Laos' vanishing elephants

What we say: 3.5 stars

Our group crouches as quietly as possible, staring into the dense undergrowth, hoping that the crashing noises ahead of us are what we are searching for: the elusive Asian elephant. If we have struck lucky, the heat, the insects and the two hours of exhausting walking on the fringes of a national park in central Laos will all have been worth it.

The lead guide creeps closer, as we watch with mounting excitement, and then he abruptly stands up. The noises were just the sound of a tree falling to the ground. Everyone, the guides as much as the tourists, is disappointed. But it is important not to be too downhearted: elephants have passed through just hours before. There is a still a good chance they are nearby.

Elephant footprints

Laos was once known as the Land of a Million Elephants, but now as few as 600 of these iconic creatures remain in the wild. Those that survive do so in isolated herds, beset by the twin threats of habitat loss and poaching. In most of Laos, the chances of seeing an elephant in the wild are next to nil.

But there is one place where the odds are much better: in and around Ban Na, a village about 80km northeast of the capital, Vientiane, and this is where we are on our search today. Now home to a pioneering eco-tourism initiative, it was a very different story less than a decade ago.

In an effort to grow a more profitable cash crop, Ban Na villagers planted sugar cane, with disastrous consequences: a herd of elephants took up residence near the village, ravaging the crops and making it unsafe for farmers to go into their fields. It was a crisis that could easily have turned into a tragedy, but instead it gave birth to a win-win situation for both the local people and their initially unwelcome guests.

Large and grey, but not elephants

By since encouraging tourists to come to see the elephants, the beasts have been transformed from a threat into a source of income. The most visible sign of that is an elephant observation tower, which was built in 2005, overlooking the herd's favourite salt lick. It provides a safe place to watch the massive beasts in their natural habitat, as well as an overnight staging post for guided treks.

Even though the treks generally start and finish in Ban Na and the elephant tower is located on the village's land, a farsighted decision was taken to share tourism money with seven nearby villages. As a result, the whole area has a vested interest in the survival of the herd.

This was clear on's visit in late February 2011, when villagers from Ban Laokha reported the sighting of two groups of elephants during the previous 24 hours. Instead of starting the trek in Ban Na as planned, it began near where the sightings were made. Unfortunately, despite plenty of evidence of elephant activity, including fresh dung and footprints... the trail eventually went cold.

They may be gentle giants after being tamed, but the danger posed by Asian elephants in the wild should not be taken likely. For this reason, all treks around Ban Na must have local guides and if possible use the same paths, to help prevent the chance of nasty surprises for both humans and elephants.

Having a fixed observation tower serves the same purpose. Since being built, there have been dozens of elephant sightings from there. Estimates of the herd's total size range from 30 to 40, but the elephants are usually seen in much smaller groups. Clear, moonlit nights, in the November to April dry season, afford the best chances. But even when all those conditions are met, as they were during our visit, there are no guarantees. These are wild animals after all. And they have very good reason to be wary of humans. As recently as March 2009, five elephants were killed by poachers within a few kilometres of the tower.

A trip to Ban Na involves much managing of expectations, the most important of which is that the chances of seeing an elephant are at best 50-50. According to anecdotal evidence, even those odds are rather optimistic. Given that Asian elephants can reach three metres in height and weigh five tons, they are surprisingly elusive creatures and this holds true even at a favoured salt lick.

It's also worth bearing in mind that a reasonable level of fitness is required for the treks here. Walking can be limited to the four kilometre trip from Ban Na to the elephant tower and back -- but that would mean missing out on the harsh beauty of a trek into Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area.

Trek snackie

One thing visitors should definitely expect to miss out on is luxury: the tower is clean, has a sit-down toilet and the food is tasty and filling. But with basic bedding and abundant snoring, light sleepers are unlikely to get much shut-eye.

Despite the lack of luxury, this is not a cheap activity. The most established tour operator, Green Discovery, charges a minimum of US$126 per person for a two-day trek around Ban Na. Going independently is more affordable, though still fairly pricey for backpackers. It is possible to take a pick-up from Vientiane's Southern Bus Terminal for 30,000 kip and then arrange a trek after getting to Ban Na. The costs vary depending on the group size, starting out at about 500,000 kip for one person.

To avoid a wasted trip though, it is highly advisable to get a Lao speaker to call the head guide in Ban Na, Mr Bounthanom on (020) 220 8286, before setting off. Whether people choose to take a tour or to go independently, they are making a small but vital contribution to the survival of Asian elephants in Laos. Although it will never again be the Land of a Million Elephants, Laos desperately needs initiatives like Ban Na to succeed... or it risks becoming the Land of No Elephants.

Last updated: 14th May, 2015

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Sights in Phou Khao Khouay National Park