Luang Prabang, Laos – Day 5

I only had one day left with the elephants before I headed back to the comforts that Luang Prabang had to offer, but this was the day that I actually got to contribute to the care of the elephants. After spending a couple of days at the Elephant Conversation Center, I wished that we had planned things a little differently and would have gotten the one week experience at the site rather than the three day stay. If we had opted for that option, we would have helped out a lot more because it involved doing volunteer work at the camp after the three days were over. The only problem would have been that I would have wanted to stay there if we had gone for the longer option, so it was probably for the best that we were there for only two nights.

On my last day there, I got to work in the enrichment area. The idea of this part of the camp is to train the elephants to what it means to look for food in the wild. I know this may surprise many people to think that elephants need to be trained how to forage for food in the forest. Shouldn’t there instincts kick in allowing them to find food for themselves? Well, it is not that easy.

These elephants were trained since the age of three to either work in the logging industry, or perform at the tourist camps. They never had to search for food because it was always given to them by the mahouts. They never learned how to be elephants. I was told that the first time a new elephant was left alone in the enrichment area, they would stand there not knowing what to do because they had never been left alone in their live. And even though the goal of the Elephant Conservation Center is to get elephants ready to love out in the wild again they need to work their way up to that point.

Think of it this way. If somebody came to your house, grabbed you, traveled all the way around the way around the world and dropped you off into the forest so you could return back to your natural habitat, how well would you do out there by yourself? It is the same thing for these elephants. They need the time to learn how to survive on their own.

The two elephants that I got to watch in the environment took a little while to get going. They were able to find the food that was closer to the ground rather quickly, but they had a tendency to ignore the food that was hidden in the higher spot. I watched them walk right under some of the more obvious spots wondering why they couldn’t find the food hidden in these spots. I even asked the owner of the place if they has a weak sense of smell because of this phenomenon, and I was told that elephants have an extraordinary sense of smell which is what I thought in the first place. He told me that they just didn’t think of looking up high and this was the whole reason that they went through the process of training them.

He also told me that the elephants at first would start by struggling the various puzzles that were created for them, but after they figure them out, then the became way too easy for them. It required the center to come up with new and exciting ways to challenge the elephants that also simulated what it would be like for them to find food on their own. The elephants we were watching we just starting to figure out the easier puzzles and they still needed to work on finding and solving the more difficult ones.

Even though it was fun to watch the elephants in action, we had a boat we needed to catch to head back to our last full night in the more comfortable parts of Laos. We headed back to Luang Prabang and got a room closer to the center of town. It made for a very nice evening of enjoying drinks by the Mekong river and enjoying an amazing dinner.

It also meant it was the last chance I would get to travel across that wooden bridge that they build every year during the dry season. The bridge did not look as threatening at night, but as soon as we stepped on it and made our way across it, we could really feel how rickety it actually was. There were a couple of holes along the way that came from the continuous use over the last couple of months, but I also knew that the people of Luang Prabang would not fix these holes due to the fact that the wet season was starting soon and the bridge would have to come down anyway.

It was worth it making it across though because there was a wonderful restaurant on the other side that featured the Laos version fondue. It had many of the same features of Swiss fondue such as a nice broth to cook various kinds of food in over an open flame. But the difference came with the vegetables they used adding such things as cabbage, and scallions, and the addition of noodles. The meat was also cooked on a grill rather than being heated up in the broth. Add some of the spicy peppers to the broth and it made for one of the best meals I had while I was out there.

The trip had come full circle, but I felt like a completely different person because of it. A lot of the thanks for this has to be delivered to the Elephant Conversation Camp. I almost felt bad for going back to this life of luxury, but I now could use the new knowledge I gained from the journey to use in my life as I moved forward.

If you would like more information about the Elephant Conservation Center please check out the website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com

Advertisements

Sayaboury, Laos – Day 4

I woke up early on my fourth day in Laos, and enjoyed a little peace and quiet while reading a book on the patio of my bungalow. Little did I know that one of my past mistakes would come to haunt me on this day.

This is not the only trip that I have been on where I roughed it with the elephants hanging out nearby. About eight years ago I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Tanzania where I was able to experience these majestic animals out on safari.

Of course, there are some differences between African elephants and Asian elephants. First of all, African elephants are a lot bigger, and they have ears that look like the continent of Africa. They also haven’t been domesticated in the same way that the Asian elephants have, so there might have been a time when they resembled each other more, but this is not the case any more. Despite these differences, there are many factors that make them similar.

One of these similarities is threads of hair that can be found on their tails. It is not like the hair that can be found anywhere else on their body because it is a lot coarser. It feels a lot like wire if you ever get the opportunity to ever rub it between your fingers. Elephants use it to clean their genitalia, especially with female elephants, by swatting it with the coarse hair. The thing is that many people think that because it is hair, it will grow back quickly which is not the case. But because of this belief, many of the owners of the elephants will clip off the hair, braid it together, and sell it as a bracelet or a ring. Many people end up buying them as mementos and it encourages the selling of more of these bracelets. Elephants lose the hair that they need in order to keep themselves clean which can eventually lead to painful diseases and in some cases cause elephants to have problems with giving birth. So something that appears innocent at many of these tourists camps where this practice goes on, actually contributes to the depletion of the species.

This is where my past came back to haunt me. When I was out in Tanzania while we were traveling between national parks, we stopped at a gift shop on the side of the road to pick up mementos of our trip out there. One of the things I always look for on my trips is something I can hang on my Christmas tree that helps to remind me of all the places in the world I have been at. This particular time I had found a nice wooden carving of a giraffe’s face, but when I went to check out the man who was selling me the item hounded me about buying one of these elephant hair bracelets. At the time I thought it was just wire because that is what elephant hair looks like. The man claimed that if I wore it, it would make me strong. I still wasn’t interested in it, but he continued to pester me about it, and I considered it an act of charity to buy one off of him even if it was a sham.

My wife and her family has continuously made fun of me for making this purchase. They tell me that I need to be strong and learn how to say no from time to time. It wasn’t until this trip that I learned the truth about my purchase which made me feel even more miserable. If I had known what I was buying was genuinely an elephant hair bracelet and what damage I was doing, I would not have done it, but I had never been educated about it. It takes trips like this to help me learn about these small things in the world. And hopefully by telling the world about my mistake, it will prevent somebody from making the same one in their lifetime.

It is another reason that I really loved the time I got to spend at the Elephant Conservation Center. It wasn’t just about hanging out with the elephants and watching the staff help them become more self-sufficient. It wasn’t knowing that the elephants were well taken care and examined by a veterinarian in large stalls at regular intervals. It wasn’t knowing that this organization was helping to create a forest where man has come in and depleted it without really thinking about the larger consequences of what that could mean about future generations. It was the fact that this place took the time to educate the people who stayed here about what they could do to make sure they weren’t contributing to the problem by the decisions they made half a world away.

This is why travel is so important. If we never go out and take the risk to see what the rest of the world is like, we get set in the mind frame of the place we come from. We don’t see the larger picture. We don’t understand how the buying of palm oil helps to contribute to the depletion of the forest. We don’t understand how the buying of certain products gives money to the people who would continue to abuse animals for their own superstitions or their own wallets. We need to be aware that we live in a global society and each decision we make affects the lives of so many others.

So as the sun started to set on my second day at the Elephant Conservation Center, I was able to reflect on my life and my contribution to the problems of the world. I was able to see that I needed to be more conscious of my decisions as I continued down this road of life and make sure that I make the right ones.

If you would like to find out more information or contribute to the work happening at the Elephant Conservation Center, check out their website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com.

Sayaboury, Laos – Day 3

My third day out in Laos was the one I was the most excited about. It was the day where I was going to leave Luang Prabang behind and take a two hour trip to the less populated part of the country in the provenance of Soyaboury.

The lifestyle in this part of the country was a little more simple. It wasn’t so much about tourist and cafĂ© streets where I could sip a drink and watch the crowds mingle in a facsimile of a small town in France. Instead, the people found a way to live off of the land. Mainly this was done through fishing on the lake we ended up on, but there were also plantations around here and small towns to supply the people of this area what they needed to survive comfortably.

The houses weren’t as fancy either. I stayed in a cabin in the middle of the forest on the edge of the lake. There was some electricity to the place but that created only at night and with the use of a generator. And I was forced to get off the grid because there was no internet service or wifi available anywhere. It was great because I was able to return to the simplicity of the wilderness that I had not been able to experience for a long time, and I was reveling in the experience.

But all of these things were not the real reason that I went out to this remote place. It was to visit the Elephant Conservation Center and witness all of the amazing work they are doing with these elephants in this region of the world.

The name Laos use to translate into the land of a million elephants. Now, I am pretty sure that the population of these beasts was never that large in this area of the world, but the idea that elephants were all over the place probably was. These gentle beasts had been domesticated by the people of Laos over a thousand years ago and they were used to help with gathering the wood that people needed in order to build houses, and support themselves. For many centuries this structure maintained a strong economic structure allowing the country to continue peacefully in a symbiotic balance.

But then the logging industry came in and the tree population started to decline and more elephants were needed to help deplete the forest. The people who were trained to handle these creatures could not train enough people to train the animals in the proper way, and soon the animals were abused. Because of this many things happened. The forest grew small and wasn’t able to support the wild population of the elephants. The animals were forced to find food at people’s farms and were executed because of this. Many of the elephants were also sold for great profit to Chinese wealthy individuals who used many parts of the animals for old remedies that they believed still worked. The population of the animals fell in both the wild and domesticated populations leaving the country with an estimated 800 animals that are left today.

This is when the Laos government stepped in. They were trying to save what was left of the forest and what was left of the elephants. They banned the logging industry and the animals who were beasts of burden were forced to move to tourist supported camps. The abuse there got even worse. The mahouts, the trainers of elephants, would train them by using a large hook and tapping the animals in certain places to get them to do what they wanted them to do. Because of the untrained mahouts that were working these tourist camps, they did not know how to use their tools correctly, and would hit the animals way too hard. It would leave areas of scars on the animals similar to what can be seen on the head of the female elephant pictured above. Some of these abuses eventually led to death.

This is where the Elephant Conservation Center came into play. The people that run this center were not looking to use elephants for commercial reasons. They, instead, were trying to save elephants, and then train them to eventually return to the wild. They have also been working on a breeding program to help bring the population back up to where it once used to be. They have hired skilled mahouts to help in this process, and what started off with only three elephants seven years ago has grown into a population of thirty. They have saved a few elephants from the terrible fate of having to work the tourist camps that don’t treat the elephants kindly, and they have even recently been donated 13 elephants that were scheduled to move to a zoo in Dubai.

Their efforts are some truly amazing things to see, and I was glad to have been able to spend two days and three night learning about all of the great things that they were doing at this place. I will tell you more about what they have done in my next couple of posts, but in the meantime, if you would like to find out more or would like to help by contributing to this great organization, you can contact them at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com.