In a tangled teak forest, a short drive from Luang Prabang, Majestic Mahn leads the way through trickling water ahead of three-year-old baby Kit. I pinch myself. I can’t believe I’m so close to these jungle-munching creatures as they wander the forest foraging for breakfast.
Baby Kit hesitates when he sees the babbling brook, retreats, pushes ahead, and then bumps around for a different route, scattering his human observers while he searches for the confidence to pass. It’s a magical experience to watch this small pachyderm on a learning curve.
Kit is one of nine Asian elephants (and the only youngster) living on the banks of the Nam Khan River who are getting a new and happier lease of life at Mandalao. Set up by American Michael Vogler, and co-founders 2.5 years ago, Mandalao’s elephants have been rescued from logging camps and are being shown a new future without backbreaking work, and tourists riding on their backs for laughs. Mandalao offers wildlife fans a range of walks and ethical encounters all within easy access to Luang Prabang.
Guide Mr. Keum tells our small group at Mandalao’s riverside location that when the Lao government shut down logging camps in 2016, the elephants were out of work. Today they live in a “five-star hotel,” Keum says, while showing us photos of the elephants prior to their welcome at Mandalao.
Vogler’s ultimate aim is to send elephants to Nam Poui Protected Area on the Lao-Thai border, in a bid to ensure the species’ survival. At Nam Poui around 60 wild elephants patrol the earth. Once known as the Land of a Million Elephants, Laos now counts less than 1,000 wild and captive elephants with numbers declining due to poaching, hunting, and unexploded ordnance, Keum says.
“We can’t bring back one million,” Keum warns, “but we hope to increase the population to six or seven thousand.”
After a safety briefing and a tip from Keum: “We can kiss the elephant but not the mahout guide!”, we cross the river on a canoe to meet some of the waiting, and hungry elephants.
Thong Khoun, a 47-year-old female, is eager to snaffle the bananas we’ve brought her. When our attention is turned to other stabled elephants in the group, I spy her determination: she draws out her trunk as much as is physically possible and tips over a basket to snatch the last few bananas. I was transfixed. I couldn’t believe she was able to stretch her trunk so much.
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