Ana and I left the other tourists traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River with their jaws agape when we nimbly jumped off the boat’s thin, rickety ramp onto a giant sand dune with just a small smattering of thatch-roofed houses sunk into the hillside several hundred meters beyond. The boat reached Tha Suang, a tiny blip of a town, and we were the sole tourists venturing into the more rural Sainyabuli province in Laos. Our target end-destination? Hongsa, a town I visited on my round the world trip three years ago.There were so many reasons for the trip back to this small town: the friendly face of an expat guesthouse owner in Hongsa, the chance for Ana to see the slow pace of life in rural Laos, and to ride an Asian elephant. You see, while I have my doubts about the ethics of the elephant tourism industry in Southeast Asia, my 11 year-old niece was very keen on the experience. One of her dreams at the moment, is to work in animal conservation and one day reverse the gradual extinction of endangered animals. This school year, conservation has been a strong focus and we talked it over, discussed a lot of the issues about the current treatment of elephants around the world, including the elephant logging industry, and she decided she wanted an up close ride and elephant trekking experience in Laos, where they still use elephants for logging. Three years ago, I rode an elephant in Hongsa as well — there’s a lure and a romance to riding an elephant through the green jungle and living-out some elephant meets Tarzan fantasies. The quandary part of this comes down to the where . . .
After reading up on my options three years ago, I picked Hongsa because I could rent a logging elephant for the day and give him a break from long hard days of hauling trees, rather than risk over-working a tourist-camp elephant. And perhaps by convincing myself that a day eating through the jungle with me was easier than his logging duties could appease my guilt and indecision to be honest. Even looking pack, however, I think it’s a very complicated topic because I have gone so far as to tentatively endorse riding elephants in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, where that activity is among the only actions that have saved the elephant in that part of the world.With that in mind, Ana and I ventured off the more well-worn backpacking route through Laos to the same rural town I last visited in early 2009 so she could learn more about the elephant logging industry in Laos, meet an elephant in person, and make her own decisions about elephant tourism.
The wooden bell around the bull elephant’s neck thudded with a cheery ring as the mahout directed him toward the loading platform — Ana gasped when the elephant’s broad shadow blocked out the sun and dwarfed her petite figure. The elephant’s dull, grey skin was wrinkled like that of an old man celebrating his long-awaited 102nd birthday; we both tentatively patted his coarse, hairy stomach as Ana buzzed with nervous excitement, passing the bundle of bananas from hand-to-hand.
She is fascinated by these animals and carefully studied his small expressive eyes, his sneaky trunk (the bananas she she was still holding in her hand had the elephant probing her hands and pockets with enthusiasm), and the thick chain wrapped around his ankle.
I’ll spare a full description of her experience (I walked along beside the elephant), and instead point you to her post and thoughts about the elephants we met, but I will note it was a beautiful trek through what I consider one of the prettier regions in Laos (but who am I kidding, the entire country is photogenic). Deep brown waters flooded many of the rice paddies, enveloping the weak green stalks, and at points on the trek we heard the tinkling lilt of grainy music drifting out from the wooden houses on stilts.And after an hour perched behind the mahout, jilting from side to side and watching the world pass by from 10 feet above the ground, we stopped for lunch and she informed me of her theory — if she stopped riding him, maybe the mahout would stop poking him with the sharp metal hook, and instead let him eat more of the bamboo and plants lining the red mud paths. She told me that though she liked the idea of riding an elephant, she now decided watching him walk around and do his “elephant” thing was better all around for the elephant and for her.
I agreed and at this point figure the day was a success — she fulfilled her dream to ride an elephant, either way we gave a logging elephant an easier day, and Ana learned for herself (instead of me prattling at length about my own beliefs) about some tough ethical dilemmas facing the elephant tourism industry in Asia.
It’s worth pointing out that the bulk of my issues with elephant tourism stem from the way elephants we domesticate elephants, but not necessarily the domestication in general. The level of cruelty needed to force elephants into submission is not like breaking a horse; it takes beatings, days of abuse, inciting pure fear in the animal, and a whole host of other actions I did not share with Ana, but are startling in their level of pure brutality.You see, that’s the issue here, because the domestication of elephants is nothing new to the world; in fact, for thousands of years (well into the BC era) humanity has revered the elegance of the elephant. We used the ancient art of storytelling to weave this giant beast into the myths of gods and goddesses, into legends speaking of ultimate power and wisdom. Indian mythology is ripe with elephant imagery, each story bestowing ever the more power, grace, and awe on these animals. Images of Indra, King of the Gods, draw power from the idea of this God mastering and controlling Ayravata, his elephant steed. While Ganesha, a deity know as the “Remover of Obstacles,” has an elephant head and is arguably the most popular and recognizable of the many Hindu gods. Humans have waged war with elephants for centuries, their brute strength and intimidating figures were likely the deciding factor determining the outcome of many skirmishes and battles throughout history. An issue cropping up now, though, lies within globalization, tourism, and the world’s connectivity. Our growth means massive habitat loss for the Asian elephant, more demand for their productivity in questionable trades (such as the elephant logging industry which is illegal in Thailand, but still legal in Laos, Myanmar, and other areas of Asia), abuse, and a novelty factor in tourism that has put this beautiful animal on the world’s growing list of endangered animals. These are the elements I see within the elephant tourism industry — a lot of gray areas. And there is so much more I haven’t mentioned; the animals often sustain skin injuries from the chairs needed to haul tourists—their curved spines cannot easily support the weight — and, they need a lot of time throughout the day to eat enough food to sustain their enormous bodies (there is often not enough time to both eat and fulfill tourism duties).
Former logging elephants will often have broken backs or malformed legs from the dangers of the job. And it’s these very same elephants, the former logging elephants that are now forced to earn their feed by spending hours upon hours hauling tourists. Numbers are dwindling because owners often cannot afford to allow the mothers the time and light load needed to gestate for 22 months, and when they are born, the baby elephants are destined for the tourism industry as well.
This is the first side of the coin, later this month Ana and I will visit the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. The Nature Park is a conservation center allowing full elephant-tourist interactions but without the riding aspect. We’ll learn more about these beautiful animals and Ana is excited to see some of the current conservationists working to preserve the Asian elephant’s place in future generations.
Through other travelers I greatly respect, they have told me this park is one of the best spots for ethical elephant tourism in Thailand, so Ana and I will report back with more information soon.