Central Highlands elephants face extinction

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Don village was dubbed the "elephant kingdom" in the Central Highlands for its tradition of taming wild elephants and also worshipping them.

But those days are gone.

Elephants in the wild are being killed in large numbers now for their parts and there're few left to tame.

"When I was 18, I started to ride elephants to the forests to catch young elephants. The elephants were like members of the family, they were loved and no one ever did any harm to them," recalled local resident Nay Phai Lao, 80.

Tears flowing down his face, he said, "Now, seeing how people kill elephants, I feel so sad." 

The elephants that he and his friends caught long ago are aging, between 50-70 years old. Many of them are weak but the owners dare not let them go back to the forests, where the elephants usually find their own food and herbs.

Dan Nang Long, who owns the largest number of lephants in Lak District, said the pachyderms will die if they are kept from the forest for a long time, "but the hunters there will not spare them."

Long said three of his seven elephants now don't have a tail, the hairs of which are considered by many people to bring good luck, and another has lost its tusks.

Y Phong, another elephant owner, said an elephant without the tail will quickly get weaker as the tail helps keep insects away.

"Tailess elephants have their longevity shortened by 15-20 years," Phong said.

There are around 50 domesticated elephants left in Dak Lak, the youngest one 20 years old.

Hunted

Reports at a scientific conference organized by the Forest Management Department under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in November last year said that Vietnam had around 80 wild elephants left, from around 160 five years ago.

Experts said at the conference that if no action was taken immediately, wild elephants in Vietnam would disappear in 10-20 years.

Many bodies of elephants have been found recently in Dak Lak Province, which has the highest number of ephants in Vietnam. Police said they were shot in the head with big bullets.

Two bodies were found  in just one month late last year.

Early this year, a body was found with its trunk, tail and a nail already cut. In July, another was found with bullets in its head. Its body was complete and police suspected that the hunters didn't take anything as they'd failed to locate the elephant.

Most of the elephants were killed near the Cambodian border, which is home to herds that have more than 30 members.

Tran Manh Hieu, a local police officer who has helped investigate most of the elephant deaths, said none of the killers have been caught as the area is large.

Le Van Trong, a local forest management official, said it's hard to control the border area.

Killed for trinkets

"If you do not buy a ring made with the elephant tail hair or ivory, you have never come here," a vendor at Don village tells a tourist.

A ring with elephant tail hair embedded in it is sold for between VND50,000-200,000 (US$2.56-10.25). A comb made of ivory costs VND2 million and a bracelet VND6 million.

Elephant tail hair, skin, teeth, bone and tusks have been made into numerous products that are sold at a lot of booths in the province.

Nguyen Duy Thai, a tourist from Ho Chi Minh City, said he was attracted by "lovely" elephants when he first came to Dak Lak. "But after walking around for a while, I was surrounded by markets with elephant products."

Many vendors also present their business cards and promise to supply the products in large quantities if needed.

Hated

Losing their habitat to human encroachment and hunted relently by poachers, several elephants have recently entered villages and trampled on crops, becoming the residents' enemies.

"For more than three years, we have had to deal with the elephants but I don't know why more of them are coming this year and they're coming more often, every month," said local resident Hoang Van Quan who just had eight hectares of rice field destroyed by the pachyderms.

"We cannot stand it anymore. Either we live or the elephants live."

Muoi Dien, who once stood five meters from an elephant to chase it away with her flashlight, said the forest rangers have asked them not to harm the elephants and border guards have promised to help the residents chase the elephants away.

But no one has come to help so far, Dien said.

Local authorities have also not supported them in making good the loss of their crops, the residents complained.

Many families said if things continued this way, they would either move or fight the elephants by any means.

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