Written by Amrita Paul
The Xayaboury Elephant Festival is immensely popular with locals but has caused concern among international tourists who worry about the treatment of elephants.
A major event held in the northwestern province each year, the Xayaboury Elephant Festival attracts thousands of people who gather to see the spectacle of captive elephants on show.
And while elephants are considered a sacred animal in Laos, which was once known as the “Land of a Million Elephants,” some international visitors have expressed concern about the welfare of the animals at the event, who were primarily on display as a source of entertainment this year.
Days following the festival, international observers took to Twitter to express their concern for the elephants. Social media users highlighted the use of hooks and goads to control the animals, as well as the use of elephants to perform circus tricks.
Sébastien Duffillot, the founder of the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC), was the man who originally dreamed up the Elephant Festival concept in 2007. He and his team organized the festival every year until 2012, when the festival was handed over to provincial authorities.
“The original concept for the festival was to raise the status of Lao mahouts and celebrate Lao people’s love for elephants, their national emblematic animal. This was done through a majestic procession, the election of the male and female elephant of the year, and a local market fair promoting handicrafts from Lao mahout families. Everything was calm and respectful of the animals,” he says.
Sébastien says that over the last decade, the festival slowly transformed into more of a spectacle, in which elephant circus trainers were brought in to show baby elephants performing tricks as well as adult elephants painting, playing basketball, and tug-of-war games. He says this is what has led to many international tourists boycotting the event.
“All these activities are obviously not natural for elephants and the ‘educational and conservation’ orientation of the festival has been lost.”
Monica Daniela Domieij-Gaul, a long-time business owner in Laos, has attended the elephant festival five times, and feels that the festival is getting bigger and bigger each year, but only as a spectacle. Reminiscing about the early years of the festival, she says that things have definitely changed.
“Back in the early days you rarely saw a mahout with a sharp hook to scare the elephants, but this year I saw it often. Earlier there were also a lot more exhibitors from the region with their products on sale but this year there were only a few stalls with local products.”
Sebastien clarifies that the “ankush,” or hook, belongs to the normal kit of any mahout since time immemorial. In his words, “The question is not about having one or not. It is about how and when to use it.”
He adds, “Mahouts had a hook with them during the early festival years as well. But they didn’t have it in hand. The main point isn’t whether they have hooks or not, it is that some elephants are trained with cruel means to just perform tricks for an audience that deems it as entertainment.”
But local people believe the festival is a sacred cultural event, and provincial authorities view it as a key economic driver for the province.
Director General of the Xayaboury Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Mr. Boutsakhone Inthalangsy, says that since time immemorial Lao people have enjoyed a very strong bond with elephants, who are considered close companions.
He says that when people from other countries come to see the elephants at the festival, they might jump to conclusions about the way the large animals are managed, with some even saying the animals should be released into the wild.
“These are domesticated elephants that could not survive without human care,” he says.
Boutsakhone highlights that the equipment used to manage the elephants is necessary to ensure the safety of spectators.
“During the festival, such equipment needs to be used to keep the elephants calm and under control, otherwise they could become aggressive, or even attack their handlers or spectators,” he says.
“When we bring together elephants from different places, they can get territorial when they encounter one another. We use the hook to direct the elephants, it isn’t meant to inflict pain.”
Acknowledging that people might perceive the festival in a different way, Mr. Boutsakhone points out that the elephants used in the festival are not wild animals. Historically, families in Xayaboury Province had owned elephants as working animals, helping as beasts of burden with logging-related activities in the forests. But since logging in protected forests is no longer possible, local people have been forced to find other means of income to take care of their elephants who have never lived in the wild.
“Without the festival, and the revenue it generates, those who own elephants could not afford to care for them,” he says.
According to figures provided by the government, there are now less than 500 domesticated elephants across Laos.
Former Deputy Governor of Xayaboury, Ms. Bounphak Inthapanya, is also of the opinion that the mahouts who manage the animals at the festival are expert practitioners, and that the various tools used, which may look menacing, are necessary for the safety of everyone involved.
“This is a small event held every year in the province. The mahouts who control the elephants have been doing so for many years and always ensure they treat the animals humanely,” she says.
Sebastien also feels that the mahouts are not culpable in this situation. The businessmen making money out of the event should be held accountable for training elephants to perform these tricks in order to make money.
“Most of the mahouts in the festival have been requested to join and are receiving a very small payment for the time spent at the event to join the procession and go back to their villages afterward. The owners who use their elephants to perform tricks are a small minority of animal exploiters who do not represent the mahout community,” he informs.
Backers of the festival say the Xayaboury community has co-existed with elephants for centuries and has held on to their local culture and traditions. They believe that there is more to the story than meets the eye and that foreign tourists are not always fully informed.
But could there be a middle ground? A way for time-honored local customs to be preserved, while ensuring the utmost care for the animals that take part in a festival dedicated to them?
As a conservationist, Sébastien and his team continue to lobby for a festival that would promote education and conservation, while attracting more foreign tourists back to Xayaboury. He remains hopeful that some of the festival’s activities could change in the future – for the better.
“We strongly believe the initial concept of the festival was able to please both a local and an international audience. We hope that we can get back to that initial idea, celebrating these beautiful animals and their relationship with humans, and promoting conservation so that future generations can continue to understand and live alongside elephants,” he says.