Southeast Asia Encountered

Season’s Report 2016/17 - Southern Hemisphere

Elephant Conservation Centre – Sayaboury

The elephant breeding program at the ECC is very integral to the continuity of the Asian elephants in Laos. There are only two elephant births per year amongst the aging population of four hundred domesticated elephants, and six to seven elephant deaths. With those stats, the domestic population of elephants in Laos will be extinct in roughly thirty years. There are around four hundred wild elephants still in the country, but with yearly habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching, the forests are not safe for them either.

The ECC is no longer offering rides at the centre, because one of the major factors that hamper the continuity of the species is tourist riding camps, where elephants ride for kilometres a day like docile robots, are simply worked to make a profit, and are never bred as it keeps them from working.

It’s important that the ECC sets itself apart from this industry, as tourists can interact with these elephants in a more natural way, experience their unique personalities, feed them, come close to them as well as observe them from faraway watchtowers as they are in the forest without people around. The volunteers all appeared to gain a lot from this type of interaction, now seeing the issues in treating these endangered creatures like they are vehicles for us to sit on and ride.

  • VESA volunteers are encouraged to think about conservation and to think critically about what they can do to make a difference when they go home (i.e. reducing plastic usage as rubber tree plantations annually encroach on elephant habitat, etc.)
  • Our staff provide further education and awareness of the plight facing the Asian elephant population
  • The volunteers are able to witness both the positives and negatives of conservation, further emphasizing how important the efforts of places like the ECC are in the face of so many struggles

Group 1


This program we were able to witness something very unique! The ECC arranged a deal with the mahout of a male elephant named Pudho, to stay at the centre for four months to mate him with the female elephants. As soon as he arrived, Mae Bounam mated with him right away, leaving us with a suspenseful two week wait to see if she is pregnant. During one of our trips to the socialization area, we were able to witness “the chase”, Pudho pursuing Mae Venh.

She did not succumb to his advances, however- but the volunteers were able to see from the watch tower an idea of what these elephants do in the wild during these mating rituals.


This was VESA’s first time working at Ban Nonsavan Primary School – the ECC village’s school – an exciting endeavour as it was so close to home and some of the ECC staff’s children are students there.

We’d like to thank all the volunteers for their enthusiasm in teaching these beautiful children, and their generosity with the amount of gifts that they brought over! The highlight of the week was the day we were able to hand out a toothbrush and toothpaste to every single student at the school and conduct a lesson on dental hygiene.

The staff and kids were all so welcoming, and happy to have us there. We had people listening in on the classes standing at the windows and sitting on the floor at the front of the classroom, including community members!

On Friday (a public holiday for Laos Day) and Saturday, even the kids who didn’t have class all came to learn and play. As a surprise thank you to the volunteers, the children made flower necklaces and crowns for everyone on the last day; it was beautiful!

  • Grade 3: Review of the alphabet, body parts, animals, colours, classroom objects [Tuesday and Friday full day]
  • Grade 4: Basic greetings, words associated with dental hygiene lesson, directions/locations [Monday 1/2 day, Wednesday & Saturday all day]
  • Grade 5: Basic greetings, actions, body parts, classroom objects, animals [Monday 1/2 day, Thursday & Saturday all day]
  • All students: demonstration of proper method for brushing teeth, explanation about the importance of dental care etc.


The volunteers were very enthusiastic about the construction project.

Kindergarten Classroom

  • Two exterior coats of white paint on kindy classroom..
  • Three coats of blue paint on doors and windows.
  • One coat of white paint on two interior wall.

Teacher offices

  • On arrival the teacher offices had already seen some progress. Existing were the supporting beams and roof.

The volunteers;

  • Cleared the ground of materials and obstructions.
  • Levelled the ground and removed excess earth.
  • Dug a trench and set foundations for an interior wall which will divide the large space into two smaller offices.
  • Began to lay bricks between the supporting beams
  • Installed the windows and doors
  • Installed an additional supporting beam in the centre of the structure to give the roof necessary

Group 2


This program the volunteers were able to experience a unique part of the enrichment program. In between their normal activities with the elephants at the socialization area, nursery, bath time, trekking, etc.. They spent some time in the enrichment area to see the elephants interact with new toys that they helped to create.

The enrichment program serves as a cognitive stimulus for the elephants that are ‘under human care’, as in the wild elephants have to consciously search for their food. Elephants in captivity do not have this capability and are often given food continuously by their keeper, which is unnatural and creates a dependence. However, in the enrichment area they have to figure out puzzles and work sometimes together to get their food. 


The children’s eagerness not only to learn English but also to teach us all Laos is incredible. They seize every opportunity to engage in conversations and use the vocabulary and sentences they’ve learned!

On Saturday, we were only meant to be teaching the 16 grade 5 students; instead, we had a classroom packed with 60 students of all ages who came in just to learn and play!

  • Grade 3: [Monday and Thursday full day]
  • Review of introductions and ‘get-to-know-you’ questions. Actions: (walk, run, sleep, play, read, write, etc…) & food (papaya salad, banana, noodle soup, etc…) New questions: “What do you like?” – “I like…” 
  • Grade 4: [Tuesday & Friday all day]
    Asking questions: What/how/when/where/why. Locations: school/house/hospital/market etc… New questions: do you like/do you have…? 
  • Grade 5: [Wednesday & Saturday all day]
    Daily routine & associated questions: where are you going? What are you doing? Occupation: student/teacher/nurse/builder…


The teachers at the school began helping with the volunteer construction work. We were digging the foundations for the new classroom when two teachers picked up a shovel and hoe and started really helping out. It was great to see the interest the teachers had in the construction project and the clear pride they have in their school.

Group two completed the internal painting in the kindergarten classroom and could get to work on the mural. We completed the elephant mural suggested by group one. The school kids were very excited to see this and the Ministry of Education was impressed so requested additional classroom paintings including the English alphabet and numbers 1-10.

Kindergarten Classroom

  • Completed painting interior and exterior including exterior blue strips (school colours)
  • Designed and painted elephant mural inside
  • Painted butterfly mural including numbers 1-10

Teacher offices

  • Completed exterior walls
  • Compacted floor in prep for concrete

New classroom beside Kindergarten class

  • We broke earth, digging 7 holes for the supporting beams.
  • Laid foundations in each hole to support beam.

Group 3


This program was very eventful for our volunteers, in both good and bad ways. The bad first- baby Noy Ann and mother Mae Kram Dee who were at the elephant conservation centre for the baby bonus program, were sold off to a Chinese circus. The ECC had a deal to purchase the mother and baby when their contract to keep them at the centre was finished, however the owners decided last minute to sell to the highest bidder, a sad day in the world of conservation.

On a more positive note, a new male was brought in for the breeding program, named Bua Ban. He will be at the centre for four months, because elephants only ovulate once every 4 months for 3 to 4 days at a time. He has already attempted to mate with a few of the females, but to no avail. Mae Bou Nam mated already with the previous male that came to the centre, so in about one month more we will know if she is pregnant or not.


This group’s enthusiasm and good humour was infectious! What a pleasure spending the week getting to know them and working alongside them. The highlight of this program at the school had to be our paper-recycling project.

The children who were able to come in on Saturday and Sunday participated in a school-wide rubbish pick-up. We separated paper from plastic and other items and explained biodegradability and the concept of recycling. We tore up all the paper into little pieces, soaked it in water overnight and laid out the mixture onto our mesh frames. While the paper was still wet, the children took it upon themselves to decorate the boards with petals and leaves, turning old rubbish into beautiful artwork that will be displayed at the school!

  • Grade 3: Locations: market/school/house/hospital/office/post-office
  • Grade 4: Do you want to… (read/eat/sleep/shower/study/write)
  • b: Do you have a… (book/pen/ruler/pencil/bag), What do you like? I like to… (play/run/dance/swim/sing) Do you want to… (read/sleep/shower/study/write) & RECYCLING & COMPOST (plastic/paper/bottle/can & apple/mango/banana/…)


Group 3 was great! The Smith siblings from Mildura joined us in this group. It was a pleasure having them on program with Holly and Levi providing us with endless entertainment with their musical abilities.

Volunteers displayed great generosity with their kind contributions to Ma-Tida, a kindergarten student suffering from an eye condition. We are discussing with her parents the best way to move forward using this fund to ensure Ma-Tida receives the care she deserves.

Kindergarten Classroom

  • English Alphabet Snake mural with upper and lower case letters was completed, as requested by ministry of Education
  • Tiger mural also completed.

Teacher offices

  • All walls rendered
  • Laid concrete floor

New classroom beside Kindergarten class

  • Erected seven concrete beams

Walkway from School to water tank

  • The ministry of Education requested a walkway to the water tank from the school. With included a large section where the water trough would sit. The kids use this area to learn the correct method for brushing teeth.
  • The walkway was completed from start to finish in group 3

Painting of Existing School Building

  • The school paint was worn and dirty. We began preparing the school to be painted, washing down the entire outside and sanding and cleaning the windows and doors.

Group 4

Our last day of volunteering is always a memorable day. Members of the local community worked tirelessly all morning preparing an absolute feast for us at lunchtime, accompanied by beers and a seemingly endless supply of Laolao!

We were joined by the rest of the group from the ECC in the early afternoon and were fortunate enough to be a part of a traditional Baci ceremony. The community and its elders thanked all the volunteers that came here over the course of the season and spoke about how much they appreciated all the work that was done. We were able to hand over the keys to the new teacher’s offices as well as all the donations to the head of education, after which we all tried our hand at traditional Laos dancing before having to say a tearful goodbye!


We completed the fence for Thonkoon (the male elephant) just in time. With a few changes made last minute to the shape of the enclosure I wasn’t sure if we would get it done but everyone worked very well together. We split into two groups once at the site, one would lay the wire around the fence and tighten, while others went about protecting the trees inside the fence from being eaten by Thonkoon. This involved a pretty interesting mixture of elephant poo and mud to make sure the trees didn’t seem so appealing any more. If Thonkoon ate all the trees in the enclosure not only would it deplete the forest, but it would take away the shade so this job was very important.

The elephant program progressed as usual, between the socialization area, medical training, etc. The breeding program is progressing as well, despite the setbacks along the way with the male that was brought in for the breeding program, named Bua Ban. We paired him with Mae Krem Ohn as she displayed signs of being in ovulation, however she keeps walking away from the male and his advances. He does however, have quite a bad leg injury as he was a logging elephant in recent years. A very large tree rolled on to his back right leg, rendering him unable to pull logs any longer- hence he is now a breeding elephant and is compensated by various mahouts who want their female elephants bred.

The centre is rotating various elephants through in effort to discover which elephants are cycling and able to get pregnant, because a large part of the plight of the Asian elephant is the lack of breeding that occurs in the very large (but dwindling) population that is “under human care”. Fingers crossed for our elephants at the centre. Bua Ban will be at the ECC for up to 4 months so there is quite a sufficient window of time.


This program was run over the children’s school holidays. As such, we had varying numbers of students every day and a range of different ages from 2 to 11 years old. We ran lessons in the morning and did crafts and games in the afternoons. Most days we had a few volunteers looking after the younger kids and a few running the classes.

  • Weather (sunny, cloudy, rainy, stormy…) and associated questions (“what is the weather like today?”)
  • Modes of transport (car, bicycle, motorbike, van, boat)
  • Clothing (skirt, shirt, shorts, shoes, socks, hat, jacket) and questions (“What are you wearing?”…)
  • Days of the week/months of the year and associated questions (“what day is it today?”, “what month is it?”, “when is your birthday?”…)
  • Review of colours, animals, classroom objects, daily routine and occupations.

CRAFTS: paper maché using paper collected around the school during rubbish pick-up (and lesson with the kids about recycling possibilities), making origami cranes that we turned into streamers, and decorating masks


Kindergarten Classroom

  • When we first arrived at the school the kinder garden classroom was decorated with paper flowers stuck to the walls. We have to remove these to paint the walls white. Group four did  great job replacing these with paintings of flowers around the room. It as a nice finishing touch to the project and really brightened up the classroom for the kids.

Teacher offices

  • All walls, Windows and doors preped for painting, inc sanding and cleaning
  • Walls, Windows and doors painted in traditional blue and white school colours.

New classroom beside Kinder Garden class

  • Foundations laid between posts for walls

Painting of Existing School Building

  • The entire school exterior, windows and doors were painted white and blue inc traditional blue stripe

Swing Set

  • Foundations were dug
  • Finger joints cut in posts to offer extra strength
  • Holes drilled for swing rope
  • Holes drilled through joint to be fixed with nut and bolt
  • Vertical posts set in concrete foundations
  • Cross post erected
  • One regular and one tire swing installed