Two Colorado Boys Bring Rocky Mountain Magic to Elephants in Laos

MandaLao Elephant Conservation: Internationally Recognized Elephant Rescue in Laos

Elephants are in the news. Though experiencing Covid-19 differently from humans, they are nonetheless being brutalized by the virus. Without guests, most elephant tourism projects have no money to feed or care for them. Many are starving. Many are being walked home to villages. Many may be sold - illegally - to countries for logging and entertaining people in zoos and circuses.

But at least one elephant conservation project in Laos, MandaLao Elephant Conservation, is ensuring that its elephants will get through the pandemic happily and healthily. And - oddly - it's the brainchild and baby of two Colorado boys.

“At MandaLao, we have taken an entirely new approach to captive elephant care and their interactions with humans,” said Michael Vogler, Owner and CEO. “We invite guests to simply take a walk through the jungle alongside our rescued elephant friends. At the same time, we’re working on reintroducing elephants back to the wild, when possible, and increasing their number and genetic diversity.”

Born and raised in Indian Hills, Colorado, Michael Vogler, 31, and Kellen Johnson, 32, who spent his last 15 years living in Steamboat, studied wildlife conservation and outdoor guiding at Colorado Mountain College. There, their professors inspired them to take what they learned to the next level. And that involved seeing the world to find where their passion for the wilderness and wildlife could evolve into something tangible.

After stints with the Da'Laa Project in Malaysia; the Orangutan Foundation in Indonesia, and the Gorilla Foundation in Rwanda, Vogler found himself in Luang Prabang, in the small Southeast Asian communist country of Laos, encountered elephants, and had an epiphany that they were his future. Kellen, too, experienced the same sense that he was home and that he wanted to dedicate himself to improving the care and treatment of captive elephants.

Over the next two years, the two worked non-stop to raise money, find land, rescue elephants from logging and riding camps, build out the property, and hire local staff. MandaLao Elephant Conservation opened in November, 2017. While it has evolved over the last three years, one thing has never changed: the elephants come first.

MandaLao prohibits riding, any use of bullhooks, hammers, chains (all standard practices at elephant camps...). The elephants take a walk through the jungle every day with a small group of guests nearby, eat to their heart's content, have a vet to attend to their health needs, swim and play in the Nam Kahm river and Hoy Nok streams, and enjoy each other's company.

“MandaLao is helping to change the treatment of captive elephants from one that too often involves pain and abuse to one that is respectful, humane and ethical. The Lao Elephant Initiative (LEI) funds, and will continue to fund, this game-changing project, with the belief that all elephants that can be in the wild should be in the wild - and those that have grown up in captivity should live a life closest to that,” said Caz Matthews, former President of Anthem BCBS in Colorado, and LEI Chairperson.

Acknowledged by such outlets as Vanity Fair, CNN, Forbes, Bangkok Post,South China Morning Post and the BBC ( as one of Southeast Asia's most ethical elephant programs, MandaLao has most definitely brought some Rocky Mountain magic to Laos' elephants.


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