We’ve all seen the pictures: Holidaymakers posing on the back of elephants holding selfie sticks. Sure, it might make for a good picture, but at what expense?
Death by Instagram
A few years ago, I heard about an elephant that died of exhaustion in Vietnam due to severe exhaustion. The 43-year-old elephant was forced to work strenuous hours carrying tourist after tourist on its back, until ultimately its body finally gave up. That precious life was stolen, and for what? A picture to go on Instagram. It hardly seems fair, right?
These kinds of elephant attractions exist everywhere in Asia, including nations such as Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos.
In a report prepared by the World Animal Protection on the lives of captive wild animals used in Thai tourism entertainment venues, a whopping 53 per cent of venues with captive elephants did not meet the basic needs of captive wild animals.
More than 2,000 elephants surveyed were saddled for rides or in a show, and the scale of suffering at most of these venues was reported as “severe”.
The report said:
“Despite these figures very few tourists gave negative feedback on these attractions due to conservation or welfare concerns.
“The study concluded that wildlife tourist attractions have substantial negative effects unrecognised by, or concealed from the vast majority of tourists.
“This suggests an urgent need for tourist education and regulation of wildlife tourist attractions worldwide.
“Wildlife entertainment is one of the particularly worrying types of wildlife tourist attractions.
“Animals that are taken from the wild or bred in captivity (often removed from their mothers at a young age) are forced to endure cruel and intensive training to make them perform and interact with people for visitors’ entertainment.
“Global efforts are necessary to address the welfare and conservation concerns inherent in this industry and lead to a phase-out of wildlife entertainment.”
Responsible Tourism: MandaLao Elephant Conservation
On a recent trip to Luang Prabang, Laos I was determined to meet an elephant face to face. However, I had very strict requirements: the experience had to be 100 per cent cruelty-free and there would be strictly no riding.
Luckily, I found MandaLao Tours, an elephant sanctuary situated 30 minutes from Luang Prabang’s city centre, which promised: “an intimate non-riding experience focused on education and elephant welfare”.
AT US$100 for the half day Therapeutic Trek, the tour itself was pricier than its less ethical competitors, but I strongly believed in MandaLao’s values, and feel strongly that consumers we have the power to encourage change in the industry with our tourist dollars.
The sanctuary takes a limited number of visitors per day, so as not to overwhelm or overwork its resident elephants, so it’s important to book early as the tours to book out quickly.
We met our guide at the MandaLao Headquarters on Sisavangvong Road. While MandaLao have private coaches to pick you up directly from your hotel or guest house, we were staying just across the road so it was much easier for us to go straight to them.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at the peaceful sanctuary and were greeted by Elephant Master Prasop Tipprasert.
A Thai national, Mr Tipprasert is a renowned elephant expert and was brought in to facilitate the breeding program at MandaLao.
He introduced himself and introduced us to the five freedoms that the sanctuary adheres to, ensuring elephants are:
- Free from hunger and thirst, with access to fresh water and a complex diet
- Free from discomfort (no riding)
- Free from pain, injury and disease (no hooks, hammers or saddles)
- Free to express normal behavior (free to roam)
- Free from fear and distress
Mr Tipprasert had told us that elephants made for excellent therapists. In fact, he launched a world-first program in Thailand which saw elephants used to rehabilitate autistic children.
He mentioned that witnessing a non-verbal child smile for the first time after taking part in the elephant rehabilitation program, had been one of his most notable career highlights.
After learning about the sanctuary and its residents, it was time for us to get up close to the beautiful creatures.
To prepare for the trek, we are provided with long zip-up boots and plenty of mosquito and leech repellant to keep the bloodsuckers at bay.
After suiting up for the experience, we board a small boat and head across the Nam Khan river to meet the elephants.
Across the river, there are two gorgeous elephants waiting for us. Our guide hands us bunches of bananas and sugar cane to help entice the elephants over to us.
Our group is small and intimate, there are only six of us in total. So we get plenty of one-on-one time with the beautiful creatures.
We are told that the elephants at the sanctuary are trained using only positive reinforcement. Cattle prods, whips, hammers and chains are strictly banned from the premises. Instead, the resident elephants are rewarded with fruit to get them interacting with visitors.
After a decent feed, the tour truly begins.
What makes this experience so special, is that the elephants act as your official guides as you traverse through the lush Laotian jungle side-by-side.
There’s something so calming about walking through the jungle with elephants. Their very presence is calming, and sends me into an almost meditative state.
The walk itself is not very challenging, but you do walk through swamps and other bodies of water, so be prepared to get wet.
The experience lasts about 2 hours in total, and at the end of it all, I am sad to say goodbye to our amazing new friends.
- MandaLao sanctuary occupies around 80 hectares of land, and the resident elephants are free to roam and explore.
- Since its inception, MandaLao has inspired other local elephant attractions to adopt a more ethical business model
- Resident elephants were rescued from tough logging camps where they were forced to work for hours and hours on end
Learn more at www.mandalaotours.com
Authentique press rates the whole experience ★★★★★