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.

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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.