Poaching, habitat encroachment could push pachyderms to extinction in Vietnam very soon, experts warn
Beckham, the elephant, was found dead in Da Lat last Sunday. Vietnam's Asian elephant population may be wiped out in the next decade if rampant poaching and habitat loss are not addressed, conservationists say.
The most recent killing of an elephant in the Central Highlands serves as a sad reminder of the severe human persecution that the pachyderms have faced for years, conservationists say.
They are unhappy about the practice of separating elephants from their herds to domesticate them and serve the tourist industry. Apart from not serving conservation, this poses further threats to the elephants' survival, they say.
A 38-year-old male domesticated elephant was found dead, last Sunday with deep wounds on his rear legs around five kilometers (three miles) from a park run by the Nam Qua Eco Tourism Company in Da Lat.
Company director Phan Thi Hoa said it is likely that poachers stabbed the elephant, named Beckham, to death. The animal's tusks were not removed, but this might be because the poachers did not have the time to do so, Hoa said.
"The elephant had already been targeted by poachers twice before its death," Hoa was quoted by local media as saying.
But Sulma Warne, of the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC's Greater Mekong Program, said that if the tusks of the dead elephant had not been taken, it is likely that the death resulted from a people-elephant conflict.
"[This] means that the elephants are basically disturbing the human population in such a way that the communities are threatened"¦so they try to kill [them]," Warne told Thanh Nien Weekly. "The pressure on the elephants is increasing through poaching, land encroachment, and loss of habitat that they need to roam and feed."
Vietnam had around 2,000 elephants in the mid-90s but the number has plunged to between 70 and 100 because of relentless poaching and deforestation, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
"Sadly, this is often the case in areas where human settlements increasingly overlap with elephant ranges, and it seems to be happening more and more frequently in the Central Highlands," said Sarah Morgan, Vietnam spokeswoman for TRAFFIC.
The experts also stressed that too much attention to the death of a domesticated elephant could distract from the task of conserving elephants in the wild.
"Sometimes animals are taken from the wild and bred in captivity. If the goal of this is to support the conservation of wild populations, that's fine," said Scott Roberton, Vietnam country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"But taking an elephant from the wild, taming it and then forcing it to live in a tourist site for humans to ride has [only] one objective: financial profit.
"Beckham died the day he was taken from his home in the forests," Roberton said. "At this rate of killing, the species will become extinct in Vietnam over the next decade."
Conservationists agree that lucrative profits from the ivory trade have continued to fuel elephant poaching in Vietnam.
"The fact that they are being poached does not surprise me," said Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam, the country's largest conservation group. "1.5 tons of ivory is huge money. The guys involved in this are serious criminals and the tusks are of value to them."
A 2008 TRAFFIC-commissioned report on the illegal ivory trade in Vietnam found raw ivory fetching up to US$1,500 per kilogram. Small, solid cut pieces and tusk tips weighing less than one kilogram fetched up to $1,863 per kilogram, the report said.
It is unlikely that the elephant population in Vietnam can provide enough for all the ivory available in the local market, TRAFFIC's Warne said.
"It's quite likely that there is illegal international (ivory) trade between Africa and Southeast Asia with countries like Vietnam and Thailand being destinations," Warne said.
Other international experts agreed with Warne.
Steve Galster, director of Freeland Foundation an international conservation group working across Asia, said that although China and Japan remain the two biggest ivory markets, there is a lot of African elephant ivory being trafficked to Southeast Asia.
"Traffickers are trying to sneak the ivory into Southeast Asia any way they can. But I think the main middleman and the main buyer in Southeast Asia has been Thailand and Vietnam," Galster said. "Anything that is not caught in Thailand and Vietnam is being moved to China."
Last week, Vietnamese police confiscated 122 ivory tusks from a warehouse in Mong Cai Town, a port in northeast Vietnam, right on the border with China.
On April 19, Chinese media reported one of the largest ivory seizures in recent years"”a staggering 707 tusks, 32 ivory bracelets and a rhino horn"”found during a routine inspection of a large truck at a toll station on a highway in Guangxi, China, just a few kilometers from the border with Vietnam, according to TRAFFIC report.
The seizure came hot on the heels of the seizure of some 247 tusks seized by Customs officials in Thailand on April 1. The tusks were concealed in a consignment of frozen fish from Kenya, the report added.
Such high profile seizures are no indication that the international illegal trade in ivory is in decline, said Justin Gosling of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program.
"The increase in detection of trafficked ivory in the last few years, including those in Vietnam, is deeply worrying," Gosling said. "We should, however, not be surprised that the illicit trade in elephant ivory, and other wildlife, continues unabated, since the number of significant prosecution of those controlling the trade remains low."
"Seizures alone are not an effective response to wildlife crime the loss of income for the traffickers may drive more poaching," Gosling said.
Galster also warned Vietnamese authorities against selling or auctioning the seized ivory, because that would only send the wrong message to other traffickers that Vietnam is a good place to send the ivory.
He also urged Vietnamese authorities to persist investigations until they track down at least one of the major kingpins behind the clandestine ivory trade.
"I know it's hard but it's the best thing to do," he said.