Domesticated elephants, a disappearing breed

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Conservationists say funding should be directed toward preserving the wild elephant population as domesticated elephants are considered worthless in terms of biodiversity

H'Khun and Y Mam, a pair of domesticated elephants belonging to Dang Nang Long of Dak Lak Province, have not come close to producing a calf despite being together for more than a year. Photo by Tran Ngoc Quyen 

Every day mahouts Ma Khang and Ma Ngo wake up early and cross several hills to a forest to bring back their elephants to their village to carry tourists.

The pachyderms, H'Khun and Y Mam, are chained next to each other so that they can find food and, hopefully, breed.

This process has been repeated every day for more than a year but H'Khun, the female elephant, has yet to become impregnated.

Several efforts to breed domesticated elephants in Vietnam have been fruitless, pushing their population to the verge of extinction. Experts and insiders cited several reasons, including overwork, lack of food and the reticence of the owner to allow them time and space to breed rather than work.

Khang said the two elephants have been considered a "husband and wife" due to their close, long-standing relationship.

"I don't know why they don't breed. I saw male's footprint on the female's back several times. But nothing happened," he said.

The two elephants belong to Dang Nang Long of Dak Lak Province, home to a majority of domesticated elephants in Vietnam. Long, born into a family with a long tradition of hunting and training the animal, owns nine elephants.

In nearby Yang Tao Commune, a M'Nong ethnic minority family, the Uongs, have also failed to breed elephants despite a long tradition of training and raising the animals.

Y Thanh Uong said his female elephant, Bak Kham, has been tethered together with a male in an unsuccessful effort to get the pair to breed.

"The elephants are becoming older and their numbers are shrinking. There will be no elephants in the area in the near future if they don't breed," he said.

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Despite the cultural and religious significance elephants have in Vietnam, their number has drastically shrunk over the past decade to the point where they have become critically endangered.

Historically, elephants graced the royal courts and were revered by Vietnam's ethnic minorities. Later they played a crucial transportation role during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.

The number of domesticated elephants in Dak Lak has decreased from 502 in 1980 to around 50 now.

All efforts to make them breed have failed.

In 2012 the government enacted a policy awarding cash to owners and mahouts of elephants that gave birth.

The owner of a pregnant elephant will get VND400 million (US$19,100) while its mahout stands to receive VND168 million. The mahout of a bull that impregnates a female will receive VND6 million. But so far no owners or mahouts have been able to cash in on the offer.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved a new elephant conservation plan in May that aims to study domesticated elephants' reproductive functions and to expand the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center.

The VND238 billion ($11.4 million) plan, to be carried out by 2020, will explore the possibility of domesticating wild elephants for short periods before reintroducing them into the wild to see how they reintegrate and learn about their mating process.

Futile efforts

Long said he has been raising elephants for more than 40 years but is still unable to make them breed.

"All of them are more than 20 years old and many are over 50, while elephants become mature and can breed by age nine. Maybe they have become infertile after long periods of not being allowed to mate," he said.

He said another possible reason is the conditions of captivity do not allow the elephants to find special foods which can improve their reproductive function.

They may also need to be in their natural deep forest habitat to successfully mate, but the owners do not risk chaining them there for fear of poachers, he added.

Long is among a few elephant owners in Dak Lak who have attempted to make them breed.

Most others force the animals to work without allowing them time for mating.

Normally, an elephant works up to 10 hours a day, carrying tourists around the mountainous communes. They tend to be fed just a few stalks of sugarcane after each trip. Most are overworked and malnourished and do not receive veterinary care.

Elephant owners earn VND2-4 million a day by providing rides to tourists.

Domesticated elephants bring in at least VND700 million a year, far exceeding the reward being offered by Dak Lak authorities for successfully breeding them.

Y Gar, a mahout in the province, said an elephant costs tens of thousands of dollars. "So it would be a big waste if the animal is not put to work," he said.

He said it would also make him and other owners "unhappy" to let an elephant cease working to bring it to term since they would earn nothing from the animal for more than three years, including the two years the animal would need to care for its calf.

Duong Viet Hong, communications officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), said most conservationists oppose the idea of domesticating elephants because it impedes their natural development.

"It's simply because they do not allow them to breed," she told Vieweek in explanation as to why domesticated elephants in Vietnam are not reproducing.

"They are chained in the forest, left to starve, and beaten during the mating season," she said, adding that male elephants can injure females during mating and can also become aggressive and attack people during the mating season.

Hong said all the money meant for conserving domesticated elephants would be better used conserving wild elephants because their domesticated counterparts are valueless in terms of biodiversity.

Naomi Doak, coordinator of the Southeast Asia-Greater Mekong Program at the international wildlife monitoring network TRAFFIC, also said Asian elephants will not be preserved through domesticated animals in Vietnam.

"The Asian elephant is a protected species in Vietnam and as such research and conservation should focus on the wild populations, not the remaining domestic populations, and definitely not on ensuring domestication of these animals in the future," Doak said.

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