Mandalao: offering the best in elephant welfare

The conservation of wildlife in Laos is hard work and all of the animals that inhabit forests are at risk as the wildlife trade is thriving, both here and overseas.
Elephants are the largest animals in Laos and there were a lot of them in years past but now they are quite rare, especially in the wild.
But elephants are a great tourist attraction and visitors love riding on them and touching them.
Mandalao is a new elephant conservation centre in Luang Prabang, and is a 25-minute drive outside the town.
This centre is dedicated to the conservation of elephants and is the first and only non-riding elephant experience in Laos. But you really get a true feel for the elephants and are able to touch them.
When you arrive, you will be given a cup of coffee at a restaurant close to the Nam Khan river where you can get a great view over the river and the hills, and observe the locals nearby.

Half way into the hike, the elephants stop to get some food.

This is also where you’ll be briefed by wildlife experts about the elephants and what goes on at Mandalao.
After a while, you will take a boat across the river, taking along some sugarcane or sweetcorn to feed the elephants on the other side.
If it’s early enough you will see eight female elephants and a very young male. Each of them has a name, given by their first owner.
You can then touch two of the elephants and feed them the sweetcorn and sugarcane.
You can get very close to the great animals although of course to begin with you might feel rather scared as they are very large and powerful beasts.
But after a few minutes you will want to get closer and closer and then feel safe because they are really friendly and have been taught how to communicate with people.
After that you go to the river with the elephants where you will help them to bathe.
When the elephants are ready you will hike with them into the forest. You will pass the villagers’ sweetcorn plantations, which grow the crop especially for the elephants. And if you’ve booked a trip for the whole day you will also visit a Hmong or Khmu village.
Elephants never stop eating if food is available because they need at least 200 kilos of food a day. Mandalao feeds them 100 kilos and they forage for the other 100kg themselves.
During the hike, you will see elephants eating the sweetcorn from the farms that have been paid to grow the crop, just two metres from the roadside.
When you enter the forest, the elephants will walk through a small river and you can walk on the riverbank. Here you’ll feel very much in touch with nature. You observe the elephants walking through the forest with nothing on their backs and you really feel they are wild and independent creatures.
We talked with two elephants - Mother Bounpheng and Mother Kham. Mother Bounpheng was quite active and always wanted something to eat. Mother Kham was very quiet and would eat only when we gave her something, but both animals were very friendly.
After some hours of hiking with the elephants, you will return to the restaurant where freshly prepared food awaits.
All the elephants look healthy because they get enough food and are not used for work.
Mandalao cofounder Mr Michael Vogler said Mandalao got started in November 2016.
“I’m one of the cofounders and owners of the elephant sanctuary,” he said.
The sanctuary covers about 200 hectares of land which the elephants use as their eating area and it provides 50 percent of their diet. It’s important that they are well fed and happy.
Michael first came to Laos in 2011. “My background is in wildlife conservation. I find Laos to be an incredibly intriguing place. I came back about four years later with one of my friends and we decided we wanted to move to Laos, so we considered ecotourism, trekking and elephant conservation,” he explained.
They went to one of the other so-called elephant sanctuaries in Luang Prabang but thought it did not really seem like a natural habitat.
To start with, the friends thought they might just get a couple of elephants from a logging camp and do some trekking through the jungle.
They didn’t know too much about elephants but they knew they wanted to take care of them in the right way and not offer rides but just have people walk beside them.
“That’s really what separates us from any other camp in Luang Prabang. We focus really on overall welfare. We want the elephants to be healthy, well fed and well looked after,” Michael said.
A couple of years ago he was very fortunate in meeting a man who had worked with a Thai elephant conservation centre, and asked him to come to Mandalao.
Mr Prasop Tipprasert, a wild animal expert, said he was very happy to work at Mandalao because on his first visit to Laos he heard some shocking facts about elephant conservation from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Laos.
“In my childhood I learnt that Laos was a place that once had a million elephants and was sometimes called Lao Lane Xang. But by 1980 Laos had just 3,000 elephants and in 2009 the number dropped to 1,200 elephants and had now dwindled to less than 1,000,” he said.
These figures made him lose sleep because he had spent 27 years of his life looking for solutions to the decline in the elephant population in Thailand.
“We started out here by insisting there be no riding on the elephants but that’s nothing if you don’t keep them healthy and happy. Elephants are very sensitive so we don’t encourage any punishment. We don’t allow the use of hooks or riding because riding affects both the mind and body. If you do that it’s like you put a shadow on the elephant’s back and tie it very tight,” Prasop said.
He said Mother Kham used to work very hard before she came to Mandalao. She lost her baby after she had been pregnant for a few months. She used to drag heavy logs around and her owner didn’t realise she was pregnant. Most of the elephants at the sanctuary came from villagers in the area who didn’t want their elephant to work hard anymore.
Prasop said they got some of them for free and bought some of them cheaply because the owners liked the work that Mandalao was doing with elephants.

By Patithin Phetmeuangphuan
(Latest UpdateJanuary 08, 2018)

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