Our long boat was late causing Sally some consternation as we had an appointment at the Free the Bears Wildlife Sanctuary. This time, we cruised downstream in a more luxurious boat than the ones we had been on so far. The tuk-tuk ride to the Sanctuary was hairy as Sally, sitting next to the driver, urged him to go faster whilst we all clung on in the back. She need not have worried. They had forgotten we were coming! Fortunately, our guide, Nicky, was there as she could have been out on an excursion like the two members of the team who were in the north of Laos rescuing two more bears.
Sally had scheduled our arrival to fit with the bears’ feeding time. After an introductory talk, Nicky led us to an enclosure where the bears were locked in their cages temporarily. She gave us buckets of food and told us to hide it so the bears had to hunt for their lunch. They are very inquisitive and have a strong sense of smell. We retired to a viewing platform, and the keeper released the bears. It didn’t take them long to find the food, including some placed on a high pole. A wily bear just shook the pole!
They are all moon bears in the Sanctuary. Many have been rescued from bile farms or been kept as pets in small cages. Some had been caught in traps set by poachers. Conditions in bile farms are appalling and the manner in which they extract the bile is cruel with a catheter often being inserted straight into the bear’s gall bladder. However, whilst the Chinese prize the bile for traditional medicines and there is a trade in exotic wildlife species, poaching will continue. Drug companies also use it in the manufacture of drugs such as ibuprofen. The bears have all suffered severe trauma by the time they are rescued and some remain traumatised. They will not be released back into the wild because of this and the danger of recapture. In the future, they intend to breed the bears and release them but this will not occur whilst consumer demand for them exists.
Nicky showed us around all the enclosures including areas not usually open to the public. The number of bears rescued keeps increasing and more enclosures are being built. It was a fascinating tour.
Afterwards, we walked up the different levels of the Kuang Si waterfalls which were an incredible turquoise colour. We didn’t have time to walk to the top of the last one though as it was lunch time and we were due at the Carpe Diem restaurant, a short walk away. Here we enjoyed a French influenced Laos lunch overlooking their pools which were in the same river as the waterfalls. When we had finished eating, some of us braved the cool waters for a quick dip. It was refreshing!
We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Water Buffalo Dairy farm. Two couples had set this up, intending to produce cheese and ice cream from water buffalo milk. Dairy food is not part of the Laos diet and the couples knew nothing about producing it. Rachael, our owner guide, was a chef and determined to learn. The farm has since evolved. They now produce cheese for local restaurants and unusual flavoured ice cream for the tourists. (My sample was basil.)
The story does not end there though. They also work with the government and local Laos people to improve the stock of water buffalo. Traditionally, the animals have been left to roam with their owners not sighting them for weeks at a time. Over the last decades, the size of the water buffalo has decreased because of in breeding and inadequate care. This farm now rents the pregnant animals from the local farmers before she is due to deliver the calf. They care for the beasts, vaccinate them and return them when the calves are about six months old. During that time, they milk the mothers and use the milk for the cheese and ice cream. The animals are in better condition when they are returned and Rachael and her colleagues educate the Laos farmers in how to better care for their animals.
There are also pigs and rabbits kept at the farm, not only to amuse young visitors but also to demonstrate how they can be housed in good clean hygienic conditions. They also hope rabbits will become an additional protein source for Laos. Rachael gave us a very enthusiastic tour which included getting up close and personal with a large water buffalo. We all took turns bathing him and there was much petting (although not by me!)
Our action packed and interesting day culminated in a sunset cruise back to Luang Prabang.
Our second wildlife experience was at MandaLao Elephant Conservation. Here we learnt about and walked with the elephants but first we had lunch!
After our meal, the project director, Prasop Tipprasert, who has had extensive experience with elephants in Thailand, gave us an informative talk before we met the elephants. There used to be thousands in Laos where they played an important part in the logging industry. It is estimated about 800 remain. The project provides the best environment for those elephants it has rescued, educates the public and contributes to the conservation of the remaining wild ones.
At present, 10 elephants have over 30 hectares of fenced land in which to roam. They have a set routine. In the morning, they have a ‘buffet’ breakfast by the river after which two of them walk with the tourists whilst the rest are free to wander in the enclosed jungle until the evening. They return to a fenced enclosure, which is 4km from the river, for the night. In the past, visitors could also bathe in the river with them but this stopped after a tourist threw sand at an elephant who then developed infections in his eyes and ears. There is no riding of the elephants at this Sanctuary.
Each elephant eats 250kg of food a day, some of which the Centre provides and the rest they forage. They only retain 40% of the food so it is a massive job keeping up with their required intake! To aid their digestion, they also have to walk 12km a day.
The tour itself began with us donning some fetching footwear and making banana ‘sandwiches’. These comprised a split banana which we filled with sticky rice (even elephants eat rice!), tamarind and a pinch of salt. Yum! (The elephants thought so too!) We then walked down to the river for a five minute boat ride across it. Health and safety kicked in, and we had to add life jackets to our already glamorous apparel.
Our two elephants, Mae Tou (aged 42) and Mae Boua Nhen (35) awaited us. They became our best friends when they realised we had banana sandwiches. Sugar cane was of no interest. It didn’t take them long to devour the large basketful we had assembled. They were then ready to walk. They followed behind us with their mahouts, stopping here and there to graze. I had been nervous beforehand about this experience. Elephants are very large! It was a magical experience though, and I was sorry when it was time for the mahouts to lead them to the night enclosure. There was something very calming and spiritual about having these majestic animals so close and be able to touch them. I would do it again any day. After another short boat ride, we returned to the cafe from where our minivan delivered us back to town.
Our visits to all these places was very enlightening, and it was reassuring to learn there are so many efforts being made in conservation and improving conditions for these animals.