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Sayaboury Stomp, Lao Elephant Festival 2009

vendredi 20 février 2009, par Gilles Maurer

It’s on a dusty dirt track in Sayaboury that I first meet Mae Dok. Having just travelled 100km from Hongsa, Mae Dok is understandably weary, and frankly more than just a little smelly. Letting out a loud bellow of what I interpret as annoyance, it seems clear that Mae Dok would rather be spending her time hanging with her herd than wasting her time with me. And fair enough – at 38 years of age and weighing in at a matronly 2500kg, Mae Dok is, after all, one of the leading stars of the 2009 Elephant Festival.

Turning into an annual pilgrimage, Mae Dok is one of over 60 Asian elephants and 120 mahouts (elephant handlers) that travel to Sayaboury to participate in each year’s festivities. With the Sayaboury province home to the majority of Laos’ domesticated elephants, it is this lucky region of Laos that claims the celebrations each year.

Now in its third year, February’s Elephant Festival attracted its biggest crowd ever, with an approximate 80,000 local and international tourists stampeding to Sayaboury to celebrate all things elephant. Kicking off on February the 14th, better known as St Valentine’s Day, the theme for this year’s festival was, not surprisingly, love. I was happily reminded of this special day when I spied some beautifully decorated elephants standing under a heart-shaped archway, looking like a pair of star-crossed lovers about to head out on all night Mardi Gras bender. Elephant t-shirts and stickers were for sale with images of trunk tickling, entwined elephants everywhere. The “Elephant of the Year” beauty competition was another Valentine’s Day victory, although thankfully sans bathing suit component.

Other activities designed to entertain during this two-day event included a logging demonstration, where I watched the strength and agility of this surprisingly limber animal. Despite their size and, let’s admit it, wobbly-looking appearance, elephants are actually one of the most sturdy and sure-footed creatures on the planet. Not to mention intelligent. Seeing these elephants obey a series of complicated commands muttered by their mahouts was a fascinating display of the intimate connection and communication that occurs between man and beast.

The elephant baci and monk blessings gave me further insight into the century-old bond that exists between my species and theirs. Usually reserved for auspicious Laotian occasions, the elephant is revered to the extent that is one of only a handful of animals that receives its own baci ceremony blessing. The mesmerising chants recited by local monks were only just drowned out by the huffing and stomping of a few elephants more keen on seeking sugarcane snacks than spiritual serenity.

But by far the highlight of the festivities were the daily elephant processions and river bathing. Watching the elephants nonchalantly saunter their way through the crowded streets of Sayaboury I gained a feeling of what it must feel like to be a Hollywood superstar surrounded by paparazzi. I challenge Brangelina to find a more mesmerised and star-struck crowd of dedicated fans than those in Sayaboury. Distracting my attention from the procession were the loud of gasps and cheers coming from spectators on the bridge. Fighting my way through the jam-packed crowds I managed to catch a glimpse of several mischievous elephants attempting to bomb-dive themselves into the Nam Hung River. Like teenage boys all too aware of their audience, some elephants decided to impress their fans by showing off their submarine skills and ‘forgetting’ about their mahouts clinging rigidly above. Not knowing if elephants, like crocodiles, are masters of the death-roll, I was glad to be watching the river crossing from the sidelines. I’m still wondering if the owner of elephant number 55 made it out of the river in one piece that Saturday morning.

Major festivals in Laos don’t just organise themselves. Months of blood, sweat and beers had gone into preparing this small town for 60 elephants and 80,000 visitors. To achieve such jumbo success, ElefantAsia, an International Non-Profit Organisation, provided event management and technical support to the Sayaboury provincial and district tourism and livestock departments. The provision of food and accommodation for weary travellers was a major organisational concern, as well as supplying enough Lang Xang beer to placate all overworked and overstressed staff and volunteers.

However those were the tricky issues. Managing food, water and shelter for over 60 elephants was surprisingly easy. Each day the elephants spent hours in the Nam Hung River drinking, bathing and being manna to adoring tourists. Food for 60 elephants was courtesy of the locally-grown vegetation, providing a wide selection of bamboo, fresh forest fruits and delicacies to all. If that wasn’t enough, at any given time elephants could be seen gorging on sweet sticks of fresh sugarcane offered up by tourists keen to bribe their way into a pachyderm’s affections. And how to keep an area clean after 60 elephants have been ‘doing their business’ ? Simple - shovel it all into a truck each morning and let the neighbouring forests enjoy some fresh, free fertiliser ! Although, somewhat worryingly, one tourist was witnessed running down the main drag of the festival gleefully clutching a water bottle full of elephant dung. If that happened to be you, please contact the author of this article as she has the details of some good psychiatric services you may or may not require.

The Elephant Festival is more than just a weekend for tourists to come and pat the pretty elephants. These festivals benefit the entire Sayaboury community, with income generated from last year’s event believed to inject USD$1,500,0000 directly into the local rural economy. This year the festival generated the jumbo-sized amount of USD$2,800,0000 according to the provincial finance department. Money raised from local food, guesthouses, homestay, handicraft and marketplace sales all contributes much-needed income into one of Laos’s poorest districts. Not to mention putting this region on the adventure traveller’s “must see” list of destinations. With the name Sayaboury now being uttered on many a backpacker’s (albeit smelly) breathe, it’s only a matter of time before this province adjacent to the uber-trendy Luang Prabang starts appearing in more and more tourism literature. In fact it already is, with offers of authentic elephant trekking and Laotian homestay gaining popularity over the somewhat saturated “eco” market of Luang Prabang’s elephant experiences.

Community-based, ethical elephant trekking in the Sayaboury Province of Laos is a venture supported and encouraged by ElefantAsia, the technical organisers of the elephant festival. ElefantAsia does much more than just create unforgettable elephant celebrations ; indeed the festival is a tiny component of ElefantAsia’s activities. Dedicated to the protection and conservation of domesticated elephants in Laos, ElefantAsia are the only INGO working in Laos devoted solely to saving Laos’s Asian elephant populations.

An internationally recognised endangered species, only an approximate 700 wild and 560 domesticated elephants remain in Laos. Formerly known as Lang Xang, the “land of a million elephants”, Laos enjoys a long history and culture closely associated with their elephants companions. Historically used in warfare, elephants in Laos were once owned by the Kings and royal families of Laos and are today still considered sacred in Lao Buddhism and animism. Yet the domestication and use of Laos’ elephants was not just a luxury afforded to the rich and noble. Domesticated elephants have been used as a form of typical livestock, in the familiar sense as cows or buffalos, by conventional Lao communities for centuries. The existence and employment of the mahout is a job that has traditionally remained unchanged and unthreatened until only very recently. Since the Lao government banned the capture of wild elephants for domestic use in the 1980’s, the domesticated elephant population has plummeted to critically low levels. Traditionally skilled in the art of wild elephant capture, domesticated elephant reproductive techniques were never considered necessary to learn.

This is where ElefantAsia step in. Offering incentives and motivators, ElefantAsia designs elephant breeding programs and “baby bonuses” aimed at increasing the rapidly declining domesticated elephant population. The reconversion of logging elephants into ecotourism is another project promoted by ElefantAsia. A dangerous, isolating and unsustainable industry, logging elephants are often injured, overstressed and do not receive the same healthcare and attention of their tourism counterparts. Gaining employment in alternative ventures such as ecotourism provides benefits to both the local mahout community as well as the natural environment. However as long as logging continues, ElefantAsia will aid and assist elephants in need. ElefantAsia’s Mobile Veterinary Unit travels to rural and remote areas of Sayaboury providing free veterinary care to domesticated elephants working in logging camps. These elephants receive access to veterinarians and medications they would otherwise go without. ElefantAsia have their work cut out for them, but the thought of a Laos without elephants is too heartbreaking to comprehend, providing enough motivation to keep this team of dedicated workers driven.

Monday morning arrives cold and charged with activity. The festival is over but mahouts are busy preparing their elephants for the slow return back to their districts. Mae Dok is being saddled up for her four-day walk to Hongsa with 14 of her elephant friends. When I wave goodbye to her that early Monday morning, I’d like to think she signalled her fond farewells back. Till next year, Mae Dok !

- More information on the Lao Elephant Festival
- Check ElefantAsia’s other Fields of Action
- Assist us to save the Lao elephants
- For elephant trekking in the Sayaboury Province visit Elephant Adventures website

Ingrid Suter

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