Boomers Beyond Borders
Canadian-funded Animal health care pays off in human dividends in the land of a million elephants.
Ridiculous as it seems, when we arrive at the small village outside of Luang Prabang in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, we don’t notice the three elephants browsing in the forest beside the road.
Grey skin matches grey tree trunks so, in spite of their bulk, they’re almost invisible. Dr. Bertrand Bouchard has already parked his mobile vet clinic down by the river, and his assistant is pulling out equipment to microchip, deworm and evaluate the animals’ health. Bouchard is head veterinarian for ElefantAsia, a non-profit group based in France that’s dedicated to the conservation and protection of Asian elephants in Laos.
Laos was once known as the “land of a million elephants” – presumably a scare tactic since they were used as beasts of war. Whatever their real historic numbers, ElefantAsia estimates there are now only about 800 domesticated elephants and 1,200 in the wild. (Sadly, those made to work logging are helping deplete their wild cousins’ habitat.)
Dr. Anne Drew, 58, of Mosher’s Island, N.S., is observing Bouchard’s rounds to experience examining and treating elephants. She’s near the end of a four-month posting in Laos for the Canadian branch of Veterinarians Without Borders (VWB). Their two organizations are collaborating to promote the use of a more humane elephant saddle – designed at Ontario’s African Lion Safari.
ElefantAsia’s mobile clinic visits working elephants twice a year without charge and rarely allows onlookers. Four of us are there with Drew because VWB is supported by Aeroplan, the loyalty program that lets members earn Aeroplan Miles they can use for merchandise, travel and experiential rewards – or they can give them to Beyond Miles. This program uses member-donated miles that VWB and eight other non-profit groups can redeem for air travel (all carbon-offset by Aeroplan), car rentals and accommodation. In 2011, the charities each received 1.25 million miles.
Amanda Sital has been discreetly snapping shots since Bouchard and Drew started assessing the first elephant. She and Luis Garcia-Mendez, both Aeroplan employees, were selected by VWB to gather visuals that will show how its projects improve human and economic health in developing countries. Aeroplan encourages employees to apply to travel and be of service to a Beyond Miles partner.
The focus of Drew’s work in Laos, however, is not elephants. She’s training 33 volunteers from 11 villages to provide basic veterinary care through the Village Ecohealth and Veterinary Extension Project, a joint program of VWB and the faculty of agriculture at the National University of Laos near Vientiane, the capital city. Up to 80 per cent of Lao people depend on animals they raise for food, yet there is scarcely any veterinary care available for food animals.
A few days after our ElefantAsia excursion, we step onto a platform perched atop two flat-bottomed canoes and putt-putt across the Nam Ngum River to Thachampa, a village of 300. Farm animals here, we soon see, lead vastly different lives from those in Canada. Cattle, for example, are turned out en masse each morning to forage and now, at the end of the dry season, they are heartbreakingly thin.
Another VWB effort, that has many village women interested is the introduction of new breeds of chicken that are meatier birds and produce more eggs – a source of food and income. It’s a project that captures the imagination of Christa Poole, manager of external communications for Aeroplan, and Alison Sharp, co-ordinator of community engagement. “What I take away from this journey the most is to go out and raise awareness of what VWB is doing, around the world,” says Poole. “They don’t get the [media] focus that larger charities get.” After they return from Laos, Poole and Sharp create an employee challenge: draw a chicken, and Aeroplan donates $5 to VWB to purchase chickens for Drew’s villages.
But nothing happens without the co-operation of the university, and in a poor country (the most bombed country in the world, thanks to the war in Vietnam), its budget is slim. Faculty members, however, are behind VWB’s efforts and help at the training sessions for the PAHWs. At a meeting at the faculty of agriculture, Drew and staffers present reports while Mr. Chanta, head of the department, listens beneath photographs of Marx and Lenin.