Central Highlands elephants heading for extinction

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A study has found domesticated elephants dying off due to overwork and improper care while their wild cousins losing habitat and falling prey to poachers.

A domesticated elephant died in Dak Lak last month due to unknown causes just a few days after scientists made a survey on the number of the animals in the Central Highlands province and warned they are on the verge of extinction.

“The number of domestic elephants has drastically fallen recently,” Professor Bao Huy of Tay Nguyen University, who led a group of researchers to study domesticated and wild elephants in Dak Lak, said.

“The [domesticated] animals could disappear in the next 20 years if there is no action to improve their food, health, and breeding,” he said.

Dak Lak Province with a total area of around 13,000 square kilometers has for long had the country’s largest wild elephant population and a tradition of ethnic minorities domesticating the animals.

Huy’s study, the results of which were reported at a seminar last week on preserving elephants in Dak Lak, found there are between 83 and 100 wild elephants and a total of 61 domesticated ones in the province.

In 1979, the Dak Lak Forest Protection Agency had reported there were 502 domesticated elephants. Their numbers have been falling drastically - to 298 in 1990, 96 in 2000, and only 64 in early 2007.

The agency said 12 animals died and eight others were sold to other provinces in 2005 and 2006.

Old friends

Vong Nhi Ksor, deputy secretary of the Buon Don District Party unit, said almost all the 50 families living in his native Drang Phok village in Yok Don forest used to own elephants.

His father, Nay Phan, had once owned 30 of the giants and used to go on hunts to capture wild elephants.

“Elephants represented wealth and power and a rich village must have many elephants,” Ksor said, recalling his childhood days when he had gone with his father and others to hunt for elephants.

People in Dak Lak would hold “weddings” as well as funerals for dead elephants.

“Central highlanders thought of elephants as older and respected members of their families,” a local said, adding that an elephant could live for 90 years.

“No one loves and understands elephants like the highlanders. They are an indispensable part of our daily and spiritual lives,” he said.

Many villages in the Central Highlands have long had a tradition of capturing elephants to help them carry loads and do other work as well as go on hunts to capture wild elephants.

In 1992, the hunts were banned after the pachyderm was named in a list of critically endangered species.

Ill-treated

Scientists said the recent deaths of domesticated elephants were caused by old age or disease, pointing out that several of them had not been properly cared for despite being forced to work hard carrying tourists and logs.

Wild elephants face different threats like habitat loss due to human encroachment and poaching.

“Elephant riding has become a unique tourism product in Dak Lak and the animals have become weak due to overwork,” Ksor said.

“An elephant must eat almost all day to have enough food. They don’t have much time to eat because they have to carry tourists and only have some bananas and sugarcane given by tourists,” he said.

Many families also give them unhygienic foods, causing diseases.

“Elephants often find secret trees in the jungle to cure their diseases. But domestic ones can’t indulge in this amazing habit,” he added.

There is a belief that a ring with hair from an elephant’s tail brings good luck to the wearer. As a result of this, most elephants working at tourism sites in Dak Lak have ragged tails.

Last month an elephant named Na Khun owned by Le Van Quyet, former deputy head of Dak Lak People’s Committee, lost 40 centimeters from its tail to a thief who cut it off.

A single hair fetches VND300,000 to VND400,000, a tourist guide who wished to remain unnamed, said.

Some mahouts cut hairs from their own animals to sell to tourists, he revealed.

ELEPHANT SANCTUARY UNDER CONSIDERATION

An elephant-conservation project will be launched at a cost of more than VND58 billion (US$3.2 million) in Dak Lak next year if approved by authorities in the Central Highlands province.

Under the five-year plan, a 200-hectare sanctuary would be set up for the pachyderms in Yok Don National Park as well as a veterinary hospital, delegates decided at a seminar held last week on preserving elephants in Dak Lak by the province’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Tay Nguyen University.

They said the project, initiated by the university, would also enhance people’s awareness of the need to protect the animal.

Nguyen Anh Quoc, coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund Vietnam, said his agency is likely to help find international sponsors for the program.

Reported by Tran Ngoc Quyen

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