ELEPHANTS IN VIETNAM

ELEPHANTS IN VIETNAM

Fauna and Flora International (FFI) estimates there are fewer than 85 elephants remaining in the wild in Vietnam, compared with about 500 in the early 1980s and 1,500 to 2,000 in 1975. It says elephants suffered first at the hand of ivory poachers and hunters, then from encroachment by farmers and loggers. The group urged Vietnam to take "all measures" to the prevent further destruction of the elephants' forest habitats in Daklak's Ea Sup, Cu Jut and Dak Mil districts.

In Vietnam, one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies after China, wild elephants numbered 81 in 2004, one estimate says. Vietnam’s elephant population has declined dramatically, falling from a maximum estimated population of 2,000 animals in 1980 to just 114 in 2000. The domesticated elephant population has similarly declined. In Dak Lak province, located in the Vietnamese Central Highlands near the Cambodian border, there were some 300 domesticated elephants in 1990; that number decreased to just 138 in 2000.

Wild elephants used to roam throughout much of southern and central Vietnam and domesticated ones were used in the lumber industry. In the Vietnam War the animals were sometimes pressed into service as porters and used to pack supplies. Elephants became bombing targets for U.S. planes. By the time the war ended the number of elephants in Vietnam had been dramatically reduced.

There have been many reports of elephant rampaging in villages in Vietnam, causing considerable damage. One conservationist told the New York Times, "It is sure sign that elephants are becoming confused, disoriented and desperate because of the logging and other human activity that's cutting into their ranges."

The destruction of habitat and poachers have brought the elephants of Vietnam to the brink of extinction. The Vietnamese agriculture ministry plans to set aside three regions for the protection of elephants, among them the Central Highlands, where elephants used to move supplies during the Vietnam War are now used in farming, tourism and festival parades.

Vietnam’s Last Elephant Hunter

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski wrote in the International Herald Tribune: Stardom can be defined in many ways. For Ama Kong it is a number, 298, the sum of wild elephants he has captured. Now 90, with failing eyesight but still with a healthy head of hair, Ama Kong is the Michael Jordan of elephant hunters. He is, by his accounts, the second most successful elephant hunter in the country (his late uncle, Ama Krong, holds the title, with 487 animals). Ama Kong has hobnobbed with royalty and government dignitaries. He proudly shows a nasty groin scar from a tusking---a badge of honor. [Source: Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, International Herald Tribune, December 23, 2005]

And Ama Kong has his own signature brand of medicinal wine, the Vietnamese equivalent of having a sneaker named after you. The gold lettering on the wine’s striking red box reads “Good for strengthening a man’s back and kidneys,” an Asian euphemism indicating that this is a powerful sex tonic.And Ama Kong is walking proof, having sired 21 children from four wives. The tonic might also explain his fine memory, since he is able to remember the names and birthdays of his spouses and offspring, including the youngest, a curious girl of seven named H’Bup Eban, who can’t resist clambering on to dad’s lap. But there are some things that even herbal tonics can’t fix---his upper teeth are bright, intact, and obviously false compared to the red rotting stumps of his lower teeth, destroyed by years of chewing betel.

Ama Kong is likely to be the last elephant hunter superstar, since the animals are protected by Vietnamese law, fewer young people learn the skills today, and most importantly, because there are far fewer elephants around to catch.

But how exactly do you capture a wild elephant? Moving slowly (when you’re 90 arthritis seeps in, even with the help of medicinal wine) Ama Kong demonstrates the procedure. First he blows on a trumpet made of buffalo horn to seek the support of the forest spirits. He then explains how he would go into the forest with several domesticated elephants (always an odd number of animals---odd numbers indicate male power; even numbers female) and look for a herd of wild pachyderms. The domestic elephants are Judas elephants, he explains, since they are able to mingle with the wild herd, even when mahouts sit atop their necks. The group tries to isolate a baby or juvenile (“easier to train than an adult” and a whole lot easier to catch). Using a kind of cowboy lasso technique, Ama Kong shows how he would catch the prey’s foot with a rattan loop attached to a long stick. The lasso was attached to a hundred meters of handmade leather rope made from water buffalo skin, and as the baby elephant ran it would get hopelessly entangled in the trees. The domesticated elephants would then take over and escort the kidnapped baby as far as possible from the wild herd. When the elephant hunters camped at night they lit fires and beat gongs to frighten away the wild animals which had come to rescue the crying infant.

Ama Kong has also captured eight rare white elephants, which he describes as being “like the French because they have yellow eyes and fair skin”. Because of the scarcity of white elephants and their importance in Buddhist cosmology, which in turn consolidates the power of kings, these animals brought him into contact with royalty from Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In 1996, at the age of 81, Ama Kong captured his last elephant. This was five years after his hunting ground was made into a national park and elephants were declared a protected species. “It’s a shame the government won’t let us hunt anymore,” he says. “I’m still strong enough to lead a group of hunters into the forest.”

Visiting Elephant Country in Vietnam

Jim Christy wrote in Walrus Magazine, “I had to go to Yok Don Park to see these animals for myself. From Saigon I flew to the beach town of Nha Trang, then took a small bus to Buon Ma Thuot, the largest city in the Central Highlands. I sat in the back on rice bags, as the bus climbed up serpentine roads for five hours from the coast, through green hills covered with banana trees and into the highlands, where the plateaus looked as though they’d been covered with a camel-hair coat. The next day, I rode the remaining fifty-five kilometres to the village of Ban Don on the back of a motorbike. [Source: Jim Christy, Walrus Magazine, April/May 2004]

The people in Ban Don belong to the Ede and Mnong tribes. There are no more than twenty houses in the village and most of the men are elephant handlers, their main work being the domestication of the wild animals that have been relocated in the park---at least the ones deemed tameable. Walking around the village you can hardly help bumping, literally, into elephants that, just months before, had roamed free. I saw Vietnamese tourists climbing up on a work elephant to have their photos taken. The ranger in charge of the herd of killer elephants was a tall, lean, fierce-looking man who spat when I mentioned the tourists. When I asked him to lead me to the wild elephants, he told me, through the translator, that he thought I was a crazy old guy, but he eventually agreed.

Next day the ranger begged off, claiming he had to stay in bed to nurse a cold, so I set out for the jungle alone. Two fishermen took me across the Ea Krong river in a dugout canoe, and then I started walking. My directions were cursory: follow the trail until it narrows and branches off, then keep to the one on the right. The farther I walked, the denser the jungle became, but despite the presence of wildlife, there was not the humid, insect-laden oppressiveness of the Amazon. The trees were not as tall, the understory not as dense. I could see the sky at all times, blue as a baby’s blanket.

About eight kilometres in I came across a clearing where the ranger had set up a tent and stored his gear. He’d fashioned an enclosure of bamboo stakes plaited with hardwood saplings. Beyond the enclosure, several metres away, stood a young elephant, a male about two-and-a-half metres tall at the head. A thick iron cuff encompassed one ankle, and a chain linked the cuff to an auger in the ground. Its eyes were slivers of orbs. When I moved to my right, the animal’s left eye moved to follow me. Otherwise, it was motionless, taking me in. I thought of the eyes of the tamed animals back in the village---eyes that were unclear, as if covered by some veil of defeat. I thought of the beasts at the Saigon zoo, swaying their trunks back and forth in despair, back and forth. I stepped back from the enclosure and was turning away when the animal let out a bellow that shook the trees.

After walking another four kilometres, I came to a second clearing and was about to start back when I saw a full-grown elephant about a quarter of a mile away in a patch of second-growth forest that had probably been defoliated by the Americans during the war. I knew this had to be one of the killers, otherwise it wouldn’t be here. I stood still, watching him, remembering what a mahout in the village had told me: We don’t want to share our terrain with that which we fear, with something other than ourselves that can “think” and is dangerous. I watched the elephant until the picture of him in his wild state, the picture of him the way he is supposed to be, was burned into my brain to stay. Then I went back.

Rampaging Elephants Destroy Crops in Central Vietnam

The encroachment of humans and consequent food shortages have made the elephants more aggressive in recent years. In October 2006, Deutsche Presse Agentur reported: “A rampaging herd of rare wild elephants is terrorizing two villages in central Vietnam, destroying crops and ignoring villagers' efforts to ward them off, local media reported Friday. The herd of 20 elephants has stampeded twice since September through the villages of Ya Lop and Ya Loi in the central highlands province of Dak Lak, according to Lao Dong newspaper. [Source: Deutsche Presse Agentur - October 27, 2006]

"The local authorities are helpless in their attempts to chase away the elephants," the article said. No one has been hurt but the elephants have trampled and destroyed 50 hectares of cashew, rice and corn in the villages. It was the second incidence of crop-destroying elephants in Vietnam this year. In July, villagers in nearby Gia Lai province lost 25 hectares of crops to rogue elephants, though it was unclear whether it was the same herd that is now attacking Dak Lak.

Rogue Elephants Kill 21 People in Vietnam

In 2001, a herd of eight rogue elephants in southern Binh Thuan provinces killed 20 settlers before an operation to move the animals to a more remote nature reserve. Rapid development of the two provinces has severely eroded the elephants' forest habitat leading to growing crop-raiding and conflict with farmers.

AFP reported: “Wild elephants have claimed a fresh victim in south-central Vietnam just as the authorities finally approved longstanding proposals to relocate a rogue herd, officials said. Truong Van Hai, 29, was trampled to death in the province of Binh Thuan Friday as he attempted to protect his crops, a district official told AFP. His pregnant wife and two children managed to escape the rampaging beasts which tore Hai's body into small pieces, the official said. Four homes were also destroyed in the attack which brings the death toll from the rogue herd to more than 20 in the past three years in Binh Thuan and the neighbouring province of Dong Nai. [Source: Agence France Presse, June 11, 2001]

Relocating Rogue Elephants That Killed 21 People in Vietnam

AFP reported: “In June 2001, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai finally approved long-delayed plans to relocate the eight-to-10-strong herd to a remote district in the central highland province of Dak Lak close to the Cambodian border. The official media blamed the delays in approving the scheme on funding difficulties -- the Dutch embassy was forced to withdraw a pledged donation after changes in government aid regulations. But the conservation group Fauna and Flora International (FFI), which is funding 45,000 dollars of the more than 100,000-dollar cost, said security problems had been as much to blame. [Source: Agence France Presse, June 11, 2001]

The central highlands where the herd is to be relocated was hit by a Vietnam's worst unrest in decades earlier this year. The communist authorities closed the region off to outsiders after sending in the army in early February to suppress protests by the region's mainly Christian indigenous minorities. FFI country director Frank Momberg said he had now received assurances from the authorities that foreign veterinarians and other experts would be granted access. The area where the animals are due to be released, in Cu Gut district just south of Yak Don national park, was in any case not a hotspot of the unrest as it has been heavily settled by ethnic Vietnamese in recent years, he said. Momberg said he expected to appoint a team of elephant specialists from India and Indonesia in the next few days with a view to going ahead with the relocation sometime in September or October. FFI estimates that barely 100 elephants are left in the wild in Vietnam due to the growing destruction of their habitat.

Two Elephants Die Before Vietnam Herd is Relocated

With the help of Malaysian elephant experts, the rouge herd of elephants was relocated to York Don National Park in the central highland province of Daklak bordering Cambodia. In November 2001, Associated Press reported: “Vietnam has suspended the relocation of a dangerous herd of wild elephants after the deaths of two tranquilized animals, officials said. Malaysian and Vietnamese elephant handlers shot a mother elephant and a smaller elephant believed to be her child with tranquilizer darts. They captured and chained the mother, but the smaller elephant escaped and died later in the day, apparently after stumbling and falling down a slope onto rocks. The captured elephant was discovered dead Vietnam Television said. [Source: The Associated Press, November 16, 2001 <>]

“In an interview with VTV, Shariff Bin Daim, the chief Malaysian expert, said the captured elephant may have been angered by some news photographers and reporters who approached it. The animal, tied with a long chain around one leg, apparently died after it fell on a tree stump, he said. Shariff said in the future, the experts will only shoot elephants with tranquilizers in flat terrain and will transport the captured animals to cages as quickly as possible. Villagers said six elephants remain in the herd.” <>

In December 2001, Reuters reported: “Malaysian forest rangers working in Vietnam have succeeded in relocating a herd of six rogue elephants, blamed for the deaths of 13 people, to the safety of a national park, conservationists said. Fauna and Flora International (FFI) said the two female and four male elephants had been moved from the southern province of Binh Thuan to Yok Don National Park in Daklak province after a difficult five-week operation in which two elephants died. "Otherwise the operation may have concluded," she said. [Source: Reuters, December 14, 2001 ><]

“An FFI news release said two of the surviving elephants were found to have had their trunks cut off by villagers who discovered them rooting for salt in the ashes of kitchen fires. The rogue herd, which rampaged through villages in Binh Thuan looking for food after the destruction of their forest habitat, is blamed for the deaths of 13 people in the province in the past three years. An FFI official told Reuters all the elephants from the rogue herd were believed to have been captured, but the rangers would stay in Binh Thuan as there was the possibility that one young elephant was still at large. The elephants were some of the last living wild in Vietnam. ><

The government had said they would be shot if they were not caught and brought to Yok Don by the end of the year. FFI arranged for Malaysian foresters expert in dealing with elephants to conduct the roundup. Two of the elephants died during the tricky and dangerous $233,000 operation, one after falling on a rock having been tranquillised and the other after falling on a tree-trunk having being startled by journalists who FFI described as "reckless". The six elephants will join a herd of five or six others already in Yok Don. ><

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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