Mekramon disappeared one morning and for some hours, nobody knew where she was. Her keeper looked for her, and we avoided some of the paths, to make sure we don’t meet her unexpectedly. The unexpected can lead to unpredictable behavior in the wild, and even though Mekramon is a tamed elephant, her real wild nature is still there, ready to come out.
This is, in fact, the only thing expected of her now. She doesn’t have to entertain tourists and she no longer has to log heavy trees. She is one of the rescued elephants at the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC) in Laos, and the only thing she has to do now is learn to connect to her real nature and become herself again, after many years in which her behavior was crushed into obedience.
Mekramon’s past is just like the past of thousands of other elephants in South-East Asia. And before I met her and the other elephants at the Center, I was just like so many others who travel to the region and want to see elephants: curious, open to new experiences, and completely oblivious about most of these magnificent animals’ realities.
In fact, before meeting Mekramon and the other elephants, I had never seen an elephant in real life. I knew what they looked like and my imagination filled the space between the very few things I knew about them and my idea what it would be like to meet one.
It was this imagination what brought me to Sayaboury, one of Laos’ less visited provinces. After a four hour car drive south-west of Luang Prabang, a boat took me further away from civilization, and as I disembarked from the boat, I felt like I was entering a world within the world, surrounded all by water and jungle, the place where elephants live, rest and play.
Elephants are the largest animals walking on Earth. The Asian elephant is smaller than his African brother, but still one can weight up to 5.5 tones, eat 100 kg of food a day and move with the corresponding grace of such a weight. Elephants love cane sugar and playing in the water; they also know each other, recognize each other and communicate, and doing that, just like for us humans, is fundamental for their wellbeing. They long for closeness, they talk to each other and when there’s friendship between them, they entwine their trunks and stay like that for a long while, in a bond.
The Center is the closest one can get to seeing these amazing animals as they truly are, far away from the touristic atractions.The elephants at the Center are used to seeing people, but for the first time in their lives, their own needs come first and there are limits to their interraction with the visitors. The time spent with us must not interfere with their need for the space to manifest their true nature. They’re wildlife, not entertainers.
These much needed boundaries are healthy for both elephants and people, and are not always there. In most of South-East Asia you can easily find advertisements for day trips, where you can ride, feed and bath elephants all throughout the day. Most of these offers are family friendly, and they have the lure of adventure and of experiencing something truly local.
But behind them there’s a whole world most tourists don’t know. Most of these touristic offers mean that the elephants are constrained and overworked. They carry heavy loads for too long, they don’t have space or time to socialize, and the tourists’ schedule dictate their entire life rythm. ‚There’s nothing inherently wrong with riding elephants, or bathing them’ says Isabel Lopez Perez, the biologist of the Center‚ But it depends on how your ride them and how often you to that. If an elephant has to walk tourists all day, or bath as often as someone wants to give him a bath, he can never be himself and express his natural behavior. A bath a day is good for elephants, they like to play in the water and splash it all around, but staying in the water all day has the same effect on their skin as people soaking in a bathtub for such a long amount of time’ she adds.
The issues are both phyisical and emotional. Interracting with people is possible, but it is certainly not one of their needs. They are supposed to be wild, and when they’re not truly wild, they’re supposed to be unpredictable and approached with precaution and awe. A truly placid behavior is only the result of months of beatings, a process that forces them to obey, and breaks their spirit.
Entertaining tourists and carrying them on long treks also damages them phyisically – their back and their skin – but the long term emotional damage of a constricted life is perhaps worse: beaten into obediance, and then not having time for anything else but work, they forget how to be elephants.
The Center is a different kind of place. Its 11 rescued elephants are recovering and slowly learning to be elephants again. The remoteness and the natural environment of the Center suit the elephants needs for quietness and space, but as I discovered, they suit my needs as well. With no distractions and no city life, there’s nothing left to do there but to just be; be there in the present, pay attention and feel how special it is to walk along the biggest mammals on Earth.
There is closeness in the boundaries between me and them, and for a short while I am part of their life. I see them and they see me. And there is magic in the mix of fear and love they inspire; their phyisical strenght is overwhelming and undeniable, but their hearts are fragile and suffered too much.
While observing and following them on jungle paths throughout their day, as they bath, eat and socialize, I have to respect their rythm and pace. I am happy to do so, and it feels like I gained access into a private world not meant for me. It is a priviledge to be allowed to come along, to sit at the edge of the water as they play, and walk them back to the forest in the evenings when they go to sleep.
The time spent there is like a love story that’s not meant to last: the more you love the elephants, the more you realize that they belong to a different world. The best love you can show them is to let them be free and wild, so they can keep their magic. And as the prerequisite of solidarity is truly seeing, once I saw them, a bond was created. I have seen them and I want to be on their side.
That doesn’t mean only wearing the tourist hat with responsibility. Uninformed tourism is one culprit but there are other forms of consumption that impact the elephants. Consumption is what drives the destruction of too much of the forests the elephants love and need. They need space to move and find food, and at the same time, the forest itself needs time to recover, as the elephants move from one part to the other. But as the forest is constantly shrinking these days, and their natural habitat is diminished, the number of wild elephants is dropping and the chance for the domesticated ones to be returned to the wild is close to none. There are 800 elephants in Laos right now, half of which are wild and endangered because of developments, poaching and loss of habitat, and the other half tamed, working long hours in unhealthy environments and with a future that’s unclear.
The story of elephants and men in the region, goes 4000 years back. The tradition of manhout families – the elephant keepers –is a story of imposed obedience, but it is also one of work and trust and devotion, where men and animal cater for the other’s needs. Taming elephants was and still is a profession transmited from one generation to another. Learning its ropes starts at an early age, and man and elephant share an one on one lifelong bond. The manhout knows his elephant and his needs, and the elephant trusts him and feels secure around him. And they spend most of the day together.
This manhout-elephant bond is deeply rooted in the local culture and tradition, but its underlying reason is economic. Since the beginning man and elephant made a team of wood loggers. Elephants are an investment and they have always been a source of income for their manhout’s family.
But in recent years, the increasing demand for wood brought logging to a destructive scale, and both forest and animals suffer because of this, as the forest is shrinking and the elephants work to exhaustion and eventually death.
Besides the logging, there are companies coming to Laos to burn the forest down to make space for palm trees and other products fueling the high consumerist demands in other places of the world. In other words, we all changed the equation. What we buy here in Europe, resonates in the tropical forests on the other side of the world.
Forests covered 70% of Laos in the 50’s, but by mid 90’s the percentage went down to 47%. In 2017 the percentage is probably too worrying to acknolwedge. Recently, the Laotian government introduced regulations to stop illegal logging and to take charge of the amount that is being cut. In this new context, logging is slowly becoming a lost activity. And that’s good news for the forest, but not so good for manhouts, who still need to earn an income for their families. Logging has to be replaced with something else.
At the south of Laos, Thailand already had this experience in 1989, when the government banned logging completely. In Thailand, elephants used to clear forests of teak, and when this ended, most ended up in tourism, carrying passengers on jungle trails for up to 10 hours a day, or performing tricks such as painting and playing soccer, all these presented as an authentic Thai experience. The list of physical pains these animals suffered for this is only matched by their psychologic sufferings.
So what is the solution? At this point, counting Laos and Thailand together, there are 15.000 domesticated elephants in the region, most of them used for tourism. It’s unrealistic to think they can be released into the wild, but learning to do tourism in a way that is good for them and for the economy is possible, and it’s what the Center does.
’Ecotourism can be the answer. We’re trying to show the locals that you can take care of your elephant and earn a living at the same time’ says Perez, who goes on to explain that conservation is for many of the locals a luxury they cannot afford. The future is too far to think about when their needs are so urgent and pressing, and the forest and their elephant are their only means to make a living.
But the future is not far and what it will bring for both people and elephants is very much determined by the the success of local projects such as the Center, and is implicitly determined by tourists. At this point, most elephant tourism is driven by demand and many of the tourists simply don’t know how to judge a good place from a bad one. ‘What matters is whether the place is close to the city or not. The further away the better, because noise actually stresses the elephants. It also matters how often they ride the elephants, and how often they bath them. If they tell you you can go any time of the day for these activities, that’s an indicator that the animals just stay there all day, available for tourists.’ Whether we like to accept it or not, you have to break an animal’s spirit for him to obey to such an extend and as an experience, if you have access to something so easily, it doesn’t feel like it’s worth much’ she adds.
After visiting the Center, I know she is right. The time spent there has been the very proof that when you feel priviledged instead of entitled, less is so much more. The time spent with the elephants there is less entertainment and more discovery and love. And after all, the real experience of walking next to the biggest mammals on Earth is a priviledge, and should be a lesson of respect and dignity. Otherwise, it’s not real elephants you have seen, but only a shadow that resambles their true magnificence.