Photo essay: Elephants at large

This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, autumn 2019, issue 110

At the ancient town of Luang Prabang, MandaLao Elephant Conservation allows tourists to become elephant whisperers. Here, guests discover how these captive pachyderms now enjoy wide, open spaces, quality food and happy, busy social lives.

As I fly into the riverside town of Luang Prabang, forested green hills carpet most of the land below. These jungles were once home to many herds of wild elephants—Laos was formerly known as Lan Xang, Land of One Million Elephants—but after many decades of poaching and deforestation, the number has shrunk to just 400 left in the wild. Elephant tourism has become a major draw throughout South-east Asia, but many of these ‘sanctuaries’ play just as harmful a role as the logging camps they were rescued from, using aggressive training techniques and violent tools to control the elephants around guests. MandaLaoElephant Conservation, a truly eco-conscious sanctuary in Luang Prabang, is changing the status quo.

MandaLao Elephant Conservation
Three-year-old Kit and his mother test the temperature of the Nam Kahn river
MandaLao Elephant Conservation
MandaLao Elephant Conservation
Eye to eye with Boon Tem

After crossing the Nam Khan river into MandaLao’s current 80-hectare property, 10 giant pachyderms come into sight, about to feast on a mountainous breakfast of bananas, corn, napier grass and sugar cane. MandaLao’s co-founder Michael Vogler tells me breakfast time can be pretty frenzied as the elephants love to socialise with each other, something most tourism camps don’t allow. One cheeky elephant, the 35-year-old matriarch of the herd Mae Mahn, even stages a break-in at a nearby storage hut, stealing bundles of sugar cane.

“We’ve got the fattest, healthiest elephants in the country,” Vogler says. When the elephants arrive at MandaLao, they not only come with deep scars, abscesses and injuries caused by riding saddles from other camps, but they are also often very malnourished.

“Elephants need to eat 200 kilograms of food a day. Many camps will only feed them bamboo, which doesn’t provide a balanced diet,” says Prasop Tipprasert, MandaLao’s project director, a Thai conservationist and pioneer of Positive Reinforcement Training methods with elephants.

MandaLao Elephant Conservation
Project director Prasop Tipprasert welcomes the group and passionately talks about the elephants – their journey and their future
MandaLao Elephant Conservation
MandLao sits overlooking the beautiful Nam Kahn river
MandaLao Elephant Conservation
Searching and collecting bamboo for the elephants to eat makes up most of our day, as it would for them in the wild

Instead of using an angkut, a metal hammer with a hook at the end, to control the animals, the mahouts (trainers) here use only positive communication, in a language that’s neither Lao, English or Elephant.

There’s also no riding on MandaLao Elephant Conservation tours and no bathing the beasts in the nearby river. Instead we spend the day walking through the jungle with the elephants, and foraging food for them along the way – much like what they would do as a group in the wild. There was no set path; we just followed the elephants through thick bamboo groves and former rubber-tree plantations and out onto an open rice field.

MandaLao Elephant Conservation
One of the females welcomes me
MandaLao Elephant Conservation
On the trek we stop at a small village

MandaLao Elephant Conservation has just purchased 50,000 hectares of forest from the government to turn into a national park, where Michael and his team plan on releasing their three-year-old baby bull, Kit, into the wild once he’s matured. The eventual goal will be to boost the country’s wild elephant population, and maybe one day become Lan Xang again. 

Find out more:

MandaLao Elephant Conservation is supported by World Animal Protection

MandaLao Elephant Conservation
MandaLao Elephant Conservation
Khun Vee is a retired mahout – he still cares for his elephant partner Mae Mahn, who he has trained for 37 years. Here he is making a traditional basket
MandaLao Elephant Conservation
Lao stir-fries and salads are served with sticky rice for our lunch in the jungle

All photography by Leigh Griffiths

Leigh’s photography gear: 

“As an editorial travel photographer, I keep my gear to a minimum so I don’t have to check in luggage. This particular trip I travelled with two camera bodies, my Sony A7ii and A9. Because of the nature of the shoot I knew I needed quick access to a wide range of focal lengths. I kept the Sony 16-24mm F4 on the A7ii for wider shots, and with my main body (A9) I switched between the Sony 24-70mm f2.8 and Zeiss Batis 85mm f1.8 to get intimate shots of the elephants. I also used a fast manual wide-angle lens, my Laowa 15mm f2, for a different, more creative look.”

Keep reading:

The elephant keepers

Laos through the lens

Tags: , , ,