New Beginnings at the Mekong Elephant Park

“Mae Ping is very touching, dynamic… and at times our most unruly elephant – who will only listen if we have treats,” Wendy Leggat, elephant conservationist and project leader, remarks light-heartedly.

Despite her air of rebelliousness, all eyes and high hopes rest on Mae Ping. Born in 1999, she arrived at the Mekong Elephant Park as a calf in 2009. The youngest of the sanctuary’s pachyderms is also the sole resident not rescued from Laos’s vast logging industry.

Four mighty mammals are blessed to call this sanctuary in northern Laos their new home. And though not related by blood, they have developed strong family bonds with one another, and each plays a different role to our bachelorette, Mae Ping.

She and her adopted older sister, Mae Boun Ma (born in 1990), are virtually inseparable. The motherly Mae Kham (1964), who worked over 30 years in the logging industry, has taken on the mantle of caring matriarch, while the calm and gentle Kham Khoun (1990) is the pack’s only male and Mae Ping’s potential love interest.

And because elephants in Laos are dying at such alarming rates – 10 deaths for each one born – the top priority for the Mekong Elephant Park team, with assistance from their friends at the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury province, is for Mae Ping to produce offspring, thus taking the species one small step further away from the brink of extinction.

Laos’s Endangered Elephants

For centuries, the Southeast Asian country of Laos was known as Lan Xang, or ‘Land of a Million Elephants’. This revered national symbol is closely linked to the roots of Buddhism and represents peace and prosperity.

A million elephants, however, is far from today’s grim reality. Of the once thriving population, only 800 individuals remain, roughly half in the wild and other half in captivity. Due to increased demand in timber from surrounding countries, deforestation is the primary cause for the shrinking wild population. Forest coverage in Laos has fallen from 70% during the 1950s to just 40% of the country today, disrupting the elephant migration routes and as well as their primary sources of food.

As for the captive population, gruelling working conditions, unhealthy diets and improper care lead to shorter lifespans. And while male elephants are less favoured due to their aggressive temperament, pregnancies in females are also highly undesired since the birthing and nursing period can easily put her out of work for five years.

Mekong Elephant Park – Values of Conservation

Located on the banks of the Mekong River near the village of Pakbeng, Laos, the Mekong Elephant Park was founded in 2008 to, “give new life to those that have been badly treated by exploitation in the logging or mass tourism industry,” states Wendy. “Here, they are free to move where they want. Free to live with other elephants. Free to eat when and what they desire in their natural environment.”

Upholding principles of sustainable conservation and awareness through ecotourism, first and foremost the sanctuary belongs to the elephants and, “Any activity outside the normal behaviour of elephants should not occur.”

Rather than allowing guests to ride or bathe with them, they are allowed to walk alongside these gentle giants or observe from a distance as they frolic in the waters of the Mekong.

And because conservation is not possible without first preserving their habitat, thus enabling the elephants to roam about and forage for food naturally, Mekong Elephant Park strives to, “protect at all cost, not only the elephants, but also the natural environment for their survival.”

The People of Mekong Elephant Park

In addition to elephant and habitat conservation, another of MEP’s core values is to provide a sustainable livelihood for the hardworking members of its team. “The heart of our project is obviously the life and welfare of our pachyderms, but it also includes the men and women who share their daily life with me and without whom nothing would be possible.”

Alongside each of the elephants is their personal keeper, known as a mahout. The pair essentially spend their entire lives side-by-side and form a strong union that can match no other mahout and elephant. By coming to MEP, it’s not just the elephants being rehabilitated. Chief mahout Noypeak and a couple others on his team come from a remote village with long lineages of mahouts working in the logging industry. They now have the opportunity to remain alongside elephants in the field of conservation while also earning a sustainable wage and decent living conditions.

Conversely, two of the mahouts began their careers at Mekong Elephant Park. Seung is the youngest member of the team (born 1998) and had been working as gardener at the sanctuary for five years. Having already formed a strong connection with the senior elephant, Mae Kham, he was the obvious choice to succeed after her mahout retired.

Rounding out the roster are several artisans, including a blacksmith, weaver and bamboo specialist, who specialize in crafting handmade items for park visitors. An ethnic Hmong family also lives on the premises and tends to the garden which supplies fresh, organic fruits and vegetables to the on-site restaurant as well as sugarcane for the elephants. And finally, two rangers have recently been added to the team to look after the park’s sprawling 25 hectares of biodiverse fauna and flora.

How to Support Mekong Elephant Park

Due to COVID-19’s restrictions on international travel, MEP has decided to temporarily close its doors to outside visitors. Without their main source of income, the preservation project is running solely on crowdfunding donations from kind-hearted individuals who, to date, have contributed nearly €15,000. Large or small, all proceeds are highly appreciated by the team at Mekong Elephant Park and go directly to care of the elephants.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining to the pandemic. Now able to shift focus away from tourism, the team is now fully committed to their reproduction project. In late 2020, the two young female elephants, Mae Ping and Mae Boun Ma, and their mahouts embarked on an arduous 8-day, 100 km (62 mi) journey to the Elephant Conservation Center in hopes of finding a suitable mate.

As of late March 2021, it has been reported that Mae Ping’s cycle is a few weeks late. Everyone is crossing their fingers for good news.

UPDATE: On 16 April 2021, our friends at Mekong Elephant Park officially announced that Mae Ping is indeed pregnant!

Getting to Mekong Elephant Park

Mekong Elephant Park lies on the Mekong River opposite Pakbeng in northern Laos. The vast majority of the town’s visitors are travelling between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai (which borders Chiangkhong, Thailand) via a 2-day boat ride along the Mekong. As the journey’s halfway point, most tourists disembark in Pakbeng for an overnight stay before setting off once again the following morning (including the writer of this article who merely passed through in 2016, regrettably).

If taking this route, treat yourself by staying an extra night in Pakbeng to visit a pair of sacred temples, the charming local market and, of course, Mae Ping and loving her family at Mekong Elephant Park.

Heritage Line also offers blissful 3-, 7- and 9-night upper Mekong River cruises between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang (and Vientiane for longer cruises), all of which including an excursion to the Mekong Elephant Park. Launching in September 2022, passengers aboard the luxurious Heritage Line Anouvong discover Laos’s captivating landscapes, remote native communities and fascinating cultural insights.