Saving a Species: Where to Responsibly Interact with Elephants in Laos
Near Luang Prabang, two elephant sanctuaries are putting conservation above tourism, making for an entirely more meaningful visitor experience with these endangered giants.
In rubber boots and shorts, I’m trudging through rust-colored mud in the Nam Khan riverbed just outside of Luang Prabang. Along the riverbank, exotic purple flowers and jungle ferns with Braille-like bumps catch my eye, as the glittering emerald mountainscape envelops me. But something behind me is pumping my adrenaline levels and propelling me forward, and it isn’t interested in stopping to smell the roses. It—rather, she—is an elephant, and she’s hot on my trail. Mae Tu and her mahout (keeper) Gan are residents of Mandalao, an elephant camp in Laos, a country whose nickname is Lan Xang—Land of One Million Elephants.
Sadly, that moniker belies the current state of the Laotian elephant population: Around 600 to 800 are estimated to remain in the country, and only half of them in the wild. The culprits: deforestation, which has led to a drastic loss of habitat; poaching; and poor conditions for animals in captivity. Despite—or perhaps because of—that tragic situation, Laos is rapidly becoming the capital of ethical elephant tourism. I’ve come to Mandalao to deepen my understanding of elephant conservation, and to learn how visitors can be sure they’re interacting with elephants in an ethical way.
At Mandalao, which opened two years ago, there are no chains, no elephant rides, and no elephant swims (popular at other camps, these often force the animals into water that’s too cold). The 250-hectare sanctuary allows only 10 to 15 visitors a day, who walk alongside an elephant through a pristine swath of its native jungle habitat, as I’m doing. This allows for a more natural and meaningful way to engage with the animal—plus being in the shadow of a fast-moving elephant is just as exciting as riding one. (Mandalao also offers therapeutic elephant walks specifically designed for adults and children with autism, believed to help develop empathy skills.)