Sebastien Duffillot and the Elephant Conservation Center [EN]

541544_271678216248507_1763772246_nDuring our short stay in Laos, we heard of the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC), highly recommended to tourists stopping by Luang Prabang. Unable to go there, we sent an email to its co-founder, Sebastien Duffillot, and organized an interview in Vientiane. Learn more about his incredible journey across elephant preservation in Laos and discover his point of view about the growing industry of elephants’ tourism. Découvrez dans cet article son parcours et son avis sur le tourisme autour des éléphants.

A hyperactive dedicated to elephants’ defense in Laos

Sebastien started his career in the French embassy in Bangkok. He first discovered Laos when he went to meet a friend working at the embassy in Vientiane. Later on, he came back to Laos as a director of a graphic creation agency and stayed there 6 years.

Faced with the recurrent use of elephant symbols in his work, he started wondering why there were so few elephants in Laos, so called the “Land of a million elephants”. He soon realized that if elephants are a strongly rooted in the Lao culture, they are in danger of extinction. There are only 450 domestic and 300 wild elephants left in Laos. Far from a million… Reasons are diverse: deforestation, Vietnam War slaughters, mechanization of forester work, etc. Ideas became to grow in his mind on how to tackle this issue.

Photo by Paul Wager

In 2002, Sebastien organized an elephants’ caravan to raise awareness among local populations and tourists. From January to April 2002, 4 elephants walked 1300 km across Laos. Originally created for the caravan, the association ElefantAsia remained and extended its activities: elephants’ working conditions improvements, support to the elephants’ drivers in their conversion because of forester work mechanization living them without job or creation of a mobile clinic to take care of elephants on their workplace. He also created an association of mahouts to manage forest elephants’ rides. An annual festival modelled on the caravan takes place every February in Sayaboury and gathered for the last edition 12 elephants and around 100 000 people.

To go one step further, he co-founded in 2011 the Elephant Conservation Centre, a mix of ecotourism and animal welfare. There live 9 elephants, welcoming tourists-volunteers all throughout the year who can come and learn about the elephants through observation and information, without any impairing physical interaction. There is also a nursery conducting a reproduction programme.

His view on the elephants’ tourism industry

You might have heard about it, some videos and articles were recently shared on the web showing atrocious tortures used to domesticate elephants. In Europe, some touristic agencies already banned elephants’ rides from their programmes. We ourselves were the first ones to refuse an elephant ride in Thailand few weeks ago. We asked Sebastien about it, and here is what he shared with us.

“Without tourism, elephants have to beg or work in difficult conditions in forest. Banning elephants’ rides is causing an epidermal reaction on a way deeper problem.“

First, there are insufficient protected forests to release them. Secondly, there is a difference between elephants born in a domestic environment and wild elephants. The videos captured in Burma display techniques to ‘break in’ wild elephants. Other videos were captured in Thailand, where government banned in 1989 forest work. Mahouts with experience in training disappeared because of that, elephants became beggars. The ones on the videos are amateurs and not mahouts trying to train elephants. A real mahout takes good care of its elephant. The cases in these videos are not widespread.

Mae Kham Ohn, female of the ECC

In the EEC for example, training is a two-step process. One traditional phase with a shaman – without which no mahout would accept to ride the elephant -, where the elephants is in a cage 12 days and separated from his mother, but nothing different from any other animal training, with no use of violence. Then, they use a phase of positive strengthening based on a rewards system, necessary to ease vet treatments.

In the end, one suitable solution could consist in protecting wild elephants and better control tourism and elephants treatment. In this regard, Sebastien would like in the coming years to work on a ranking-reward of elephants organizations to inform tourists about it and allow them to choose the best one.

Help the ECC to fund its next caravan here.