By Whitney Light
At the edge of Sayabouly, a not-quite-life-size sculpture of a parade of elephants announces the town of roughly 16,000 people in northern Laos as the rightful “Land of a Million Elephants”– a translation of Lan Xang – the 14th century kingdom, turned postcard tagline.
Sayabouly Province is home to Laos’ largest population of elephants, and also to its annual Elephant Festival, held February 17-19, which promised a celebration with dozens gathered together by their mahouts (masters). Along with a few dozen other foreigners and a few thousand Laos families, I arrived the Sunday before events got underway to see and celebrate the animal held sacred in local culture. Up to 80 domestic Asian elephants partook in years past. This year, I learned later, it was 65. Not quite as impressive a number, but perhaps a signal of things to come.
In 2007, the first Elephant Festival took place in Hong Sa, put on by its then-organisers Elephant Asia (the local government took it over in 2011) , a French non-profit that seeks to protect the Asian elephant in Laos. The number of both domestic and wild elephants in the country, as elsewhere in Asia, has been on a worrisome decline in recent years. Yet the country is still considered home to one of the largest remaining populations in Indochina. That could change. Laos is not the sleepy backwater it once was, as neighbouring countries compete for investment. China recently took the number one spot, with total investments worth US$5.1 billion and a loan to the government to build a road from Vientiane to Yunnan worth 75 percent of Lao’s GDP.
Currently, about 460 elephants work in the country’s logging industry – down from 570 in 2008 – and roughly 400 are wild. The numbers likely will keep dropping: Jungle habitat is being cleared and flooded for farm and resource developments; ivory poachers hunt on the borders of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia; and births number 4-5 annually compared to roughly 15 deaths, according to Elephant Asia.
I’d come on a packed bus from Luang Prabang, arriving with dust-caked hair alongside locals loaded down with plastic rainbow-coloured sacks of supplies. Of seven foreigners, only I had pre-arranged a place to stay. The few guesthouses in town turned out to be fully booked. Arriving at the office to check in to my home-stay, I walked into a shouting match between a well-dressed Laos woman with a clipboard, Ms Houmpheng, and a grey-haired, khaki-shorted tourist, who was enraged that his booking on Agoda had been lost. I saw him the next morning, looking sheepish, at my home-stay with the smiling and toothless septuagenarian, Mrs Lo.
The main events of the festival were scheduled for the morning of Tuesday, February 18, but already by Sunday many elephants had settled in a treed area beside the fairgrounds and next to the Nam Hung, a tributary of the Mekong. For 30,000 kip (about $3.75) mahouts offered rides in carriages mounted to the backs of their pompom- and sequin-blanketed elephants. It seemed relatively easy money for a group that typically spends 90 percent of their work days in logging camps coercing the animals into backbreaking labour.
In times past a mahout would learn his trade from his father and spend his lifetime with an elephant that he owned (today one costs $20,000-30,000), giving it the care and respect such an important investment would require, said Sebastien Duffillot, founder of the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayabouly. Now, with better prospects in other fields, more sons of mahouts decline to take on the trade, leaving it for younger and poorer men to take over, with few able to afford to own, he said. Instead, a mahout may take home only $100 to $200 dollars each month, depending on how much wood the elephant he is in charge of has transported: an economic arrangement that’s led to unnecessary risk being taken in the jungle by workers with little knowledge of elephant biology and behaviour.
For a 10-minute elephant-back view of the fairgrounds, children and adults scampered up crudely constructed platforms in the trees to access their carriage. As many photographers as mahouts surrounded the site, selling portraits of the Kodak moments for 40,000 kip ($5), ready with makeshift print studios in the backs of their cars. Onlookers freely wandered the site and vendors sold neon cream-filled crepes and candied popcorn while mahout families kicked back on grass mats in the shade or cut sugar cane for animal feed. I joined the crowd marvelling at the elegant giants and took my turn for a ride.
On the fairgrounds, meanwhile, commerce ruled. Under a steamy canopy of plastic canvas, vendors at hundreds of stalls hawked everything from discount cosmetics, rice cakes, children’s clothes and car polish while Laotian pop music competed with electronic dance beats booming from massive speakers. Nearby kids played in inflatable jumping gyms, rode bumper cars and a Ferris wheel, threw darts and shot targets for prizes. A young girl, giggling with excitement, shook a can of scented powder at me and ran away. Later, immaculately made-up young women in jewel-tone dresses and hair coiffed into cones lined up to compete in the Miss Elephant Beauty Contest. Each stepped carefully around a stage in front of a rapt audience as an announcer read out their respective ages, heights and weights.
Wandering through the fray, I stumbled upon two educational displays: a UNDP-sponsored public-service documentary about a local farm extension and climate-change resistance project; and a government-sponsored information campaign about the construction of a power plant at Hong Sa. Both represent the economy-boosting activities of a country that remains one of the poorest in Asia, with a GDP per capita of $1399 (it’s $5473 in Thailand). But such projects also shrink forests that are home to diverse species. The festival seemed to highlight the challenge Laos is facing: finding adequate balance between development and preservation.
The next day, motorbikes and mini-buses continued to deliver people to the festival grounds; half-tonne trucks arrived with hauls of elephant feed and left with yellow crates of empty Beerlao. At the elephant grounds, I stumbled upon a team of veterinarians from the nearby Elephant Conservation Centre looking at a female who, they informed me, had developed a vaginal cyst.
As the doctors were deciding what to do, one lamented that the festival had taken a turn since the Sayabouly government took over its organisation in 2011. “It’s not like it used to be. Tonight they will make a big party,” she said, glancing toward the source of the booming music that filled the air. The first years of the festival aimed to promote ecological awareness of the declining elephant population, as well as local ecotourism. While the latter is going strong, the conservation angle in the exercise of cultural pride appeared to have been lost. More....