Gov't incentive of little help to Vietnamese elephant breeders

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Elephants in Dak Lak Province lack the space and freedom to mate normally and have lost interest in reproducing

Though the government has offered a US$19,200 subsidy per calf they are able to breed, elephant owners in Vietnam's Central Highlands are having no less trouble getting domesticated elephants to mate and become pregnant.

The subsidy was promised last month by the government of Dak Lak Province, which has the largest elephant population in Vietnam.

The large sum boosted the spirits of local elephant owners, but only temporarily, as it did nothing to help them overcome the problems related to living conditions that have long prevented their elephants from reproducing.

"All the animals [we raise] have produced young, but not the elephants, and that has been the case for at least 20 years now," said Ama Drang of Buon Don District.

The number of domesticated elephants in the province has been stuck at around 50 for a long time.

Locals said the animals work too hard and lack sufficient space to mate.

People would see the local elephants carrying tourists every day, and that has made baby elephant a rare scene.

One elephant became pregnant in 2010 but the baby died after being born prematurely. Locals hypothesized that the mother must have been overworked during its pregnancy, which is supposed to last 28 months.

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Yet the local breeders also admitted that they could not afford letting the animals rest.

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

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

The lack of a large space elephants require to engage in their normal mating process has caused the animals to lose sexual interest in each other, locals said.

Ma De, an experienced elephant breeder, said "elephants are rather hostile during their mating season and can be dangerous to people, so their owners tend to chain them in the jungle without food.

"After a while, domesticated elephants lose their interest in sex. And that causes their reproductive organs to deteriorate."

Locals said they have tried leaving the animals in the jungle during their season, so they can find partners, but have stopped after many were poached for their tusks and tails. Traditionally, an elephant's tail hair is said to bring good luck.

Locals are pleased that the provincial government has agreed to help them, but say they also need help establishing practical preservation policies, such as who will take the responsibility for the safety for elephants left in the jungle to mate.

They said they would also need support to deal with complications that might arise during prospective pregnancies.

Dang Nang Long, who keeps seven elephants in the province, is one of the few elephant owners that have actively tried to improve the animals' reproductive habits.

He has been trying for years to set up a private space for elephant couples to mate. He started with two of his own and after they seemed interested in each other, he has continued with three other couples, not all of which belong to him.

"Elephants are similar to humans in that they only mate when they like each other," Long said.

Though none of the female elephants have gotten pregnant yet, Long remains optimistic and maintains faith in his method.

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