LUANG PRABANG, Laos — I am not an elephant man. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against them, but I like to imagine them roaming free, stripping great branches with their trunks and enjoying hearty mouthfuls of leaves. A visit to an elephant sanctuary near this UNESCO-certified city sounds potentially suspect.

Yet my idea of elephants roaming in the wild is rather naïve, as my local Classic Journeys’ guide helped me realize.

The sign at the entrance to the elephant camp dedicated to their protection and rehabilitation in Laos politely explains that humans’ effect on nature is ‘inappropriate for the livelihood of elephants’ and that these great pachyderms will be extinct within the next 50 years.

‘Inappropriate?’ A third of the estimated 1,600 elephants in Laos help log the forests where other elephants live in the wild.

Plus, as recently as April 7, the Vietnam News reported the suspicious deaths of three elephants in that country’s Central Highlands district – a problem not unique to Vietnam. When the elephants used for logging in Laos are past their prime, they are usually killed or abandoned due to the high cost of keeping them and the difficulty of releasing a trained elephant back into the wild.On Classic Journeys’ Laos tours travelers visit an elephant sanctuary outside Luang Prabang.

Boy riding an elephant

The elephant sanctuary, where you can ride elephants (children will go bonkers for this – many adults do, too), eat a meal, learn to be a mahout and ride a boat upstream on the Nam Khan River, might not be as ideal as releasing them back into the wild. But it employs locals, including the inhabitants of nearby village of Xieng Lom, raises awareness, and gives the elephants both a safe environment with medical care and far more room to roam than any zoo could.

Perfect? No. But rather noble, and a way for tourist dollars to do some local good. And that I won’t forget.

Acclaimed travel writer Joe Ray is the 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year from the Society of American Travel Writers. I first read Joe’s work in the Wall Street Journal last year in a story entitled, “In Search of the Perfect Gelato.”

As part of our outreach to help the sustainability of local cultures and endangered species, Classic Journeys visits the elephant sanctuary on every one of our Laos, Vietnam and Angkor Wat walking tours and family multi sport tripsVisit Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia now before it’s too late is another blog I wrote after a recent exploration in Indochina.