Elephant Conservation Center: Rush to Save a National Icon

Elephant Conservation Center: Rush to Save a National Icon

A visit to the Elephant Conservation Center could be the highlight of your trip to Laos!

              Centuries ago, Laos was known as the ‘Land of a Million Elephants,’ and although the Asiatic elephant has endured as a national icon, their numbers are in severe decline.  It is estimated that there are only about 800 elephants left in the country; 400 in the wild and 400 in captivity. 

elephant herd conservation center sayaboury laos

              Neither population is sustainable and both are declining, but due to completely different problems.  The wild populations decline is due primarily to deforestation.  Dwindling forests lead to habitat fragmentation and disrupted migration patterns for the elephants.  This all leads to both smaller herds and human-elephant conflict as the elephants wonder into farms and villages looking for food.  This decline is also compounded by poaching and capture.

mother baby elephant bathing conservation center sayaboury laos

              The captive elephants face whole different issues.  Even though the Laos’ government has cracked down with tight restrictions in the logging industry, the domesticated elephant still finds a hard life in the tourist industry.  There they are feed unhealthy diets, work in poor conditions, and are kept in isolation; all of which are not conducive to breeding.  Elephant owners also do not have an incentive to breed their elephants, as a pregnancy would sideline a female elephant from working for up to four years.

elephant conservation center sayaboury laos

              That is where the Elephant Conservation Center comes in.  Opened in Sayaboury, Laos in 2010, as a holistic approach to elephant conservation, the center focuses on the physical and mental health, dietary needs, social interactions, breeding, and rewilding of the captive elephants, as well as the protection of the wild elephant population and its habitat in the adjacent Nam Pouy National Protection Area. 

wild elephant pastures conservation center sayaboury laos
Elephants foraging for food in an elephant pasture. 

              The Elephant Conservation Center currently has 530 hectares of rehabilitation land and access to a total of 6,000 hectares for elephants’ pastures.  The center also boasts the only Elephant Hospital in Laos.  With the large land concession, the center started purchasing elephants from their owners and accepting donated elephants from the government for rehabilitation, natural breeding, and socialization.

mahout riding elephant conservation center sayaboury laos
Most of the elephants have been trained their whole life to only act on command, so the mahouts must ride them through the forest.

              The Elephant Conservation Center currently has 34 elephants living at the center and another 50 wild elephants under their care in the adjacent Nam Pouy National Protected Area.  The overall goal is to breed the center's 34 captive elephants with their wild counterparts and release a new herd into the wild every few years. 

mahout elephant conservation center sayaboury laos
Mahout with his elephant.

              This is no small undertaking for the center and there is a lot of work that goes into helping rehabilitate the domesticated elephants.  Most of the elephants have been trained to only act on command and have been isolated from social interactions with other elephants.  For this reason, the center employees’ mahouts to work with the elephants.  All of the mahouts are Laos citizens and have worked as traditional elephant trainers for generations.  The Elephant Conservation Center’s Mahout Training Program endeavors to use the knowledge of the mahouts for conservation purposes.

herding socializing elephant conservation center sayaboury laos
Herd of domesticated elephants socializing in a wild elephant pasture.

              During their time at the center, the elephants go through regular medical checkups, are taken to watering holes to bathe, and are released into wild elephant pastures to learn to forage for food and socialize.  Human interaction with the elephants is limited as much as possible and happens almost completely through the mahout.

bamboo bungalow elephant conservation center sayaboury laos
One of the many private bamboo bungalows at the Elephant Conservation Center.

Most of the funding for the Elephant Conservation Center comes from tourist visiting the center.  The center offers soft, responsible eco-tourism opportunities for you to learn about the elephants and center, see the work in progress, and watch the elephants socializing and foraging from a distance.  Currently, the center offers three tourist packages; Discovery (2 days/1night), Exploration (3 days/2 nights), and Volunteering (7 days/6 nights).  You can see each package and book your stay on the Elephant Conservation Center’s website.  All of the packages offer free transportation to/from the center from Luang Prabang, stay in a bamboo bungalow, and meals served family style.

elephant drinking conservation center sayaboury laos

If you are an Elephant lover, or love experiencing conservation projects in action, then I highly recommend visiting the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos!

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