Sting in the tail: Lucky charm hunt threatens Vietnamese elephants

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Elephants in Dak Lak Province carry tourists. Photo: Tran Ngoc Quyen Elephants in Dak Lak Province carry tourists. Photo: Tran Ngoc Quyen

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A tour guide in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak claimed that he could help tourists buy real elephant tail hairs to make good luck rings.
“You can choose the hair you want directly from an elephant’s tail,” he said.
He quickly asked a mahout to hold the tail of an elephant. The latter took out a nail clipper and cut the hairs that a tourist in the group wanted.
A recent investigation by Tuoi Tre found that domesticated elephants in Dak Lak, home to Vietnam’s largest population of the animals, are being threatened by the seemingly harmless practice.
The newspaper said more than 10 elephants were serving tourists at a local attraction and all of them had tail hairs cut.
Can Dinh Chinh, director of a tourism company, confirmed that many mahouts, also owners of most elephants, are in the trade.
“However, they own the elephants and we cannot stop them from selling the tail hairs. We can only urge them not to do so to protect the elephants’ health,” he said.
Experts said elephants use their tails to chase away insects and they cannot do so with a hairless tail. It will then be difficult for an injured elephant to protect its open wounds from insects. 
The tail trade adds to a range of threats faced by the population of less than 50 domesticated elephants in the province, including a lack of food and exhaustion from serving too many tourists. 
An elephant hair can be sold for VND300,000 (US$13) each. Prices are higher if hairs are made into rings or bracelets which some people wear as good luck charms. 
 A mahout cuts tail hairs from an elephant to sell to tourists in Dak Lak Province. Photo credit: Trung Tan/Tuoi Tre
Many mahouts who sell elephant tail hairs often tell a forbidden love story. As the story goes, t
he Elephant God helped a couple come together and gifted them a tail hair in their wedding to bring good luck. 
But Linh Nga Nie K’Dam, a Central Highlands culture researcher, said the sellers were trying to romanticize an unethical practice.
She said she has never heard such a tale during more than 40 years studying the region’s culture.
“It is a story made up by those who want to sell elephant tail hairs. In the Central Highlands, people traditionally love elephants and will never hurt them. When an elephant dies, people bury it carefully with the carcass intact,” she said.

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