By ElefantAsia Vientiane, February 25th, 2011
Laos has recently had its 5th annual Elephant Festival. Held each February in the Sayaboury Province, this year’s festival took place in the city of Paklay. Thousands of national and international visitors attended the three-day event, with the provincial tourism department estimating 26 billion kip (USD$ 3,250,000) was injected into the local economy over the festival period. Each year the coordination of the Elephant Festival is undertaken by the Elephant Festival Organising Committee. This committee includes the Sayaboury provincial government, the Lao National Tourism Administration, the Host District government (Paklay District in 2011) and ElefantAsia non-profit organisation. ElefantAsia acts as advisers for the festival. This is achieved by supplying technical direction to provincial and district bodies, coordinating elephant festival activities, logistics, event management and implementation. ElefantAsia can advise and support other members of the Elephant Festival Organising Committee but has no official capacity to enforce complete management over the Lao Elephant Festival. This year’s festival saw the inclusion of 10 elephants performing circus tricks such as basketball, handstands, bowling and dancing. Elephants as young as two were observed performing these activities. A Thai national had been hired to teach circus tricks to the elephants. All 10 elephants were due to be sent to work in a Chinese circus. This contract has since been cancelled yet circus training and shows are continuing to occur. Residing from the remote Thongmixay District of Sayaboury, these are Lao’s first ever circus elephants. Despite ElefantAsia voicing severe dissatisfaction of the use of circus elephants at the Elephant Festival, ElefantAsia had no control over their attendance. Other members of the Elephant Festival Organising Committee gave approval to use the circus elephants for the entertainment of officials. ElefantAsia wishes to convey their utmost disappointment and condemnation of the practice of training elephants for human entertainment purposes. Training elephants to perform tricks is physically cruel, with open head wounds apparent on several of the circus elephants. Not only are elephants physically harmed during circus training, but psychological damage is also inflicted. Physical provocation of such training teaches elephants to be afraid of humans, leading to very stressful and dangerous conditions for both elephants and people. While elephants have been trained and used by humans for centuries in Laos, training for small-scale logging or village work is remarkably different to that of circus performances. Traditional training methods involve a high level of verbal commands, comparable to a sheepdog trained to muster sheep. Some physical control is required however this is more for steering purposes than actual commanding. Circus training requires long and intense periods of mental concentration by the elephant, while being physically punished if not understanding the complex manoeuvres expected of them. Physical training is the preferred method used by circus trainers, as negative reinforcement using pain makes an animal learn faster than verbal commands using positive reinforcement. Physical commanding does not take into consideration the animal’s temperament, stress or emotional state. Not only is circus performing cruel and unnatural but sets up a cycle of employment that can lead to a lifetime of poverty and stress for the elephant. Take the elephants working on the streets of Bangkok as an example of this. A two-year old calf was observed at the Lao Elephant Festival wandering the busy streets of Paklay late at night begging for money. Its mahouts were holding pieces of wood containing nails, ensuring the calf performed tricks suitably. Blood was seen on the faces of some of the circus elephants. None of the circus elephants working at night had reflectors on them, leading to the risk of accident by an oncoming car or motorcycle. Instead of resting in the local forests at night like the other elephants attending the festival, the circus elephants were forced to work late into the night, stepping on broken glass and surrounded by extremely loud music. Their stress levels must have been severe. ElefantAsia was the original creator of the Elephant Festival and will lobby for these elephants to stop circus performing and to never perform at future Elephant Festivals. The Elephant Festival’s purpose is to raise awareness of the need to conserve and protect Asian elephants in Laos, as highlighted by Sayaboury Governor Dr. Lien Thikeo during the opening ceremony. It is not a platform to showcase inhumane circus tricks taught to elephants by international investors wishing to make money. The training of circus elephants in Laos is extremely regrettable and an action ElefantAsia neither endorses nor will ignore. Lao cultural heritage is not associated with such acts. Training elephants for circus use should not be forced upon vulnerable communities under the guise of making easy money. ElefantAsia will continue to perform veterinary treatments, education programs and conservation measures to elephants and communities in Laos. Campaigns will now include educating owners on the disadvantages of putting their elephants into a circus environment. The exploitation of elephants and elephant owners for circus use is unacceptable in the Land of a Million Elephants.