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Psst, wanna buy a bit of an elephant?
by Melody Kemp
This might be become a reality if ElefantAsia Laos launch a elephant time sharing arrangement. Before you raise your hands in horror and contact your local PETA branch, consider this. Stress and overwork are not just affecting your average downsized worker. Shrinking elephant populations afford little time to rest and recreate, or to be more precise, procreate. Too many elephants are suffering headaches and ‘not tonight-ism’.
The team at ElefantAsia are hoping that investors in an elephant time share can buy time off; in effect pay the mahout to put his pachyderm out to pasture for a few months, enabling it to partake of a bit of the old jungle in and out.
The forthcoming Elephant Festival to be held in northwestern Lao between 17-18 February, will showcase these extraordinary beasts, reminding Laos and travellers alike, what honour elephants have been afforded over the years. But the festival will equally honour their mahouts, who care for the animals, and upon whom the increasingly domesticated herd rely on for a job. Increasingly the ancient job of the mahout is as much endangered as the elephants themselves.
Lao was once known as Lane Xang or Land of A Million Elephants. A three headed white elephant the symbol of the now defunct Lao royal family. Now the herd is thought to stand at 2,000, and as increasing amounts of Lao land are being inundated by dams, turned into green deserts by plantations, blown up for mines, or dug up for farms, their habitat is shrinking. Conservation islands are not sufficient to maintain the amount of food required to sustain the last of Asians sizeable elephant herds in the wild.
Ironically Burmese, Thai, Cambodian and Lao elephants have been employed by logging firms, in effects to destroy their habitat and thus their future. In Thailand the cessation of logging and the prohibition of work in the forestry industry has put a lot of elephants and their mahouts out of work; as a result small elephants are now seen begging in the tourist havens of Bangkok and adults with tail lights swinging, are to be seen in Chiang Mai. It is, after all, an offence to have an unlit elephant after dark.
Unemployed elephants get into the same sorts of trouble as unemployed humans do, particularly during the annual must. They get restive, argumentative and depressed. So finding things for them to do and more importantly finding a balance between work, sex and rest is a challenge that ElefantAsia is currently wrestling with.
ElefantAsia was founded by two Frenchmen Gilles Maurer and Sebastien Duffilot, who formed the non profit conservation group, and whose personal love of the animals led them to stay in Lao and spearhead the conservation measures.
Nor ones to shy away from hard work and big events, they staged a 3 month Elephant Trek the length of Lao, fording rivers, scaling hillsides, and traversing all the provinces where elephants had one roamed freely. The trek was turned into a film and book, the sales of which help to support ElefantAsia’s activities. Working alongside the Lao government, they came up with the idea of time shares after discussions with American vets who are helping with the animal care components of the program. They are hoping that individuals and maybe even schools, could help support an elephant and its mahout for say 2-4 months per year, the rest of which can be spent in tourism or other activities. They are open to suggestions, ideas and of course sponsorship, and welcome your ideas at info-at-elefantasia.org. The idea is to keep the integrity of the animal human interface, as with increasing domestication, the elephants are dependent on mahouts for care and attention. Aussie schools could benefit by having a direct relationship with a Lao village. Sponsorship could involve school excursions which would include elephant trekking and forest conservation. The sponsors time is theirs to use or not as the case may be.
"We have a animal care booklets that we are translating for the mahouts which tells them how to clean jumbo nails, wash their eyes, everything. It’s a professional job. Some of these guys are really old and know just about everything. We are afraid that they may die and take their knowledge. Caring for elephants is a speciality that even most vets don’t know about. We are hoping to encourage this aspect as well as conservation. The new generation of mahouts will have to learn too": Sebastien explained, sitting in their crowded office in the Lao Institute of Culture.
The forthcoming festival is not for wimps. Consider yourselves warned. It’s hard to get to, and there are no hotels. Visitors will stay with the hardy people of Hongsa, or in a tent at the festival camp ground. Hongsa was chosen because it has a large elephant population and is a place where elephants have maintained their revered status. The old mahouts recounted the sacred rites that go with the ancient blessing of the elephants (baci) and it is this ceremony, that will be a feature of the two day event. Races, mahout strutting their stuff, blessings, traditional circus and kids activities will all be on offer.
Travellers can gain some satisfaction in knowing that they can tell their kids and grandkids about the time they went to Lao, and witnessed 50 elephants doing their stuff. If enough people come, the event may be staged again, and the Lao government will see that there is advantage in hanging onto an ancient albeit hungry cultural symbol.
While you can get to Hongsa from Vientiane via some pretty terrible roads, the preferred route is from the UNESCO city of Luang Prabang. Catching the slow boat down the Mekong from the Royal Landing near the splendid and very sacred Wat Xien Thong will send you on a slow scenic 7 hour journey to Tha Soung. A journey that will cost you about AUD10 each way. A ‘taxi’ from the wharf to Hongsa will cost an additional AUD4 for the one and a half hour trip.
I am sure that while Luang Prabang is listed in the book 100 Places to See Before You Die, Hongsa is not, but I am equally sure that if the festival becomes an annual event, then it will be.
Check it out at www.ElefantAsia.org/docs/festival.