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.
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.”
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 dirtsurfing 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 cajones 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.
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.
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