Elephant Encounter

Luang Prabang, Laos

About 35 minutes outside of Luang Prabang, down various dusty roads and nested along the shores of the Nam Kahn river, lies a very secluded, special place — Mandalao Elephant Conservatory. A sanctuary for rescued elephants, Mandaloa’s philosophy, which includes no-riding, is both innovative & impressive. It is based on the following 5 freedoms:

  • The elephants always have more than enough food (did you know that the average elephant needs 551 pounds of food per day & eats for 18 hours a day?). And more than enough land to roam, freely.
  • The elephants get plenty of play & interaction with other elephants.
  • The elephants are never subjected to emotional or physical stress (hence no riding as riding an elephant puts both emotional & physical stress on the elephant).
  • The elephants receive daily medical checks, thorough medical assessments every two months and medical care as needed.
  • The elephants receive Positive Reinforcement Training, which means, no yelling, no hitting, no poking, no prodding. Just positive reinforcement.

Having had the privilege of experiencing their efforts & the elephants they have rescued firsthand has left me not only impressed but convinced that education is the way towards preservation & conservation.

In order to understand my stance today it may help to understand my position from the past, so, here is a brief bit of backstory….

We have traveled with Escape To Shape to Laos many times over the past 8 years. And given that the word Laos means Land of A Million Elephants, it only seemed appropriate to include an elephant experience for our guests. Our last Escape To Laos (prior to the one we are hosting now) was in 2015 and up until November 2016 the only ‘sanctuaries’ that existed in Luang Prabang offered elephant rides. The camp we chose to take our guests to was also quite secluded and beautiful, and also rescued elephants from the logging industry- surely offering them a better quality of life than before. But these safeties and comforts came at a price. That price being that multiple times a day they were covered in hot blankets, strapped with a saddle and ridden by curious tourists. At the time I did not think much of it- the elephants seemed happy & were taken care of and spending a morning with the elephants was always a highlight for our guests. In other words, while not even realizing it, we were contributing to the mistreatment of elephants.

From our last Escape To Laos in 2015 until now many things shifted. I was introduced to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust; I went on safari in Botswana, a country that should be the benchmark for what conservation in action looks like; and Mandalao Elephant Conservation open its doors, and its heart to the elephants of Laos. So, when finalizing the schedule for this Escape To Shape: Luang Prabang I quickly booked a private experience at Mandalao, eager to share their philosophy and non-riding offerings with our guests.

Which leads us to last week.

Last week we had the honor or trekking with elephants. Along the Mekong. In Laos. I am quite sure I had you at elephants, but the backdrop of the Mekong & Laos just added to the beauty of the experience. It’s impossible to describe the profound impact these gentle giants can have on you when there are no bars, no walls, no safari jeep boundaries, no saddle, between you. They command respect due to their size but once you have the opportunity to connect with them, in silence, through gentle touch, through feeding them, and through simply keeping pace with them as they walk through the jungle, something incredible happens. The healthy fear dissipates, the connection is made, and you literally can feel love, warmth & recognition.

All 11 of us in our private group started out excited about our experience- not knowing exactly what to expect- but eager to find out. Once we met the elephants all of us, elephants included, added nervousness to our excitement. As we began to intimately interact with the elephants, gain their trust, let them lead the way, a shift happened. The excited & nervous giggles turned to silence and whispering, our pace slowed to match the elephants and a deeper sense of trust was formed. As we meandered through the jungle, through rice fields, over streams and splashed in rivers, awe, wonder & happiness prevailed. When it was time to say goodbye, we were able to stand face to face with each elephant, hug and kiss her, feel their warmth and breath. What started as giggles of excitement and nervousness and then turned to silence & awe, left each of us in tears.

We were not ready to let go then, and we still are not ready to let go now. Perhaps we never will be.