Saving a Species: Where to Responsibly Interact with Elephants in Laos

By Adam H. Graham  •  July 2, 2019

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.)

“We try to create holistic solutions that ultimately help restore the population of wild elephants.”


The treatment Mae Tu receives at Mandalao is much better than the fate she might meet elsewhere. Throughout Southeast Asia, elephants bred in captivity usually spend their days in chains, either to transport lumber or to entertain tourists. In Thailand, there are over 3,000 working elephants. Here in Laos, the government started curtailing the use of elephants in logging operations four years ago. The drastic drop in elephant employment that resulted made it harder for mahouts to earn a living, so many have turned to zoos, circuses or tourist camps as sources of income.

“We try to create holistic solutions that ultimately help restore the population of wild elephants.” explains Jozef Coremans, of the Elephant Conservation Center, another ethical camp located two hours from Luang Prabang on Nam Tien Lake. ECC’s team of conservationists—a mix of Laotians and expats—began the daunting work of Asian elephant conservation in 2001, finally opening their sanctuary to the public in 2011. With a team of 65 employees caring for just 29 elephants, the 530 hectares of protected forest is a pioneer in Asian elephant conservation, raising the bar for ethical standards among elephant camps and sanctuaries across Southeast Asia.

Among its accomplishments, ECC has reforested the area with endangered native trees and plants, providing food for the elephants and a protected area for other species. Its endocrinology research lab works closely with the Australian government and the Smithsonian Institute to study the estrous cycles of female elephants. And while most camps refuse to take in male elephants, fearing their violence and unpredictability, ECC welcomes them and has produced a protocol manual for dealing with aggressive bulls. Its mobile vet clinics and first aid kids offer care to sick and injured elephants across the region, even elephants in other camps. ECC has also sought to improve community outreach, creating a registration system for captive elephants, national anti-trafficking campaigns, good-practice guides for tourism, mobile libraries for indigenous communities, and a mahout training center.

“The ultimate goal is to reintroduce them to a safe and protected natural forest”

“We aren’t trying to keep the elephants we take in,” says Coremans, a Belgian who’s been at ECC with his wife, Spanish biologist Anabel Perez since 2013. “The ultimate goal is to reintroduce them to a safe and protected natural forest after they’ve formed close-knit social groups, so they can contribute to the increase of the wild elephant population.” This goal is worlds away from those of the profit-oriented camps that have proliferated. “Everybody who has helped elephants transition from logging to tourism seems to call themselves a sanctuary or rescue center. Is it enough to just take elephants in and keep them under slightly better conditions than before? We don’t think so.”

I think back to Mae Tu, lumbering ahead of me through Mandalao’s dense forests, humming with the calls of whiskered bulbuls and cicadas. How lucky she is, to roam free in her native habitat. And what a rare privilege it was for me to see her, lock eyes with her, and not fear for her welfare. That’s the kind of deeply satisfying experience more visitors to Laos should be having.

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Explore more insider stories on Rosewood Conversations from Luang Prabang, where Rosewood Luang Prabang welcomes guests to a land of gilded temples, intricate handicrafts, and a unique aura of spirituality.


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Written By: Adam H. Graham


Locations: Luang Prabang

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