The highlight of my recent trip to Cambodia and Laos was playing with elephants at Elephant Village, near Luang Prabang, Laos. The camp is a sanctuary for elephants rescued from the logging industry, funded by tourists’ dollars. The girls seemed well fed– while we were there they all had a constant supply of food–clean, and relaxed, and the camp has a live-in vet and onsite hospital. Taking tourists for rides in exchange for food, care, protection is a much better situation for the elephants than backbreaking labor in the logging industry. I chose Elephant Village specifically because it is a sanctuary for “retired” logging elephants and felt good about spending my money there.
But there is a dark side to elephant tourism in Asia. Not all elephant camps are peaceful havens for rescued log haulers, and not all elephant shows employ willing elephant performers: many buy young elephants that were captured in the wild and beaten to break their spirit in order to become tourist attractions. Read this article about the elephant tourism industry in Thailand if you want more horrifying details about the “breaking in” process. Some elephants are forced to do tricks such as ride tricycles and throw footballs, which may seem innocuous, until you consider how they are trained to do these things, and the conditions they live in as street performers. This article examines the different types of elephant tourism (trekking, begging, painting/shows, temple elephants, and safaris) and details the abuses often involved in each.
Back to Laos. Elephant use in the logging industry in Laos is on the decline, leaving more and more elephants jobless and available to the highest bidder, or simply abandoned to starve in the wild. Sanctuary organizations such as Elephant Village give the discarded animals medical care, food, and protection, and allow them to form herds and families.
Please do your research before patronizing an elephant tourism outfit to be sure the elephants are well cared for, and find out where they came from. My experience with the Elephant Village elephants was amazing, and I encourage you to meet and spend time with an elephant, but do it responsibly.
Foundations protecting Asian elephants: