists, film-makers, photographers, educationalists and back-up crew that felt like being in a David Attenborough-directed remake of The Greatest Show on Earth when I joined it for three days in late November.

By this stage the team were battle-hardened by weeks of basic living, daily walking and the staging of nightly shows for the children of the villages they camped in.

These shows, performed by a mixed troupe of French and Lao artistes, used music, slapstick, dance and even fart gags to put across a serious message about the plight of Asian and African elephants and how man’s relationship to the natural world needs to be rebalanced. (‘When people are happy they will listen to you,’ said one of the performers, 27-year-old Thaksin Panthasen, who also works in elephant conservation. ‘It’s time to wake them up to what’s happening. What will I say to the next generation when they ask where all the elephants have gone?’)

The following morning these ideas would be reinforced by classroom sessions with educationalists, who handed out colouring books and posters.

Duffillot, who co-founded the conservation NGO ElefantAsia in 2001 and the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) in Sayaboury in 2011, likened these plays and lessons to ‘planting a seed’ in a country where, even in rural areas, people are unaware of the extent of deforestation and its effect on elephants and other wildlife.

This was the side of the Elephant Caravan – apart from the spectacle of the animals themselves – that garnered most of the publicity. But it was far from the whole story.

‘This is not only an awareness-raising action for the general public, it is also very much for the mahouts,’ Duffillot told me, broaching the subject at the heart of any debate about the Asian elephant: is it acceptable for elephants to be kept and ridden?

A couple of weeks earlier, when the caravan was already on the road, an article had appeared in a British newspaper quoting two wildlife conservationists who expressed reservations about Duffillot and his roadshow on the grounds that he is insufficiently hostile to the idea of elephants being used to give rides to tourists.

One dismissed the caravan as ‘slightly misguided’, while the other talked of the ‘ongoing negative reinforcement and dominance’ used by mahouts to control their elephants.

They were expressing a view that is widespread in conservation and ‘ethical’ tourism circles: that elephants should not be held in captivity or used in tourism; that it is intrinsically cruel to ride them because the training and control methods used by mahouts – and passed down through generations (there are no written manuals) – involve the subjugation of the animal’s spirit, achieved by inflicting pain.

‘There is a huge context to be aware of; you can’t just impose your European or Western point of view on a situation that you don’t understand,’ was Duffillot’s response to me.

The ‘context’ is that Laos is a desperately poor and blighted country (during a civil war lasting two decades it became the most bombed, per capita, in the history of warfare) that relies for its survival on foreign aid and the exploitation of natural resources.

Vast swathes of forest have been logged out, re-planted with rubber trees and other cash crops or cleared for roads, power plants and hydro-electric dams. Less than a century ago, said Duffillot, 70 per cent of Laos was covered in forest. ‘Now the figure must be between 30 and 40 per cent.’

The effect on the wild elephant population – not just the destruction of habitat but the elimination of migration routes, preventing healthy genetic intermingling – has been devastating. Meanwhile, their captive cousins have been worked remorselessly hard in the unregulated logging industry.

Mahouts exercise control by a combination of spoken commands and the touching of sensitive points on the elephant’s body, especially the head. This can be done just with feet or hands but the mahouts usually use a stick with a hook on the end, known as an ankus.

Some mahouts wield this stick-and-hook with unnecessary force, gouging bloody wounds in the elephant’s head – especially in logging, which often hires inexperienced mahouts with no background in elephant husbandry.

Other welfare concerns regarding logging include the weight of the trees the elephants pull in relation to their body weight, the hours of work, amount of resting time, quantities of food and water, and whether they work in the rainy season.

“For me the future for the elephants is not to give rides to tourists. However, this is much, much better for them than working in the logging industry”
Sébastien Duffillot

Early on in the caravan’s journey the team came across some logging elephants, one ridden by a 13-year-old who was hitting it with a machete. The mahouts admitted to Duffillot that they were working the elephants 12 hours a day.

‘Once an owner/mahout would never take the risk of overworking his charge, but things are changing because there is a high demand from the logging industry and people are living in a more monetised world,’ said Duffillot.

The day before I joined the caravan, while I was travelling across Sayaboury province, I encountered a solitary logger ridden by a youthful mahout. The elephant was slathered in mud from hauling logs up from the riverbank and was standing stock still – often a sign of ill health or depression. ‘It’s a cruel industry,’ said Lopez.

It’s also a dwindling one for the elephants and their mahouts. Not only are the forests shrinking but the timber being taken out is, increasingly, being moved by machinery and there is less and less call for brute force. A bit like a coal miner in 1980s Britain, elephant and mahout are facing a prospect even worse than the filthy work they have been doing: redundancy.

For this reason many are turning to tourism. In Luang Prabang – erstwhile capital of the Land of a Million Elephants – there are any number of agencies offering ‘elephant riding’, ‘elephant bathing shows’ and ‘mahout courses’ in local tourist camps.

‘Some camps are very poorly managed and elephants are abused, but most of the camps actually do care for their elephants; people are not stupid,’ said Duffillot.

There is a pressing need for proper regulation and accreditation of these camps, which a new body called the Captive Asian Elephant Working Group is pushing for across Asia. For example, it is now believed that any more than a single tourist in the chair at a time, with the mahout sitting behind the ears, is probably excessive, and there should be proper veterinary care and a limit on working hours – not to mention clean stables, access to shade and adequate food and water.

The recent case of the British tourist in Thailand who was gored to death by the elephant he had been riding is an indication of the stress under which the animals work. But Duffillot pointed out the unintended consequences of pulling the plug on elephant tourism altogether, as some Western tour operators have done.

‘For me the future for the elephant is not to give rides to tourists. However, this is much, much better for the elephant than working in the logging industry, and this is what some welfare conservation groups do not accept.

What would be the result if we followed the point of view of the people who say, “Don’t ride elephants”? What are the options for the mahouts? One, go back to logging. Two, sell the elephant to a circus or a zoo, most probably in China. Three, and this is extreme but… kill the elephant and sell the body parts – because a dead elephant, unfortunately, is more valuable than an unemployed live elephant.’

My first full day with the caravan was a rest day spent in the grounds of a village school some 40 miles west of Luang Prabang.

As the elephants enjoyed some R & R in the surrounding forest (tethered on long chains) the team caught up on washing their dusty clothes, and Duffillot and his colleagues took the opportunity to interview the 24 mahouts (two for each elephant). ‘At the end of the day we’re talking about one forest, one elephant population and a group of people.

‘I think it makes sense to start knowing these people, gaining their trust and finding a way out together,’ he said. And so they assembled, from young men to septuagenarians (one admitted, with a sly smile, he had fathered 35 children), sitting cross-legged in the shade to tell their stories.

All agreed that the logging work was drying up and that ‘eco tourism’ (ie, giving rides to tourists) seemed the only viable option. Some had sons who wished to carry on the family tradition and become mahouts themselves, but for others it was the end of the line: their sons had secure, well-paid jobs away from the jungle and weren’t interested in the elephant life.

In one case the irony was painful. Nonane Chaila, 55, took over as a mahout from his father when he was 20 and works his elephant intermittently in logging. He wanted his two sons to take over when he retires but they have found work at the new power plant and lignite mine at Hongsa, which was on the route of the Elephant Caravan.

In less-developed areas where there are no bridges, the elephants go through rivers

The construction of Thai-owned Hongsa Power, which will supply electricity almost exclusively to Thailand, has had a detrimental effect on the local captive-elephant population. ‘Eighty per cent of their grazing area has gone,’ said Duffillot. ‘Of 54 elephants, only 12 are left.’

The rest have been sold to zoos and circuses in China, South Korea and Japan (some ended up in a safari park near the exclusion zone of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown).

The sons of a mahout have tied their futures to an industry inimical to their father’s livelihood and to family tradition, leaving Chaila with little choice. ‘When I get old and tired I will have to sell the elephant, probably to an eco camp,’ he said.

The elephants dashed the dirt road with their trunks, irritated to be dragged from the forest. They trumpeted too – pleased to see one another again

The mahouts are at ‘a crossroads’, says Duffillot. Rather than let them give up the ghost, he wishes to harness their deep knowledge and give them a key conservation role. ‘The fact is that elephants are not safe in the wild and we need this captive population as a genetic reservoir for the species,’ he said.

‘We need the mahouts; we need elephants under human care until we can find another option.’ That option, ultimately, is the ‘rewilding’ of groups in protected areas. The governor of Sayaboury province has approved a pilot project to release formerly captive elephants into a controlled section of Nam Phouy protected area, where there are wild elephants.

Duffillot’s team at the ECC – principally Lopez – are now working towards that goal, the first step being to recreate a socially coherent herd, led by a matriarch, from the elephants the ECC rescues (usually from logging). ‘For this also you need mahouts,’ said Duffillot.

The morning after their rest day, elephants and humans assembled in a chilly mist for the next leg of the Elephant Caravan – just four miles today (the longest day’s walk they did was 17 miles). The elephants appeared from the jungle, mahouts perched behind their ears. The mahouts broke off branches from the roadside and dusted them down.

The elephants, each weighing between three and four tons, growled and dashed the dirt road with their trunks, irritated, perhaps, to be dragged from the forest. They trumpeted too – pleased to see one another again after their solitary jungle forays.

Then, obeying instructions delivered by words and taps, they knelt while the mahouts fixed bamboo howdahs (seats) to their backs. Everything was done calmly and gently, closely observed by the slight figure of Lopez, standing to one side.

‘Elephants appear to be very strong but they are very delicate,’ she said. ‘They need a lot of food [10 per cent of their body weight per day] and space. It’s not an easy animal to keep in captivity.’

Over the previous four weeks Lopez had blended her life with that of the mahouts. ‘I can say to them, I’m tired like you, I’m hungry like you. I understand. Especially when you are a woman, it’s important to build these relationships,’ she said.

Her purpose in gaining their respect was another, largely unspoken goal of the Elephant Caravan: to demonstrate to the mahouts that, contrary to received wisdom and common practice, they don’t need to hit or shout at their elephants in order to control them (or, as Lopez succinctly put it, ‘You can be the dominant one but there’s no need to be an asshole’).

As we talked, a motorbike came up behind us and Lopez waved at the mahouts to get the elephants in one line to the side of the road.

‘If they don’t know the motorbike is coming then the elephant is scared and they have to use the hook,’ she said, likening the ankus to a gun carried by a police officer, to be used only in extremis. As we walked behind those colossal swinging hindquarters, there was not a hook in sight, and both mahouts and elephants were ‘super calm’.

Then came the moment when the elephant who had been producing red pee stopped in his tracks and urinated clear water. Cheers all round.

Lopez found an unexpected ally in her efforts to soften the tough-guy mahouts. One of the 24 had stood out from the beginning for his gentleness. ‘He is super-soft and never screams,’ Lopez said. ‘For me he is the perfect mahout. Why can he do it and the others can’t?’

The Gentle Mahout, as he became known, was 36-year-old Som Vang and he had something of the ‘elephant whisperer’ about him, exerting a strangely calming influence not just among the mahouts and elephants but in the wider group.

When he was being interviewed the day before, Lopez had asked him where his tender approach came from. ‘I feel pity for the elephants,’ he replied.

Lopez was particularly impressed because his elephant, a 23-year-old female, was not easy to control. Yet, as the Elephant Caravan continued towards Luang Prabang and its date with public celebration, the Gentle Mahout was not even riding her.

He was ambling alongside, occasionally plucking seeds from roadside bushes. At one point, when he stopped dead, his elephant stopped too, waiting patiently.

In that moment, with the mist lifting and mahout and elephant in some kind of accord, one had the sense of a troubled land clicking back into balance.