Tips on how you can help Lao elephants and mahouts.
Laos was known as the land of a million elephants. They have been used as beasts of war or burden, and until recent decades, for logging. Logging is extremely hard work both for elephants and their handlers, known as mahouts. Now tourism offers a better way of life for Lao elephants and mahouts.
These days, while hundreds of Asian elephants remain in the wild in Laos, there are also a nearly equal number held in captivity. It would be preferable to release captive elephants back into the wild, but modern development, hunters and the density of and danger from human settlements means that this is not a straightforward solution. Elephants are expensive to keep and need to earn their living – they need food, health care and shelter. Unlike logging, working in tourism offers them an easier life and also helps to maintain the species, especially in Laos where elephants may otherwise disappear in 30 years.
Recently, there has been a lot of controversy around elephant camps, tourism, and animal welfare because some camps use hooks, chains, and cruel training methods. Professional tourism elephant camps take account of the animals’ needs and nature. Elephants are social animals and need to interact with others as well as having exercise, regular bathing and good nutrition. Elephants need fiber and a variety of vegetation to eat. They can consume 200 kilos of food each day. But no more than 10% of their daily intake should be sugar, like bananas or sugarcane, because that is like chocolate for humans. There are various activities you can do when interacting with elephants, such as feeding, bathing, and walking with these wonderful animals.
There are basically two types of elephant tourism – riding and non-riding camps. All have their merits and drawbacks, but, as we explain below, these might not be immediately obvious.
The EU SWITCH Handle With Care project (implemented by GIZ) has been working with Travelife (an international NGO offering sustainability certification for the tourism industry) in developing a standard for animal welfare and elephant camps. We support programs for Elephant Friendly Mahout Training emphasizing humane training (implemented by the Human Elephant Learning Program, www.h-elp.org). We also work closely with elephant camp owners, tour operators, and tourism companies to promote higher standards of animal welfare in Lao tourism.
We believe, that ‘abuse ends where knowledge begins’ and we would like to invite you to make your own informed decision when or if visiting Lao elephant camps. It is not a virtue to boycott elephant tourism, as this does not help the Asian elephant.
Three issues about animal welfare you should consider to make an informed decision
1. How can I tell I am visiting a good camp? Here are some tell-tale signs:
o There will be an elephant camp standard created by Travelife for tour operators. This will be operational in late 2019 – look out for that once it is ready.
o Elephants should look healthy – not too skinny, not too fat. There should be a certificate of veterinary care. Their skin should not show fresh or bleeding scars or marks from the saddles at riding camps.
o Proper procedures should be in place, such as being asked to wash your hands to avoid passing disease to, and also from, elephants. Elephants should have daytime resting spaces in shade which should be on earth not cement. You should be briefed on safety and the camp should look clean and well attended to.
o Information about the Asian elephant should also be displayed to educate about the elephant situation.
2. How to tell if an elephant is working with a good mahout
o A well-trained elephant and mahout team understand each other well by using gentle pressure and voice commands. Hooks are unsharpened and used for tapping only.
3. Appropriate Tourist Elephant Interactions
The presence of riding activities can’t be considered as a sign of bad animal welfare without further inquiry. Excellent elephant welfare may be achieved in camps proposing elephant riding while poor welfare may be observed in non-riding camps.
RIDING: if you choose that option, should follow rules that consider animal welfare – so loads should not be too heavy, the saddle should not be on all day, but put on specially for prebooked tours, the rides should not be too long, over natural ground and shaded.
NON-RIDING: if you choose that option, you should consider that it is a natural need for elephants to have sufficient daily exercise. If riding is not performed and if elephants are only used for feeding and bathing activities, they might develop health problems like obesity.
WALKING and FEEDING: walking with or feeding elephants should be done in a safe manner – being close to any elephant could be dangerous for humans if the elephants are not properly controlled.