Visit to Elephant Sanctuary in Laos

Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting Mandalao, an elephant sanctuary, Luang Prabang, Laos.

The Sanctuary Visit

The guided tour consisted of a lady from Portugal, the guide and me. After being driven along a very pot holed road, we sat in the café overlooking the sanctuary with a cup of tea and listening to an elephant expert. He has worked with elephants for 27 years, worldwide, and is an international consultant who works with sanctuaries, zoos, and works towards eliminating cruelty to elephants. What a smiling, gentle knowledgeable man! Spending half an hour with him was a real experience.

We were given socks and Ninja boots and set off down the hill to the river where a banana boat was waiting to ferry us to the other side of the fast flowing river. Three villagers brought the elephants – Aunty, (38 years old) Mum (35 years old) and Baby -Mr Kit, (18 months old) to the river where we were given bananas to feed them. Feeding elephants was an experience because their trunk came right up close and took the banana and the elephants seemed so big. I realized how gentle the elephants were. How amazing to know they would always remember me from now on.

We went into the shallows of the river and threw buckets of river water over the elephants’ bodies. The elephants loved the water and dirty skin became a little cleaner.

We followed the elephants along a track into the jungle. It had been raining a lot last night and the track was thick mud up to our knees in parts. Then we followed the shallow stream. The elephants led the way and we followed.

If they wanted to stop and eat, we stopped. Mr Kit (the 18 month old baby) was mischievous and at times wanted to do his own thing. Elephants can’t kick with their front legs because they need to stand on them for balance, so you don’t stand behind an elephant because they can’t see you there and might get a fright and kick. Little Mr Kit was cute and clumsy and had a mind of his own.

By the end of the walk with the elephants I had fallen in love with them – especially Aunty. When I hugged her and patted her face gently and looked into her big eyes, it was like interacting with a person. I felt she enjoyed our communication. Her big ears flapped and I sensed her nestling closer.

We left the elephants with their care givers and walked back, past paddy fields, sugar cane and corn fields in very hot sun. A delicious lunch of stir fried green vegetables, sticky Laos rice, chicken curry and another dish steamed in banana leaves awaited us.

By the time I got back to the hotel, I was exhausted, exhilarated and full of memories of beautiful elephants.

Cruel Practices

Years ago Denis and I rode an elephant in Thailand and felt ashamed we had been encouraging cruel practice.

Some tourist elephant centres and illegal logging firms treat elephants cruelly. They work the elephants from 8am to 7pm each day and chain them at night. Elephants need 6% of their body weight in food (equivalent to 30 McDonald’s biggest burgers) and they eat for 18 hours a day in the wild. An elephant weighs about 280 kg so it eats about 17 kg of food a day.  Each time their trunk goes down to the ground, it can pick up 300gms of food, so they need to eat for a long time to get the food they need.  Half of the budget from the sanctuary goes to supplementing the elephants’ feed – they supplement 40% of the elephants’ diet –  30% with bananas, corn and sugar cane and other crops and 10% with minerals to keep them healthy.

Elephants that are used to work long and hard are very skinny and malnourished. Usually elephants live for 80 to 90 years, but when worked so hard, in tourist centres or illegal logging, their life span is 50 – 60 years. Also elephants need a constant temperature of 25 degrees calcius to thrive, so is it fair to place elephants in cold countries?

Poaching is also a problem. When baby elephants are poached, the mother and aunty will protect their baby with their lives, so poachers shoot them too. So not only is the baby lost, but others in the herd are lost as well.

Elephants are also killed and their ivory tusks removed. Although this practice is illegal it still happens and is sometimes done in a cruel and inhumane way.

Elephant Sanctuary

The place I visited yesterday was almost an exact opposite. The elephant sanctuary has been open to tourists for 4 years and borders a river, extending up into jungle covered hills. The sanctuary employs the local villagers to grow corn, sugar cane and bananas; tend the elephants daily; prepare morning tea and lunch for tourists; clean the café / toilets etc. If elephants eat village crops, the sanctuary’s management pay for the crops. It is a win/win for both parties. All the elephants do is eat, walk, bathe and sleep, so it is elephant heaven and the villagers have employment and a source of money.

Did you know? … Buddhists believe elephants are close to humans in intelligence. Humans are born with 27% of their brain capacity because they only have to lie, sleep and eat and elephants are born with 35% brain capacity because they have to stand, eat and sleep. However, an elephant’s brain keeps growing until they die, whereas ours may develop poor memory and recall.

Elephants have been around for six and a half million years, and humans have been around for only a percentage of that time. Elephants live in a matriarchal world where males visit to breed and then leave. A pregnancy is 22 months for a male and 21 months for a female baby. Males can mate after 8 years, so the mother sends the 8 year old male away. The young male joins a gang and they go around fighting and acting like young males until he meets a female and changes his ways.

Elephants’ Habitats

Elephants help their habitat in different ways. Elephants only digest 40% of their food, the rest is excreted, which is good fertilizer for the habitat. They don’t like standing their excrement and prefer to poop in running water, flushing it away. When elephants break overhead branches, grass is able to grow and feed small animals. They love to eat creeping plants – convolvulus – which left unattended will kill trees by smothering them.

An elephant has an amazing memory. Their brain’s frontal lobe is bigger than humans and all other mammals and they have the best memory. ‘Elephant memory’, ‘an elephant never forgets’. Elephants are very helpful for autistic children because they have the same brain system and they are a family animal.

Intelligence Test for Princess

The expert told us about his favourite elephant called Princess. She was born on the same day as him 24 years ago.

He gave an intelligence test for Princess in which he put a banana within reach and walked away. Princess looked around and saw no one was watching and ate the banana.

Then he put the banana further out of reach over a fence, but laid a stick within reach. Princess used the stick to hook the banana towards her and then ate it.

Then he put the banana further out of reach, with a stick and a piece of string. Princess ignored the stick and used the string to pull it towards her and ate the banana.

Then he put the banana further out of reach over a higher fence, so the stick, or the piece of string wouldn’t reach. Princess called another elephant and co-operated with the other elephant – one had one end of the string, the other elephant had the other end and they pulled in unison so the banana came close. Princess then ate the banana.

Then he put a mirror in front of Princess.

Princess stopped and stared at herself. Then … drew a cross on Princess’s forehead. Princess looked at herself in the mirror and traced the cross with her trunk. When he did the same exercise with a monkey, the monkey looked at the mirror and kept looking behind the mirror. A dog kept barking at the mirror.

Sometimes … teases Princess and instead of going to her first, he will pay attention to another elephant. Princess will snort and walk away and ignore … until he apologises and makes a fuss of her.

How Elephants Communicate

Elephants communicate well. When they are happy their ears flap backwards and forwards. Their tail flaps. Because elephants don’t have sweat glands they need to flap their ears like huge fans to keep the temperature lower. They don’t have sweat glands because some days in the wild it may be very hot and they may not be able to get to water for several days.

When humans are excited they secrete adrenalin. Adrenalin is also secreted with anger. An elephant will sense adrenalin and stick their ears out.

They trumpet when warning or if they are angry. A long sound is questioning, ‘What is happening?’

E-e-e-e-e-e means I want to play.

A low purring sounds is happiness.

Elephants can smell and hear from 7km away.  They sense vibrations through their trunk and ears and an elephant will stop, put their trunk up with ears open wide. However, this means they can smell their favourite food grown in nearby villages and because elephants eat a lot, villagers’ crops can be destroyed, so they kill elephants.

When elephants meet others they put their trunk down to sense the other and touch the top of their mouth on their own face (this is where their special memory bank is). Then they never forget the other. If their ears flap, they feel ok. about the meeting.

When they bang their foot up and down they are wanting to talk to you.

If you are ever in Laos and if you love elephants but are only interested in visiting places that are kind to elephants and you would like to learn more about them, please visit Mandalao




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