Asian elephants are highly endangered.
Asian elephants are highly endangered.
Asian elephants are highly endangered. (Cyril Eberle/Getty)
Paul Kvinta

I Bought an Elephant to Find Out How to Save Them

At a time of unprecedented mass extinctions, no animal epitomizes the global biodiversity free fall more than the Asian elephant. Paul Kvinta travels to Laos to visit a moon-shot project aimed at saving the country's 400 remaining wild behemoths, investigate the strange underworld of wildlife trafficking—and make a very unexpected purchase.

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On the evening of April 5, 2017, an Emirates Boeing 747 freighter landed at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Laos, and waited on the tarmac for several hours. Its dead-of-night mission involved receiving a sizable consignment, loading it quickly, and ferrying it ten hours back to Dubai, all without attracting undue attention. Emirates had certainly sent the right plane for the job. A 747F is one of the world’s largest commercial freighters, capable of schlepping more than 300,000 pounds of cargo. The cargo in this instance consisted of 16 elephants. Whether those elephants could arrive at an airport and board a plane undetected remained anyone’s guess.

The air was hot and humid that night and full of acrid smog, because rice farmers were burning their fields before planting. Laos is a mostly rural country: mountainous, landlocked, and poor, a socialist backwater overshadowed by powerful neighbors like China and Vietnam. It’s also become a global hub for wildlife trafficking, a place where politically connected kingpins make millions smuggling ivory, rhino horn, and other dead-animal parts around the world. In 2013, when the United States slapped a $1 million bounty on the criminal network of Vixay Keosavang—a.k.a. “the Pablo Escobar of wildlife trafficking,” according to numerous press accounts—Laos made no move to arrest him.

But the nighttime run on April 5 didn’t involve Keosavang, and the wildlife being trafficked was still very much alive. As the Emirates jet stood by, the elephants milled about in a forest outside Vientiane, waiting to be loaded into wood-and-metal crates and then packed into large trucks. The elephants ranged from Mae Ma, a nearly three-ton, even-tempered female who’d worked most of her estimated 37 years in the logging industry, to Do Khoun Meuang, a small, spastic four-year-old male who could dance, stand on his head, and perform all manner of other tricks on command. The deal to send these elephants to the Middle East had begun a year earlier, when Dubai Safari Park, a spanking-new facility in the desert, dispatched middlemen to Laos to locate handlers, known as mahouts, willing to sell. Their job was made easier after the Lao government banned unprocessed timber exports in 2016, an environmentally friendly move that put captive elephants and mahouts out of work. Desperate elephant owners needed to unload their animals fast. Dubai Safari paid $25,000 to $30,000 per elephant, and ultimately $2 million changed hands.

Curiously, at the airport, the waiting jet lacked something on its fuselage that other Emirates aircraft proudly display—a mural of elephants, rhinos, gorillas, and other animals, along with the words united for wildlife, the name of an alliance formed by various conservation organizations and the Royal Foundation, overseen by Britain’s Prince William. Upon the unveiling of one jet newly adorned with the mural, Emirates CEO Tim Clark declared, “As the world’s largest international airline, we believe we can make a difference to help break the supply chain of the illegal wildlife trade.”

In the end, though, a mural-free plane was probably for the best. At some point during the shadowy 16-elephant deal, amid the mahouts and the middlemen, the fixers and the fixed, the local officials and goodness knows who else, a problem arose. Someone didn’t get their cut. Complaints were made, grievances filed, investigators summoned. Everything crashed and burned. The trucks never made it to the airport. Government officials confiscated the elephants before they could be packed into their crates. The prime minister himself, Thongloun Sisoulith, declared the transaction “contrary to the law of Lao People’s Democratic Republic.” He instructed his minister of foreign affairs to inform the UAE that Laos would not part with its elephants.

The aircraft returned to Dubai empty, a jumbo jet without any jumbos.

Captive elephants being released in Nam Phouy
Captive elephants being released in Nam Phouy (Courtesy Céline Gibert)

Had the story ended there, I would have been satisfied with its abject weirdness. But it didn’t end there. It took a 180-degree turn and shifted into overdrive. Twelve of the 16 elephants, having dodged a one-way ticket to the Arabian desert, ended up at a halfway house of sorts in northwest Laos, the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC), where four of them were selected to join a pilot study that could determine the fate of the species in Laos. This is no small thing. Laos traces its history to the 14th-century kingdom of Lan Xang, which means “land of a million elephants,” but now the country has only 800. Around half of these are wild; the other 400 or so are captive, and the nation’s conservation plan hinges on releasing them into the wild—a strategy imperiled by sudden demand from wealthier countries. In the past three years, at least 100 of Laos’s captive elephants have been illegally trafficked out of the country, bound for foreign zoos and safari parks. The UAE and other nations are culpable in this, but the main perpetrator is Laos’s mammoth neighbor to the north, China.

Amid extensive media coverage about the slaughter of African elephants for ivory, this very peculiar aspect of the global elephant crisis has gone virtually unnoticed. I had two basic questions about what was happening. One, is it even possible to successfully reintroduce captive elephants into the wild after they’ve spent their entire lives in the company of humans? And two, how does one go about heisting the world’s largest land animal? Finding the answers would require making two very different but related journeys—one into the untamed jungles of Laos, to track the release of the four elephants once bound for Dubai; the other into the freakish netherworld of Chinese zoos, to find out where the elephants are going and how. Neither journey would be easy.

Two years after the Dubai debacle, I’m slogging through the jungles of northwest Laos with American biologist Chrisantha Pinto of the ECC. We’re searching for Mae Ma, Do Khoun Meung, and three other formerly captive elephants, all of whom Pinto and her team released 24 hours ago. They’ve since vanished deep into the tangled recesses of a half-million-acre preserve called Nam Phouy National Biodiversity Conservation Area. Pinto wants to check on them, and so, with her team of hardened mahouts, we’re bushwhacking through the undergrowth and clawing our way up painfully steep hills.

Pinto worked with these elephants for months, trying to shape five unrelated animals into a herd. This had never been attempted before. In the wild, herds consist of related adult females and their offspring. It was unclear if Pinto’s elephants, initially strangers to one another, could develop the bonds of trust and mutual dependency that are critical for survival. Pinto’s study involves letting them wander Nam Phouy for three months—a “soft release,” she calls it—and tracking them down daily to note herd dynamics and movement. As we slosh through the mud, she tells me, “If we can provide the government with data that shows releasing them is the best thing for them, there’s a good chance we’ll get to release them permanently.”

Pinto is young, 25, and originally from California, with long dark hair and a tranquil demeanor that seems perfect for watching slow-moving megafauna interact for hours at a time. Her decision to liberate the herd had not been made lightly. She rattles off all the scary questions that arise. Will they be able to find food and water? Will they raid someone’s rice crop outside the forest? Will they stampede through villages, flatten homes, and squash people? Will they end up—depending on available technology—shot, poisoned, electrocuted, or blown to bits by pissed-off villagers? What if poachers slaughter them first? “If we screw this up, if something bad happens,” she says, “that could jeopardize ever releasing ele­phants again.”

The author (left), Chrisantha Pinto, and Mike Falshaw
The author (left), Chrisantha Pinto, and Mike Falshaw (Paul Kvinta)

Laos has no room for error when it comes to these animals. We are living through the Sixth Extinction, Pinto reminds me, an era when humans are causing the loss of species at breakneck speed. Asian elephants epitomize this biodiversity free fall. A species that once roamed southern Asia from Turkey to eastern China now occupies 5 percent of that range and amounts to maybe 40,000 individuals in the wild. The main problem is habitat loss, along with a related phenomenon, human-elephant conflict. In India, such conflict annually causes 400 human fatalities and 100 elephant deaths. In Sri Lanka, the numbers are 70 and 200, respectively. In Bangladesh, when some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims arrived in late 2017 after fleeing genocidal violence in neighboring Myanmar, their refugee camps obliterated huge swaths of forest along a main migration route. The elephants responded by stampeding through the camps repeatedly and killing 14 people. Fortunately for the elephants, the Rohingya had no weapons.

Since 1988, Laos’s wild elephant population has declined by 90 percent. If no action is taken, Pinto predicts that by 2030, wild elephants will disappear from the country altogether. In this bleak context, Laos’s 400 captive elephants become absolutely critical. They provide a second-string team of sorts, in terms of breeding and potential introduction into the forest. The ECC is in the process of taking over management of Nam Phouy, and when that happens, the plan is to work with surrounding villages to halt illegal logging, hunting, and agricultural encroachment. Once park boundaries are secured, the release of captive elephants could begin in earnest.

We reach the top of a ridge, and the four mahouts with us read the landscape as if it were some centuries-old manuscript. They point to a bare patch of swirled dirt in an alcove of bushes where they believe one of the elephants slept last night; the other four appear to have slept a couple of hundred feet away, beneath a tall tree. There was a fire here overnight, they surmise, motioning toward a smoldering swath of blackened earth on the other side of the ridge. It’s burning season again in Laos, and the fire must have raced up the slope from a rice crop outside the park. The elephants would have been terrified.

The mahouts mountain-goat their way down the ridge, with Pinto and me dirt-surfing and butt-sliding after them. We land in some bamboo at the bottom of a ravine, and soon we’re hearing trumpets, chirps, and rumbles. There’s loud, percussive splintering, and then our elephants lurch into the open. They stare at us like, “Oh. It’s you. Crap.”

We, on the other hand, are delighted to see them. But we count only four elephants. One is missing.

The release of captive Asian elephants had been tried before, in Thailand, with mixed results. The liberated elephants survived, but they plundered nearby crops, despite abundant food in the forest. Nobody killed them, because the Queen of Thailand herself had released them, as part of the Queen’s Initiative, and few people had the cojones to harm the queen’s elephants. (Laos, alas, has no queen. That’s communism for you.) No effort at herd formation had been attempted prior to release, and the handful of animals essentially scattered in different directions. The project did produce one useful tidbit for Pinto—when a mother-calf pair was subsequently released, the previously released females joined forces to safeguard the calf.

To create her herd from scratch, Pinto focused on the youngster, Do Khoun Meung, or DKM for short. After the Dubai deal imploded, Mae Ma basically adopted DKM, while another elephant, Mae Noy, assumed the role of doting aunt. By the time these three arrived at the ECC, they were inseparable. This was the nucleus of a potential herd. Pinto added Mae Bounmy Nyai (MBN) and Mae Khian, who had previously been a mother, and Pinto hoped to leverage her maternal instincts. DKM was at least five years old at this point, and until he reached age ten, adult females would consider him a baby in need of care. In socialization sessions, Pinto noted that whenever DKM was upset, all four females did what any good elephant mother would do—feel his genitals with her trunk, the elephant way of gauging stress. Beyond motherhood, Pinto hoped Mae Khian might also provide leadership for the herd. She had previously been a logging elephant, and between gigs her owner let her wander free in Nam Phouy. She knew where to find water and the sweetest bamboo. Pinto figured the others would follow her lead.

Had the story ended there, I would have been satisfied with its abject weirdness. But it didn’t end there. Twelve of 16 ­elephants, having dodged a trip to the Arabian desert, ended up at a halfway house of sorts in northwest Laos.

Still, despite that careful preparation, one of her elephants is now missing. The absent herd member is MBN, the introvert of the bunch, the one always hovering nearby, but separate from the group. She’s probably the one that slept alone last night. Also, the mahouts inform Pinto that before yesterday’s release, when DKM tried to play with MBN, she rejected his overtures. This outraged Mae Noy, who responded by slugging MBN in the face with her trunk. “She’s timid to begin with,” says Pinto. “If Mae Noy hit her, it makes sense she would go off on her own.” But the mahouts mostly blame the fire. Alarmed by the flames, the elephants likely scattered, with four going one way and MBN the other. She probably fled in search of water, so we hoof it toward the Nam Sing River.

The mahouts move through the understory like Jedi, accessing unseen information and plotting less than obvious courses that lead repeatedly to coconut-size turds, shattered vegetation, and other evidence of MBN’s panicked flight. At $4,000 a pop, satellite collars are prohibitively expensive, so for now Pinto’s project depends completely on the mahouts’ ability to locate five elephants each day in a mostly untracked wilderness more than twice the size of New York City.

“They know the forest like you know your neighborhood,” says Mike Falshaw, the other ECC staffer with us. Before their release, the mahouts had ridden the elephants for 11 days, Falshaw joining them on foot, from the ECC to Nam Phouy. At one point Falshaw used his GPS to determine the best route to a particular village, calculating that the journey would take all day. The mahouts said screw that. They didn’t know the area, but they plunged straight into the bush and reached the village in four hours. “I have a GPS here and here,” one of them told Falshaw, pointing to his head and then his heart.

We reach the Nam Sing, and despite my best efforts, I can’t manage a dry crossing of the river, and I end up immersed in water to my belly button. The mahouts find this extremely funny. They whip out their phones and shoot video. In the midst of this soggy commotion, MBN pokes her head out from behind a bush on the far shore. We’ve interrupted her leaf munching. For an elephant who’s just survived a forest fire and lost her herd, she looks pretty Zen. She soon turns away and resumes grazing, unimpressed with the folly of humans.

During the trek back to our camp, Pinto speculates on her basic assumptions. “We think a calf can keep them together, but maybe MBN just doesn’t like kids,” she says. “This is the most freedom they’ve ever had, and it will be interesting to see personality traits come out. Maybe they won’t remain a cohesive herd.”

At camp we find that two of the mahouts who stayed back today have constructed a 50-foot-long lean-to to protect the tents, a picnic table with attached benches, and another table for meal prep. The other mahouts unload what they gathered from the forest—herbs, hearts of palm, and three-inch-diameter bamboo segments that will become tall skinny pots for boiling water. For our dinner, a couple of them wade into the Nam Sing to catch frogs.

“They look at this place like a supermarket,” Falshaw says. He’s from Liverpool, with the requisite Scouse accent and pale complexion. Having spent weeks at a time in the jungle with these guys, he’s slowly morphing into a mahout himself. He speaks Lao, can handle a machete, and, most important, doesn’t mind the diet. When I explain that my meals in Laos before this trip included blackened whole baby birds, ant-egg salad, pureed fish entrails, and even dog (I’d been told it was goat), he’s blithe about my trauma.

“Have you tried rat?” he asks.

“They don’t put that in soup, do they?” I didn’t want an answer.

“Oh no,” he says. “You’d never put it in soup. That would ruin the flavor.”

As we discuss culinary matters, a tractor rumbles by near camp hauling a 50-foot log. We had seen the tractor several times over two days, extracting logs one by one. When the ECC assumes control of Nam Phouy, Falshaw will work with the government to run the park, and he plans to halt this onslaught. For now he’s biding his time. “I could call up district leaders, but then that guy would know it was us,” he says. “He might come here with a bunch of guys and beat the shit out of us, and we could survive that. But if he puts a bullet in one of those elephants, that would be a blow to the ECC, a blow to the country, a blow to everybody.”

When I wriggle out of my hammock the next morning, one of the mahouts tells me that he heard rustling last night. There’s a wild male elephant lurking in this corner of the park, a colossus our team has mixed feelings about. On one hand, nobody wants him barreling through camp. “If the elephant had come,” the mahout says, nodding toward our fire, “I would have chased him away with flames.” On the other hand, Pinto would love for our females to mate with him. That’s the practice in Laos, to leave captive females chained up in the jungle when not working in order to breed with wild males. It’s one of many traditions that constitute the age-old culture of elephant husbandry, or mahoutship, the art and science of keeping, training, and riding elephants.

Nobody knows when this culture began in Asia. Elephant capture started at least 4,500 years ago in the Indus Valley, where soapstone carvings of elephants in chains have been found. Care and training developed over centuries, with knowledge passed down from father to son. Traditionally, most Lao villages had at least one elephant for plowing and carrying firewood. Elephants became symbols of prestige across Asia, with kings using them as ceremonial mounts and offering them as gifts to seal political alliances. As the only men who could control these giants, mahouts gained prestige, becoming confidants to kings. But then the French colonized Southeast Asia in the late 19th century and introduced commercial logging, an industry made possible by ele­phant towing power. Mahouts began living in the jungle for long stretches. Their visibility faded, along with their status.

There’s an important religious component to the human-elephant relationship in Laos, intertwined with the country’s tradition of devout Buddhism. Only humans and elephants have 32 souls, many Laotians believe, and shamans play a central role in spiritually taming elephants. This process is a community event, and while decidedly less than gentle (a baby is forced kicking and screaming into a pen and then thwacked repeatedly with a wooden stick), it includes a baci, a ceremony designed to corral any of the elephant’s souls that might attempt to flee as it transitions into the human world. In all matters elephant, shamans wield tremendous influence. Recently, a new ECC staff mahout quit abruptly after his local shaman advised him that the elephant he was hired to work with would certainly kill him.

This morning, Pinto and I could use a shaman. After finding MBN grazing in the same spot as yesterday, we slosh up a stream to locate the other elephants, only to be blitzed by great armies of leeches. They inch up our boots and squirm beneath our socks. Noticing our anguish, one of the mahouts calmly slices off two segments of bamboo, fashions a couple of tubes, fills them with stream water, and adds a pinch of salt from his pack to each. He hands these to us, along with bits of vine to use as a sort of gauze. When we daub the leeches with the salt solution, they drop off.

This works well until we begin an ascent up a near vertical slope that requires grabbing vines and branches with both hands. About halfway up, Pinto stops suddenly and drops her pants. I don’t look, but apparently a leech has fastened itself smack to her groin. She unleashes a cry of great distress: “I look like I’m having my period!” One of the mahouts, waiting for us atop the ridge and observing our travails, turns to another and says, “I think foreigners are better at things like swimming.”

When we find the herd, young DKM charges out, straightens his trunk, and flares his ears, a clear warning. Then he quickly scampers back, and all three adults step up to shield him from view. “That’s something very much a wild herd would do,” Pinto says, encouraged. The elephants are in an area with very little water, however. When they get thirsty, they’ll either head back to where MBN is, which would be great, or they’ll head toward a stream in the opposite direction, where there’s an army garrison and, worse, crops for the soldiers. That could be a disaster. After much debate, the mahouts mount the elephants, and we head back to the original release point, where we’ll regroup and cut them loose again. Pinto is disappointed. She’ll have to note the intervention in her data, but safety-wise it’s the right move.

Pinto is only a few days into a three-month experiment, so it’s impossible to draw any conclusions. But around the fire that night she is contemplative. Maybe MBN doesn’t need a herd after all, not if she continues finding food and water on her own. As for the others, they’re operating as a unit so far. “They’re forming real bonds,” Pinto says. “Forming a real family. It’s amazing to see.” Falshaw is just happy that little DKM is frolicking in the jungle. For a year leading up to his scheduled trip to Dubai, DKM had been trained daily to be a performer, to execute rote stunts for paying crowds. “He was doing circus tricks,” says Falshaw. “Now he’s wandering free in the forest.”

The optimism of Pinto’s team will amount to little if Laos’s captive elephants disappear into China. While Pinto continues monitoring the herd, I leave her and embark on my second journey, starting in the Chinese city of Kunming. There I meet Karl Ammann, a 71-year-old Swiss national with shambolic hair and droopy eyes who shuffles about and mumbles like Columbo, making him easy to dismiss. In reality, Ammann is a relentless investigative filmmaker who has documented animal trafficking around the world. Deploying a tech arsenal worthy of 007—button cams, lipstick cams—he has investigated everything from the bushmeat trade to ivory trafficking, leading Time magazine to dub him a “Hero of the Environment.” He’s also something of a pariah in wildlife-conservation circles, due to his incessant badgering of officials at CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the United Nations watchdog group that Ammann considers a paper tiger.

For the next few days, my work with Ammann will require a personal transformation that goes well beyond deleeching and defunking after a week of camping in the jungle. As I cleared customs in Kunming, I assumed a whole new identity. I am no longer a journalist—I am a freewheeling international businessman looking to start a new zoo in southern China, in Guangzhou, with my “partner” Ammann. We’ll be visiting various animal parks in the hope of purchasing an elephant like DKM—young, well trained, guaranteed to delight our future visitors. We’ll negotiate with anyone, anywhere. Our venture is a ruse, but it’s not so unusual as to arouse suspicion. Zoos and aquariums are sprouting all over China. The masses have disposable income now, and the demand is tremendous.

In the wake of the Dubai scandal, Ammann’s sleuthing uncovered two distinct players in the elephant-export racket. One is the Mekong Group, a Chinese company that owns zoos in Yunnan province. In June 2017, in an otherwise empty field in Xayaboury, Laos, Ammann came upon an unusual sight involving representatives from this company. At least 30 elephants stood in a row, and while inspectors reviewed the specimens, the elephants performed tricks. Ammann learned that the elephants were under contract to the Mekong Group, that it was paying mahouts to train the animals, and that, depending on skill level, it would pay $25,000 to $50,000 per elephant. Digging deeper, Ammann found documents indicating that the Mekong Group had been importing Lao elephants for years. For example, in 2015, one of the company’s safari parks, Wild Elephant Valley, imported 11 ele­phants. Legally this was suspect. For starters, Lao law bans the selling of elephants abroad. Second, in the few instances where CITES allows international trade in endangered species, that trade cannot be detrimental to the species overall in the exporting country, and the animals being traded must originate from an approved breeding facility. Even before Pinto began her research showing the critical importance of Laos’s few remaining captive elephants for the country’s overall population, a host of international scientists had declared that continued export threatened extinction of the species in Laos. And while the CITES documents filed in the case of the 11 elephants claimed they were captive bred, Laos has no elephant-breeding facilities, approved or otherwise.

There’s loud, percussive splintering, and then our elephants lurch into the open. They stare at us like, “Oh. It’s you. Crap.” We, on the other hand, are delighted to see them—but we count only four elephants. One is missing.

The other elephant exporter Ammann discovered is called Soutchai Travel, a company based in Vientiane. In December 2018, the husband and wife owners of the company told Ammann over the phone that they could sell him a male elephant for $20,000, a female for $150,000, and a baby—which Chinese crowds love most—for $200,000. Soutchai would then transport the elephants through the border town of Boten and into China. The company could arrange a three-year lease, after which the fee would have to be paid again. When Ammann pressed him on this, Soutchai said, vaguely, that rental terms could be negotiated.

To Ammann, the notion that elephants were being leased, not sold, was intriguing. Maybe this was the loophole through which buyers were sidestepping the law. Like the Soutchais, the Mekong Group had styled its elephant transactions as multiyear lease agreements, according to the Laotian elephant owners Ammann interviewed. But none of those owners possessed copies of the contracts, and Ammann sensed that none of them expected to get their elephants back. He could find no instances of Lao elephants ever returning from China.

In his phone conversation with the Soutchais, Ammann said he wasn’t yet ready to buy. He had more due diligence to perform. In fact, he had heard that some elephants had just been exported to China a month before the call. Did the Soutchais know about this? Yes, they confirmed, seven of their elephants had just gone to China. But they wouldn’t say exactly where.

By the time I connect with him in Kunming, Ammann has information that at least four of those seven elephants might be in the city of Guiyang, at Guizhou Forest Safari Park. If we went to Guiyang and confirmed this—and also that the animals had been sold rather than leased—we would have proof of elephants being trafficked out of Laos.

One of the glaring differences between Chinese zoos and those in the West is the nature of the relationship between paying customers and animals. Zoogoers in China expect a performance. As Ammann and I stroll through Guizhou Forest Safari Park, we see several people observing six grizzly bears across a moat. They’ve purchased food for the bears, mysterious beige cubes; when the bears wave and clap, the people chuck cubes at them. Later, Ammann and I board a small bus painted like a zebra and completely encased in stout wire mesh. The driver steers us into an enclosure of Asiatic black bears, and a mob of them press against the bus demanding food. A woman up front distributes skewers of raw chicken, and we poke these through holes in the windows. The bears inhale the meat. Next we visit some equally demanding tigers, then lions. In a few days, Ammann is headed to north China to investigate a notorious tiger farm in Harbin, and he plans to ride and film a similar bus where patrons can buy a live cow to feed the tigers. “I’ve seen videos,” he says. “The cow is in a trailer. A hydraulic lift raises one end, the cow slides down, and all hell breaks loose. You can hear the thing screaming.”

The most popular performers at any Chinese zoo are the elephants. Ammann and I squeeze into Guizhou’s elephant amphitheater for the preshow festivities. Kids pose for photos atop the jumbos and take rides, their parents going nuts with cameras. But soon the arena is cleared, music swells, and nine elephants march out. They rear up and stand on their back legs. They stand on their heads. They stand on stools and spin around. They suck water from pails and blast it on everyone in the first three rows. The crowd loves this. Techno music blares. The mahouts roll out soccer balls, and the elephants kick them into a goal. The show ends with the performers dancing manically before waving goodbye with their trunks.

After the show, Ammann and I wander backstage and into a long concrete room, where we meet the head trainer, a Thai man named Samrit. We’re building a zoo in Guangzhou, we tell him. We’re curious about obtaining elephants. Would he mind if we look around? Not at all, Samrit says, he’s happy to answer any questions. The zoo has 11 elephants, we learn. Two are outside, and the other nine occupy stalls in this room. In one stall, an elephant stares at the floor and shakes his head back and forth, classic behavior of a stressed-out elephant.

New hotels in Boten
New hotels in Boten (Zuma Press/Alamy Stock Photo)

All these elephants are from Laos, Samrit says, as we move down the row. And yes, these last four arrived the previous year. Pretty much all elephants imported into China come from Laos, he says. If we want, Ammann and I can even buy an elephant from this zoo, Samrit says. A baby would cost around $100,000, an adult $80,000. Unfortunately, we can’t buy any of the elephants we see here. They’ve already been sold to a zoo near Shanghai called Dream of Dragon, and they’re scheduled to be transported next month. They’ll be replaced by more elephants from Laos.

This raises an interesting question. If Chinese zoos are leasing elephants from Laos, how can those elephants then be sold to another zoo? I had a hard time seeing how such an elephant would ever return to Laos.

As we leave, Samrit encourages us to contact him with further questions. We do. We have Thai and Chinese speakers talk to him multiple times on the phone, and he even sits for a three-hour chat in a restaurant. The big takeaway from these conversations comes with Samrit’s clarification of the lease issue. The interaction goes like this:

Us: When we buy, we are the owner? Or we’re just leasing and have to return the elephant?

Samrit: The owner, but it is declared in the documents to be a lease. It is very difficult to declare as a purchase in the documents. They have to declare to be leased from Laos for 10 to 20 years.

Us: After 10 to 20 years, we have to return the elephant?

Samrit: No. It is just a document.

Us: After 10 to 20 years, we will return the elephant?

Samrit: Absolutely not. You bought the elephant and own it.

He goes on to say that no one has ever returned an elephant on the basis of a rental contract.

On multiple occasions since the Dubai incident in 2017, Ammann informed both Laotian officials and CITES authorities of the evidence he was uncovering of illegal elephant exports. He also sent them Chinese media accounts openly celebrating the arrival of Lao elephants in zoos. Assuming these had been “leased” in the fashion described by Samrit (and repeated by a second source who acquires elephants for the Soutchais), the steady flow of elephants out of Laos was disturbing. In 2016, two had arrived at Zhengzhou Zoo, at least six at Dongguan Zoo, and four at Changsha Ecological Zoo. In 2017, four showed up at Ningbo Youngor Zoo and twelve at Guizhou Safari Park. Ammann harangued CITES officials over their unwillingness to invoke Article VIII of the Convention, which allows Laos to retrieve the elephants and forces China to investigate involved parties.

CITES officials had acknowledged the problem. In a 2017 report on Laos, they reiterated that the export of Asian elephants is illegal in most instances and stated, “It is understood that the international movement of some elephants currently under lease in countries such as China occurred in contravention of the national legislation of Lao PDR and CITES provisions.”

Still, CITES officials have done nothing to address the issue. At the recent triennial gathering of signatory parties in Geneva, the trafficking of Asian elephants didn’t even make the agenda. Yuan Liu, spokesman for CITES in Geneva, told me that Laos has struggled to enforce the convention generally, and that the organization’s approach “is supportive and non-adversarial and aims to ensure long-term compliance.” The Lao government, Soutchai Travel, and the Mekong Group did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Joumban and Mae Seang in Boten
Joumban and Mae Seang in Boten (Paul Kvinta)

There is some indication that Lao authorities might even be abetting elephant trafficking. In a November 14, 2018, e-mail to several people working on elephant issues in Laos, Mark Romley, legal adviser on countertrafficking issues at the U.S. embassy in Vientiane, reported on a trip he took to the Laos-China border. “During our meetings with the government of Laotian officials, the head of the Animal Control Unit said that the previous day 50 Lao elephants had been allowed through the Boten SEZ border checkpoint headed for China,” Romley wrote. “The elephants had been shipped north for a ‘cultural and educational exchange’ that had been approved by the central government. I, for one, would be surprised if Laos sees those elephants again.”

All of this disgusts Ammann. “It’s one thing to smuggle a chimp here, an orangutan there,” he tells me. But moving “whole herds of elephants across an international border is the greatest insult to anyone concerned about wildlife. CITES, Prince William—this is all happening under their noses.”

If the elephants are starting in Laos and, through bogus lease agreements, ending up permanently in China, the only question remaining is: How are they getting there? Romley’s e-mail hinted that government approval might be involved. To find out more, I travel to the Lao border town of Boten. Ammann can’t join me, because he’s headed to Harbin for his tiger project. But he tells me where to find a mahout named Khammoung, a guy he’s met before. Khammoung might have information on cross-border elephant transactions.

As we part ways, Ammann also makes a curious request of me. If I find Khammoung, I will also find the two elephants he tends. Ammann wants me to try to buy those ele­phants. For real. Or he at least wants me to gauge Khammoung’s interest in selling them. Ammann says he knows people in Europe. Rich people. He’ll raise funds to buy the ele­phants and then he’ll convince the ECC to take them as a donation. Elephants deserve a better life than what these two are living in Boten, Ammann says. He assures me I’ll be motivated to make a purchase once I reach Boten and see what he’s talking about.

Long an impoverished outpost in Laos’s far north, Boten became a “specific economic zone” at the turn of this century, and since then Chinese developers have made it an extension of China—recently secured with a 50-year lease—where they envision a residential city, tourist destination, and transportation hub. I arrive to find high-rise hotels and condos along the main street, some half finished. The town is one big construction site, cranes everywhere. I find Khammoung where Ammann said he would be, in the parking lot behind a large purple and white building with a neon sign that says Club Eccellente. The mahout is sitting on a log, whittling, surrounded by piles of broken drywall, nail-studded two-by-fours, and additional construction debris. Three other mahouts lie in hammocks. They’ve created a makeshift day camp from the refuse, with broken furniture arranged around a fire ring and chickens penned in with corrugated plastic. Khammoung grabs an empty bucket labeled machine grease, flips it over, and offers me a seat.

Beyond the parking lot, a red, barren moonscape spreads out in three directions, and in the distance dozens of enormous trucks and earthmovers rumble about. The forest used to reach the parking lot, Khammoung tells me, but now it’s nearly a mile away. The earth-gobbling machines are clearing trees and flattening hills. In their place, two giant Buddhas will soon be erected, one facing Laos, the other facing China.

Karl Ammann
Karl Ammann (Courtesy Helmut Scholz)

There’s a nightly show here at Club Eccellente, a “ladyboy” show, Khammoung calls it, a cabaret act featuring trans performers. Later this afternoon, he and the other mahouts will trek to the forest to retrieve four elephants they chained there overnight and bring them to the parking lot. “The people coming for the show like to see elephants,” he says. Technically, Khammoung’s family owns two of them: Joumban, a 34-year-old male, and Mae Seang, a 32-year-old female. In February 2018, after the logging industry waned, his family leased the pair to the Mekong Group, which subsequently transferred the lease to the company developing Boten. Joumban and Mae Seang arrived in Boten with 14 other Lao elephants, but the others were later sent over the border into China. As part of the lease agreement, Khammong is paid to work with the two elephants here at the club.

I ask him how elephants cross into China. It’s simple, he says. He points toward a patch of forest in the distance. There’s a ­buffalo path, an informal crossing through the woods. No one’s watching it. Khammoung says he has been paid to ride elephants down that path to China. The ride takes 30 minutes, and after he crosses the border, another mahout continues on with the elephant.

“It was a service I offered,” he says. “But no one has wanted this service for several months.” Indeed, many elephants exited Laos in the fashion Khammoung describes, but more recently they’ve been concealed inside 22-wheel long-haul trucks and driven through Boten’s legal border crossing. Sources told Ammann that the seven elephants in November had crossed this way. (After my trip to Boten, a Lao news report about a truck rollover on a mountain pass near the town of Kasi includes a photo of a dead elephant. A source confirms that the animal was part of a group of Soutchai elephants bound for China.)

Later that afternoon, Khammoung sets off across the moonscape, making for the trees, and when I see him again, he and Joumban are emerging, almost magically, from a cloud of red dirt. The elephant is nine feet tall, but in the distance he’s dwarfed by the titanic vehicles vaporizing the topography. At the parking lot, the mahouts chain the four elephants to the pavement. Joumban has a fine pair of 18-inch tusks. Mae Seang’s ears are pink on the underside. They stand together like a little old couple, comfortable not speaking to each other.

At sunset the tour buses start arriving and disgorging Chinese retirees into the parking lot. Soon several hundred tourists in sneakers, jeans, and floral-print dresses are taking selfies with the ladyboys from the show, who are dressed in hip-high split skirts, stiletto heels, and elaborate feathered headdresses. Chinese pop blares across the parking lot. Blue, pink, and yellow neon lights begin flashing. The elephants are background props, hulking conversation pieces. People stop by to shoot photos or feed them sugarcane before blending back into the mosh. There’s an hour-and-a-half reprieve when everyone files into the club for the show, but afterward the partiers spill out into the night more revved up than before. Someone builds a bonfire in the parking lot and a conga line forms, lurching this way and that, skirting the flames, romping past the elephants. The singing and dancing continues late into the night.

Trapped in the eye of this storm, Joumban and Mae Seang press their faces against each other. With her trunk, Mae Seang gently touches Joumban’s mouth, his tusks, his eyes. He responds in kind. They wrap their trunks around each other and rub foreheads. What must they make of all this?

It’s one thing to pretend to want to buy an elephant. It’s quite another to actually execute the purchase. And two elephants? How would I explain this to my wife? I really didn’t think Khammoung would go for it. But after the last Chinese partier straggles off, I propose the acquisition, and Khammoung jumps at the idea. He’s tired of living in this shithole. He wants to quit the mahout business altogether, return to his village, be close to his family, rethink his career. When I report this to Ammann, he’s thrilled. He dives headlong into negotiations with Khammoung’s family, which take weeks. He clears everything with Laotian officials. He gets me to write up a description of the wretched living conditions of Joumban and Mae Seang, and with that he goes begging in Europe. I’m convinced he’ll get nowhere near the asking price: $110,000.

But then he does. Four months later, Ammann and a bunch of soft-hearted Euros (and myself, if you count my fundraising letter as an in-kind donation, which I totally do) are the proud owners of two very large, no doubt emotionally scarred elephants that once worked as props in a cabaret act in a Lao parking lot. Joumban and Mae Seang get trucked to the ECC, where their arrival is celebrated. Ammann knows this act will have no bearing on elephant conservation in Laos; he’s actually quite pessimistic about wildlife conservation generally. “The only thing you can hope to do now is improve animals’ welfare,” he tells me. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

Someone builds a bonfire in the parking lot and a conga line forms, lurching this way and that, skirting the flames, romping past the elephants. Trapped in the eye of this storm, Joumban and mae Seang press their faces against each other.

When I get back to the U.S., I hear from Pinto. The three-month soft release had gone so well that the ECC received permission to let the herd roam Nam Phouy for three more. A couple of weeks after I left the jungle, the elephants had begun to charge Pinto’s team. “We had to run,” she says. “They were like, ‘You’re too close. Stay away.’ After two weeks, they trusted one another so much they decided they didn’t need us.”

As for MBN, the outcast elephant, she began consistently hovering about 200 yards from the herd, moving in closer to interact with the others about once a week. In her own way, she had remained part of the group. The most striking development involved the wild male. He had joined the herd for several weeks and taken a particular liking to Mae Khian. All in all, the signs suggested that these elephants were reverting back to their wild selves.

Maybe one day, like these elephants, Joumban and Mae Seang will roam free in the jungle. Maybe they’ll go where they want, eat what they want, do whatever the hell they want. Maybe the memory of pavement, chains, bulldozers, and feathered boas will fade. Maybe they’ll live like real elephants.

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