Sanc­tu­ary in the jun­gle

Ex-log­gers take on large task of ele­phant pro­tec­tion W

The Prince George Citizen - - TRAVEL - Vivien LOUGHEED Spe­cial to The Cit­i­zen

eathered wood cab­ins with so­lar pan­els and cedar-shake roofs frame the man-made Nam Tien Lake that shim­mers like danc­ing di­a­monds in the trop­i­cal sun of Laos.

I fol­low the scent of frangi­pani blooming along the walk­way and bor­der­ing the lush green jun­gle be­yond, to the din­ing hall where a do­na­tion box in­vites me to drop an al­ways-wel­come coin into the cof­fers of Laos’ first Ele­phant Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter. In the dis­tance I hear the high-pitched trum­pet­ing of an ele­phant and sec­onds later, from the op­po­site di­rec­tion, a re­sponse.

Se­bastien Duf­fil­lot and Gilles Mau­rer, founders of the Cen­ter, worked in the Laos log­ging in­dus­try for six years dur­ing the 1990s. Be­fore re­turn­ing to their homes in France, they took a life-chang­ing mo­tor­cy­cle va­ca­tion, bik­ing on the Mekong River in Sayaboury prov­ince, where the last of the ma­houts and 800 do­mes­tic ele­phants were used for log­ging. Af­ter ob­serv­ing the bru­tal work­ing con­di­tions of the an­i­mals, Se­bastien and Gilles re­al­ized the tragedy be­hind the rapidly de­clin­ing pop­u­la­tion in a land once known as the “land of a mil­lion ele­phants.”

Rather than re­turn­ing to France, the men spent months brood­ing, re­search­ing, discussing and ar­gu­ing about what could be done for the ele­phants. They con­cluded that, as a first step, the Lao­tian pub­lic had to be in­formed of the dis­ap­pear­ing an­i­mals and the im­pact that dis­ap­pear­ance was hav­ing on their cul­ture.

Af­ter fund rais­ing, gov­ern­ment lob­by­ing and plan­ning, the first Ele­fan­tAsia car­a­van hit the road in 2002 cov­er­ing a to­tal of 1300 kilo­me­ters be­tween Champassak in the south and Luang Pra­bang in the north, show­cas­ing four ele­phants that slowly pa­raded through the vil­lages demon­strat­ing their skills and their con­tri­bu­tion to Lao­tian cul­ture.

En­cour­aged by the suc­cess of the car­a­van, Se­bastien and Gilles felt they could and would do more. With co­op­er­a­tion from the ma­houts they again lob­bied gov­ern­ment and begged spon­sor­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Amer­i­can Fish and Wildlife for money to im­ple­ment a long-term con­ser­va­tion pro­gram for do­mes­ti­cated ele­phants.

Fi­nally, in 2005 they were able to hold the first Ele­phant Fes­ti­val with pa­rades that in­cluded about sixty ele­phants. They held work­shops and train­ing demon­stra­tions, and gave rides to chil­dren. There were talks and pam­phlets tout­ing the re­gal role ele­phants had once played and they or­ga­nized the “ele­phant of the year” con­test, which chose the best team of owner and an­i­mal in terms of wel­fare for both.

The events re­sulted in many Lao­tian peo­ple re­mem­ber­ing that his­tor­i­cally ele­phants sym­bol­ized for­tu­ity, silent power, kind­ness and majesty. The ne­ces­sity of pre­serv­ing the species and in turn, the Lao­tian cul­ture it­self, be­came clear.

But suc­cess has its dif­fi­cul­ties too. Be­cause of the enor­mous amount of work that needed to be done, Se­bastien and Gilles split their or­ga­ni­za­tion, with each com­pli­ment­ing the other. Gilles took re­spon­si­bil­ity for Ele­fan­tAsia. He worked with gov­ern­ment and ma­houts to shorten work­ing hours, to abol­ish cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment and to of­fer im­me­di­ate med­i­cal care when in­jury or sick­ness arose. Gilles and his or­ga­ni­za­tion built a hos­pi­tal and em­ployed a full-time vet­eri­nar­ian.

Se­bastien took over con­ser­va­tion and ed­u­ca­tion. His first ob­jec­tive was find­ing a home for the an­i­mals. He begged non-govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions for fi­nan­cial help and ne­go­ti­ated with gov­ern­ment for land that could be used to house and care for or­phaned, in­jured or re­tired ele­phants. He em­ployed full time vet­eri­nar­i­ans and bi­ol­o­gists to im­ple­ment the lat­est the­o­ries of care

In 2011, the land was granted: 106 hectares of jun­gle sur­round­ing Nam Tien Lake in Sayaboury Prov­ince. Se­bastien hired lo­cal peo­ple to build the huts, din­ing hall and kitchen. He adopted five an­i­mals that made the first do­mes­tic herd in the coun­try. He opened a school that in­structed ma­houts in the re­ward sys­tem of man­age­ment rather than the fear and pun­ish­ment method.

Gilles and Se­bas­tian also de­vel­oped a reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem that in­cludes the plac­ing of mi­crochips in the ears of ele­phants. The chip iden­ti­fies the an­i­mal, its age, sex, owner and any per­ti­nent med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. The cor­re­spond­ing records are kept at the Depart­ment of Live­stock in the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and Forests.

When I vis­ited there were six adults and one young­ster who were per­ma­nent res­i­dents. I was far more in­ter­ested in the man­age­ment and history of the project than I was in the an­i­mals, but I tagged along watch­ing the daily rou­tine.

Un­der a thatched hut that gave the ele­phants and me pro­tec­tion from the sun, I watched a ma­hout with stick in hand make a sound to his ele­phant while gen­tly tap­ping the back of her knee. The ele­phant and the ma­hout saun­tered to­ward the lake with visi­tors, staff and bi­ol­o­gists in tow.

Tourists rid­ing ele­phants is dis­cour­aged at the Cen­ter whereas ob­ser­va­tion and “soft in­ter­ac­tion” is en­cour­aged. Soft in­ter­ac­tion in­cludes, at spe­cific times, feed­ing the an­i­mals tufts of their fa­vorite grasses and leaves but mostly learn­ing from ob­ser­va­tion.

As we walked, An­abel Lopez Perez, the res­i­dent bi­ol­o­gist, dis­cussed the the­ory of ma­hout train­ing, telling me how much she loved an­i­mals in gen­eral and ele­phants in par­tic­u­lar, and giv­ing me a run­down on the day’s events.

“We pay ma­houts to train here,” she ex­plained. “If they didn’t get paid the hard­ship would be too dif­fi­cult for them and their fam­i­lies so many would by­pass the pro­gram.”

At the lake I watched all seven res­i­dent ele­phants en­ter the wa­ter to romp and splash and blow wa­ter onto their backs. Mae Dok, the old­est of the “aun­ties” as the fe­males of this herd were called, stayed off to the side. She en­tered the wa­ter, but af­ter just a few splashes she ex­ited the lake and stood alone, head pointed to­ward the jun­gle.

“She’s re­tired,” An­abel said. “She worked long and dif­fi­cult hours in log­ging and now be­haves like an old lady amongst a group of young girls.”

My heart took a slight flip. I kept my eye on her and wished I could give her a peanut like Dumbo got in the movies.

My at­ten­tion was drawn to the baby of the herd, a four-year-old male called Suriva who played and splashed like all young­sters. Once on shore, he went di­rectly to his mother and nursed. How cute, I thought and fol­lowed An­abel up the hill to the so­cial­iza­tion area. We climbed onto a tower from where we could watch “nor­mal” ele­phant be­hav­ior as would be en­coun­tered in the wild.

Mae Dok, the first to ar­rive went to the far­thest reaches of the co­ral and pointed her head to­ward the jun­gle. This time I just wanted her to wrap my arms around her trunk for a few min­utes.

A ma­hout was on the back of Suriva’s mother, Mae Ven, and was di­rect­ing her away from the so­cial­iza­tion pen to­ward the jun­gle. She stopped, turned and trum­peted. Suriva re­sponded as most chil­dren would and moved to­wards her but a sec­ond ma­hout stood in the way. Suriva re­turned to the pen and trum­peted back.

I heard crash­ing and bang­ing, the splin­ter­ing of wood and more trum­pet­ing from both mother and child.

“Suriva must be weaned,” An­abel ex­plained, grin­ning at the de­struc­tion be­ing wreaked on the jun­gle by the up­set mother.

She worked long and dif­fi­cult hours in log­ging and now be­haves like an old lady amongst a group of young

girls. — An­abel Lopez Perez

Be­ing a typ­i­cal child Suriva soon for­got about the mom’s teat and walked over to his aun­ties for com­fort, which they were all too ea­ger to sup­ply. The babe stood be­tween the two fe­males who wrapped their trunks around his, rubbed his head and back, moved even closer and did more trunk hug­ging. Then aun­tie took a stick and scratched Suriva’s leg. He re­sponded by lifting his leg for more scratches and at the same time, did more trunk hug­ging.

Mae Dok in the mean­time, kept to her­self, her head out­side the con­fines of the co­ral, to­tally un­in­ter­ested in com­fort­ing Suriva. The joy of the child, the agony of the mother and the heart­break of the old lady were more than I could take. I now un­der­stood how An­abel felt. Ele­phants were spe­cial.

The phi­los­o­phy of the Cen­ter is not about at­tract­ing tourists to raise money, but rather about de­vel­op­ing a per­ma­nent herd of ten to twenty an­i­mals that would stay to­gether like they do in the wild. In part, the Cen­ter raises funds by tak­ing in pay­ing guests, up to 30 at a time but no more than a dozen new ones a day. This way each per­son has time for ques­tions and the work­ers such as An­abel have the time to re­spond. Or even bet­ter, they can show the guests how things work. Chil­dren are wel­come – they quickly fall in love with the ele­phants and draw their par­ents in.

Be­cause of or­ga­ni­za­tions such as th­ese two in Sayaboury peo­ple the world over might put enough pres­sure on the gov­ern­ments to pre­serve this species.


Mae Ven has a treat while keep­ing close watch for her son, Suriva, at the Ele­phant Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter in Laos.


One of the ele­phant ex­am­in­ing rooms at the Ele­phant Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter is shown. Ele­phants don’t like to be con­fined and need to be trained to stand in the room calmly.


An­abel Lopez Perez, res­i­dent bi­ol­o­gist, lives at the cen­ter year-round.

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