"Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu” - May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.
In 2010 I wrote “volunteer at elephant sanctuary” on my travel to-do list. November 2016 it finally happened. I flew halfway around the world with a dear friend and fellow adventurer to Laos, a tiny country in Southeast Asia, to volunteer at the Elephant Conservation Center. It took six years … but I made it happen and it was worth the wait! After 10 days there, I vowed to return… and in October 2018 I came back for 8 days, this time hubby in tow. It was incredible and so inspiring to return and see how much the sanctuary has expanded in 2 years - growing from 7 elephants to 29; 100 hectares of protected jungle to over 500 and from 20 staff to over 60!
The days pass quickly - I’d get up every morning by 5:30am for yoga by the lake, as the sun gently rose to bring the misty mountains into view. Then a day of various tasks - cutting down food for the elephants (oooo machetes are so much fun!), cleaning up lots of poop of course (one elephant eats ~100 kilos of food a day and poops about 70 kilos a day!), gardening, taking notes about their behaviour, and walking the elephants to the jungle to go to bed. After a day in the blistering sun, and watching the slow gentle beasts, sleep comes fast and deep. No internet, hundreds of ant and mosquito bites; bruises and scratches covering my arms and legs; mud deep under all my finger and toe nails... bliss.
Once known as the “Land of a Million Elephants,” Laos is quickly losing its elephant population. There are only 800 elephants left in Laos and for every ten elephants that die, only two are born. Deforestation continues to shrink the elephants’ natural habitat, decreasing their food supply and forcing wild elephants closer and closer to the dangers of human contact. At the sanctuary I befriended Mae Ven, a logging elephant who broke her chain one night, only to be shot by a farmer when she was found eating crops in the field. Today at the sanctuary, Mae Ven and her 7-year old son, Surya, play and roam together – carefree and safe - rolling in the mud, taking a cooling dip in the lake, grazing in the jungle.
About half of the elephant population in Laos is domesticated, working in the logging or tourist industry – often worked to the point of exhaustion and illness, carrying heavy loads or forced to perform for the pleasure of tourists. 12 of the newest elephants at the sanctuary were recently about to be sold to a circus in Dubai, before the government gave them to the center instead! Because elephants are pregnant for nearly two years and nurse for another three years, mahouts rarely allow their elephants to become pregnant – so many years without work is an impossibility for most in a country where the average income is barely $2000USD/year. There is no easy solution – there isn’t enough space in the forest and Mae Ven is proof that its not safe to simply release all of the elephants in the wild without protective measures and adequate food and space. Nor is there enough land or resources to rescue all of the working elephants. But this sanctuary is doing what they can, to provide the best possible life for the gentle giants in their care.
Days without internet feel longer - no contact with the outside world, no checking my work emails, Instagram, Facebook - allowing me to be fully immersed in the beauty of the mountains, the jungle, the workers and other volunteers and of course, these majestic creatures. The first visit to the sanctuary I came to know each elephant by name and learn their quirks and personalities – the shy one, the playful one, the pretty one. It only takes a few days to completely fall in love; to learn that its okay not to have all the answers – doing what you can to help someone, something, in any way possible, is worthy of action.
A lot of my time at the sanctuary was also spent just watching the elephants, with a big dopey grin on my face. Or sometimes I’d fall asleep… their slow steps and movement so calming and mesmerizing. I’d sit beside the mahouts, watching the elephants play, eat, laugh when she uses a tree to scratch her butt. I’d sit side by side with the same mahouts who used to work their elephants for logging, or for riding in tourist camps, before coming to the center. Its easy to judge, to call them “bad mahouts” (as I heard one guest repeatedly say) - say they are horrible people for exploiting such beautiful creatures. But as I sit beside them, I can feel their joy - they smile with their entire face, the whole face lights up - when they see their elephants play. Life in the developing world can be crushingly difficult, every day a struggle to survive and provide for your family; many rarely have a day off. I’m reminded, seeing their joy, that we are never just bad and never just good - neither all darkness nor all light. And it's never too late to change.
I’m already planning my next return! The Elephant Conservation Center has exciting developments in the works - they hope to release a few elephants back into the wild (in a protected national park) within the next year and one is pregnant and will be due in about a year and a half. So I will definitely be back, to see my biggest of friends again, and celebrate the birth of the sanctuary’s first baby!
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.