Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent
header_02 home about login header_06
sidebar-top content-top

Psst, wanna buy a bit of an elephant?

Melody KempMelody Kemp lives in Laos. Her previous piece for Webdiary was Veiled Threats. Photos courtesy of ElefantAsia, and their copyright.

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 Festival

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.
Fly Thai Air to Bangkok and Lao Air or Thai to Vientiane, or Bangkok Air, Lao or Thai air from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. Additional ferries will be laid on for the event.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

lion dancing

Since this is animals lover's corner, did you get to see the story on the teev about that woman in South America who rescued an ill-treated lion from a zoo. The action filmed witnessed this lion standing up on his hind legs, putting both paws on the shoulders of the woman and give her such a huge hug that his affection for her, and the mutual respect, was palpable. 

Morale upliftation comes from the least expected quarters, but truth is stranger than fiction, although money can't buy love.

How does one buy a bit?

Unfortunately, the website doesn't tell how to buy a bit of an elephant, (as far as I could see), except by the rather expensive option of attending the elephant festival.  If I'm wrong, I would appreciate a correction and direction.

Elephant market

Dear F Kendall,

Hi I am glad you are interested in these great animals. I think they are brighter than most of those inhabiting Capital Hill.. and a helluva lot more sociable.

Sorry maybe I wasn't clear, but you can write to Sebastien or Gilles at info@elefanasia.org.. They are a bit busy right now getting ready for the festival as the location is quite far from Vientiane. But later they would be pleased to hear your ideas and suggestions. They are particularly interested in hearing from schools..

The festival may be a once in a lifetime expereince and is free. Major charges are getting to Lao.. 7 hour river trip is AUD10 and the saeteow 'taxi' AUD3 for a 1.5 hour trip..


Not bad by Aussie standards.. and you get to stay in Luang Prabang one of UNESCO's heritage cities..

take care






Brilliant creatures

 ( Am being obtuse-  have  a hide as thick as a 'hefflunt' , esp the one in the room ).

Yes, I agree. I find animals fascinating and good company.

Elephants seem the most fascinating creatures of all, at least as far as  tv docos seem concerned. Utterly brilliant creatures. What a pity people didn't spend more time studying  elephants and many other creatures or getting to know their own pets, (let alone kids), even, instead of murdering, robbing and slaughtering everything in sight for what they imagine to be of gain for themselves.

Elephants rule ... I wish

Thirty-three years ago to the day(s), Paul Walter, I was lucky enough to spend two weeks in Thailand with my mother. We did almost none of the guided-tourist things, preferring to make our own way, but there was one tour that we took from Chiang Mai (back before the high-rise hotels) that will live in my memory forever.

It just so happened that the Malaysian royal family were about to visit the Thai royal family, whose summer palace is close to Chiang Mai. For the few weeks before the visit, all the working elephants (and their mahouts) had been summoned to rehearse a splendid display for the royals of what working elephants can do.

We had the good fortune of witnessing one of the final – almost dress – rehearsals. A truly splendid event, but one not without its piquancy. That savour was provided by an elephant calf, presumably the offspring of one of the participants, but not old enough to bear any part in the ceremony herself (I’m almost certain – for reasons that may become obvious – that she was a she).

So, there was this charming little elephant calf off on the sidelines, and there in our small tourist group was a long and lanky German, who was determined to photograph the calf.

Unfortunately, she was camera-shy (I empathised then, I still do).

For the first few times that the long and lanky tried to take a photo, she became increasingly restless.

Then he tried again. This time, she charged (a bit), and he ran.

Then – to the surprise of the remainder of the party, he made another attempt. The calf was too much for him: she did not charge, but waited until he approached sufficiently closely, then gave him the best dust shower from her trunk that I’ve ever had the pleasure of beholding.

Ah, elephants.

And we think that we are a privileged species.

Whose headaches?

Are these male elephants or female elephants (with the headaches etc)?

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
© 2005-2011, Webdiary Pty Ltd
Disclaimer: This site is home to many debates, and the views expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the site editors.
Contributors submit comments on their own responsibility: if you believe that a comment is incorrect or offensive in any way,
please submit a comment to that effect and we will make corrections or deletions as necessary.
Margo Kingston Photo © Elaine Campaner

Recent Comments

David Roffey: {whimper} in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 1 day ago
Jenny Hume: So long mate in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 2 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Reds (under beds?) in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 3 days ago
Justin Obodie: Why not, with a bang? in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 3 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Dear Albatross in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 3 days ago
Michael Talbot-Wilson: Good luck in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 4 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Goodnight and good luck in Not with a bang ... 14 weeks 5 days ago
Margo Kingston: bye, babe in Not with a bang ... 15 weeks 2 days ago