One of the reasons I need a new passport (aside from the obvious need to change identity & slip away before anyone pins this on me) is that some of my favourite neighbours live in a country that requires me to get a page-filling visa every time I visit...
...& visit I have, for work & for pleasure, for better & for worse, for richer & for poorer (bloody poorer that's a fact) and also to fill these here pages. I've lost count of the number of times I've been across to Laos in the past few years (counting visas would give me an answer, of course, but let's just stick with poetic license), often to visit the projects of our friends in Elefantasia and three times to visit their showcase event the Lao Elephant Festival.
The previous couple of visits have been to the elephant town of Hong Sa - when we first went foreigners had to take a boat for two days on the Mekong just to get to the one-taxi town that would see you up into the mountains where the elephants hang out - this year's extravaganza was in a town on the Mekong called Paklay, newly accessible from Thailand through Loei province. Knowing how much I love to see my old blue Toyota kicking up dust, you surely know that we piled the car full of Lung Lord, our chief mahout, Dr Cherry, our vet and off we set through the dry (& burning) forests of Northern Thailand 'til we got to this border crossing so remote that, on the Laos side, they took an hour to translate my name into Lao and type it, single fingered, into the computer.
On the face of it this was another great event working on the principle that, if you can't move the people to the elephants you move the elephants to the people. All the usual elements were there, some fifty odd elephants participating in the pageantry, elephant of the year contests, parades, logging demonstrations, blessing ceremonies, mass bathing (of elephants) in the Lay river; all-in-all a celebration of the mahouts' lives and their lifestyle with, this being an Elefantasia event, a lot of grass roots conservation messages woven into the speeches by Governors and other dignitaries.
We had dinner with an international conference of Human Elephant Conflict experts from around the range states, using the attraction of domestic elephants to bring together the gurus who are on the front line of saving the species. Well, you know that ticks the box next to one of our biggest goals too - we like this place, these people & the things we can do!
A celebration of Laos entertainment and lifestyle, beer (well, with their universal marketing, Beer Laos has become synonymous with the Democratic Republic itself - no complaints here) with a huge festival atmosphere coupled with, stalls, games, tents from the tourism departments of the various different provinces highlighting the eco-tourism opportunities to be had for those with our wanderlust but a little more time, the World Wild Fund for Nature (which I'm sure you still call the World Wildlife Fund) had a big tent and prize giving quizzes for school kids who could answer simple questions about the preservation of the country's natural resources - to top it all (& to make Thai folks jealous) the mobile phone speed in this town where they'd not yet sealed the roads was hovering between 3 & 3.5G.
...great to see a CITES message at the border....
...one reason I love Lao roads...
...but once you get there you realise Paklay has become an elephant town for the weekend...
...get 'em young, elephants everywhere....
...the main parade passes by...
...card carrying members?...
...the elephant blessing ceremony, a Bai Sri, the white string conveys the blessings...
..the Lao Mobile Elephant clinic sponsored & run by Elefantasia as well as the Elephant Umbrella Fund (the festival was also a great chance to catch up with Connie)...
...at the World Wild Fund for Nature tent school kids were tested on their conservation knowledge; prizes, kids, prizes...
...& the elephant of the year, a very handsome tuskless bull.
So a great time was had by all, the elephants got a weekend or more off from their normal job, dragging huge (but ever diminishing) logs through the forest, the millions of local folks (& not a few intrepid travellers) got a chance to meet elephants, see human circus acts and, to top it all, the conservation groups got a chance to drip feed ideas into the madding throng.
But the eagle eyed among you will have noticed something, especially those of you who regularly peruse these pages and know that I don't throw away words easily. Somewhere up there, above the photographs there is a little phrase, added quietly, so subtly you may not have noticed it, there are five little words 'On the face of it'.
It is one of the problems of my trade that the deeper I seem to get into it the more I seem to look beyond the face of what's going one - oh how I long for the days when I could just enjoy things for their own sake!
There was something else here that had not been seen before, something new to Laos, there were baby elephants (& given that Elefantasia has been trying to encourage breeding this should be a good thing, right?).
Well, not quite, the baby elephants here were, for the first time, performing a show - well, there's nothing wrong with a show if producing baby elephants is your goal, you have to let them have an income (though what acts should be permitted and which are harmful is a muddy line that is largely ignored in the name of commerce) and I have to admit I was disappointed to see the Thai experience imported wholesale (with it's loud music and garish costumes): a loss of innocence. I didn't see them myself but I'm told that there was street begging going on late at night in the back-packer bars and around the human circus.
It seems that the commercialism of babies has crossed the border and poor old Laos folks faced with the Thai dilemma all of a sudden, if you want babies (IF you want babies?!) you have to make the proposition attractive to the mahouts, but if it becomes too attractive, well, you end up encouraging behaviour that is not healthy for the elephants or mahouts themselves.
For a final word I'll leave the stage to Sebastien Duffilot of Elefantasia, as he makes clear, this was not his doing nor that of his organisation - an unwanted (but unfortunately lucrative) add on to a conservation festival...
Vientiane, February 25th, 2011
Laos has recently had its 5th annual Elephant Festival. Held each February in the Sayaboury Province, this year’s festival took place in the city of Paklay. Thousands of national and international visitors attended the three-day event, with the provincial tourism department estimating 26 billion kip (USD$ 3,250,000) was injected into the local economy over the festival period.
Each year the coordination of the Elephant Festival is undertaken by the Elephant Festival Organising Committee. This committee includes the Sayaboury provincial government, the Lao National Tourism Administration, the Host District government (Paklay District in 2011) and ElefantAsia non-profit organisation. ElefantAsia acts as advisers for the festival. This is achieved by supplying technical direction to provincial and district bodies, coordinating elephant festival activities, logistics, event management and implementation. ElefantAsia can advise and support other members of the Elephant Festival Organising Committee but has no official capacity to enforce complete management over the Lao Elephant Festival.
This year’s festival saw the inclusion of 10 elephants performing circus tricks such as basketball, handstands, bowling and dancing. Elephants as young as two were observed performing these activities. A Thai national had been hired to teach circus tricks to the elephants. All 10 elephants were due to be sent to work in a Chinese circus. This contract has since been cancelled yet circus training and shows are continuing to occur. Residing from the remote Thongmixay District of Sayaboury, these are Lao’s first ever circus elephants.
Despite ElefantAsia voicing severe dissatisfaction of the use of circus elephants at the Elephant Festival, ElefantAsia had no control over their attendance. Other members of the Elephant Festival Organising Committee gave approval to use the circus elephants for the entertainment of officials.
ElefantAsia wishes to convey their utmost disappointment and condemnation of the practice of training elephants for human entertainment purposes. Training elephants to perform tricks is physically cruel, with open head wounds apparent on several of the circus elephants. Not only are elephants physically harmed during circus training, but psychological damage is also inflicted. Physical provocation of such training teaches elephants to be afraid of humans, leading to very stressful and dangerous conditions for both elephants and people.
While elephants have been trained and used by humans for centuries in Laos, training for small-scale logging or village work is remarkably different to that of circus performances. Traditional training methods involve a high level of verbal commands, comparable to a sheepdog trained to muster sheep. Some physical control is required however this is more for steering purposes than actual commanding. Circus training requires long and intense periods of mental concentration by the elephant, while being physically punished if not understanding the complex manoeuvres expected of them. Physical training is the preferred method used by circus trainers, as negative reinforcement using pain makes an animal learn faster than verbal commands using positive reinforcement. Physical commanding does not take into consideration the animal’s temperament, stress or emotional state.
Not only is circus performing cruel and unnatural but sets up a cycle of employment that can lead to a lifetime of poverty and stress for the elephant. Take the elephants working on the streets of Bangkok as an example of this. A two-year old calf was observed at the Lao Elephant Festival wandering the busy streets of Paklay late at night begging for money. Its mahouts were holding pieces of wood containing nails, ensuring the calf performed tricks suitably. Blood was seen on the faces of some of the circus elephants. None of the circus elephants working at night had reflectors on them, leading to the risk of accident by an oncoming car or motorcycle. Instead of resting in the local forests at night like the other elephants attending the festival, the circus elephants were forced to work late into the night, stepping on broken glass and surrounded by extremely loud music. Their stress levels must have been severe.
ElefantAsia was the original creator of the Elephant Festival and will lobby for these elephants to stop circus performing and to never perform at future Elephant Festivals. The Elephant Festival’s purpose is to raise awareness of the need to conserve and protect Asian elephants in Laos, as highlighted by Sayaboury Governor Dr. Lien Thikeo during the opening ceremony. It is not a platform to showcase inhumane circus tricks taught to elephants by international investors wishing to make money. The training of circus elephants in Laos is extremely regrettable and an action ElefantAsia neither endorses nor will ignore. Lao cultural heritage is not associated with such acts. Training elephants for circus use should not be forced upon vulnerable communities under the guise of making easy money.
ElefantAsia will continue to perform veterinary treatments, education programs and conservation measures to elephants and communities in Laos. Campaigns will now include educating owners on the disadvantages of putting their elephants into a circus environment. The exploitation of elephants and elephant owners for circus use is unacceptable in the Land of a Million Elephants.
Do not hesitate to write us to show your concern and discontent!
Young elephant performing tricks at Annual Elephant Festival in Paklay, 2011