Words by Sitwat Hashmi
Photos by Hannah Reshma, Madhavi Mehndiratta and Sitwat Hashmi
If you have read my Day 7 Daily Diary, you know I have been eager to visit the elephant camps here in Luang Prabang, Laos. And if you have read that same Day 7 diary entry, then you also know that last we tried to plan a visit, things were still indeterminate.
After I was able to control my initial excitement that seemed to be pouring out of my every pore, I quickly took off my shoes, washed my hands and sat down on the waiting chairs, aching to be briefed by the camp guide (Mr Tha Thao) so that I could go and meet the elephants, the third most intelligent animal in the world (surpassed only by humans and dolphins, respectively).
From 1354 to 1707, Laos, Thailand, Burma and Vietnam, all existed in unification under the Lan Xang Hom Khao Kingdom (meaning: Million Elephants Under White Parasol). In those days, Laos was home to millions of elephants, but come World War II and the Vietnam War, Laos was rebranded as being “the most bombed country in the world”. Due to the bombings, the home of the elephants was tainted with radioactive residue and earsplitting sounds that were not favorable for the survival of the elephants. The elephants of Laos, thus, dispersed and relocated, largely in its immediate neighbor, Thailand.
Today, The Elephant Camp, is home to some of these Thai Elephants who were previously owned and trained to work tiresomely at logging camps, where they would be beaten and overworked. The elephants are regularly visited and observed by a French vet, who helps the facility to cater to the elephants’ needs. The facility also limits elephant rides to 3 trips (no more than 30 minutes) with no more than two people on one elephant and their saddles are taken off after the rides. Mr Tha Thao also stated that according to their vet, it was healthier for the elephants to walk around for a short while as opposed to eating and standing all day. Thus, they did not completely get rid of rides on their camp, instead they regulated them. Besides this, the facility allows the visitors to observe the elephants, interact with the elephants and feed the elephants with the food provided by the camp.
The camp mainly houses female elephants as their previous attempts of assimilating male elephants into the herd sparked agitation from the female elephants. Thus, to prevent either one from getting harmed by the other, they have limited the camp to female elephants (but have not separated the baby elephants from their mothers). Mr Tha Thao informed us that this may be due to the fact that male elephants can only imprint on one Mahout (elephant keeper) and that too when they are very young. Otherwise, the adult male elephants tend to be more aggressive and harder to tame than female elephants.
When asked about the elephants being chained, Mr Tha Thao said that they had been chained so that they would not go looking for food in other people’s fields. As elephants are required to eat 10% of their body weight, letting them off the chain would mean that they can eradicate entire fields (note: Lao people’s main livelihood is agriculture). Mr Tha Thao also added that the chains only weighed 25 kg while the elephants on camp can hold up to 500 kg of weight. Moreover, later in the day, the elephants are unchained and let out into the jungle. In fact, Hammu, their 40 years old elephant, was unchained when we met her! Also, did I mention that all elephants on camp have IDs and names to protect them from being trafficked? Well, they do. And should anyone attempt to traffic an elephant out of Laos, they would be sentenced to jail for life (72 years to be exact).
Interestingly enough, after washing our hands, once more, towards the end of the briefing – because did you know an elephant’s trunk has 40,000 muscles? Mr Tha Thao said it would know if you’d had any lotion on and won’t accept food – we made our way to the elephants and guess who had beaten us to the punch? THE MONKS! The monks were already there by the elephants; feeding them. Mr Tha Thao told us that elephants are a big part of Buddhism, in that, they believe that these gargantuan, glorious untamable beasts are gentle and obedient towards monks. Thus, out of respect, monks would often come by to feed the elephants and are also the only ones allowed to bring their own food to give to the elephants.
Also, on a completely another note, this happened earlier that same day…
I’ve never been more ready to go home! This kitty made me extremely homesick because she looks exactly like my bundle of joy, Rengar.
Just keep swimming, just keep swimming~