Vietnamese children begin to associate elephants with images of mountainous Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands) from a young age, through a popular song called Chu Voi Con O Ban Don (The Little Elephant in Don Village).
While the lyrics tell of elephants well-loved by local villagers, they are nonetheless domesticated and carry out arduous tasks. What’s missing from the lyrics is that, in reality, the number of elephants in Viet Nam is falling alarmingly, and while conservation efforts are indeed being discussed and funded, the massive creature is at serious risk of extinction.
Elephants have been part of the lives of villagers in the Central Highlands for centuries and have long been a cultural symbol known around the entire country.
It’s agreed that elephants are smart animals, with an incredible capacity to pick up simple skills quickly. They can be of great assistance to those who work the land, as they are more than capable of hard slog and heavy lifting.
Logging is where they are especially useful, having been taught how to uproot trees and move them around with their trunks. Away from “work”, they are often seen at festivals, which gives tourists a generally positive image of the beast when visiting places like the highlands’ Dak Lak Province.
Elephants are common characters in tales from the past.In Son Tinh Thuy Tinh (Mountain Genie and Water Genie), where two men compete for permission to marry the king’s daughter, a host of unique animals are featured, like elephants with nine tusks.
The elephants were considered trustworthy and helpful warriors in Viet Nam’s past history. They appeared in historical records of Trung sisters, two Vietnamese heroines who rode elephants to lead the uprising against the Chinese Han domination in the first century. Elephants also fought by the side of King Quang Trung as he repelled the aggressors from Qing China in 1789.
From their last five years of intensive research, Duong Van Tho, Nguyen Thuy Hang and Hoang Van Chien from the People and Nature Reconciliation (PanNature) released the “Elephants in the Central Highlands: Survival Threatened by Declining Population” report, analysing existing conservation efforts and suggesting how such efforts might be better executed.
“The domesticated elephants in Dak Lak were wild before they were tamed, so are used to a lot of food and water,” said Pham Van Lang, vice president of the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Centre.
“After being brought to the village, however, they are trained to serve tourists and given less food, and when they are sick the care and attention they need is slow in coming. This is why the domesticated population is declining in great number.”
According to PanNature, the five Central Highlands provinces of Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Gia Lai, Kon Tum, and Lam Dong boast a high degree of biological diversity.
The region’s forested area was 2,557,322 hectares in 2018, with a high coverage rate of 46 per cent. The region’s natural parks, nature reserves, and habitat and species conservation areas play essential roles in preserving wildlife found on the Viet Nam Red List and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of threatened species.
The elephants found in Viet Nam are categorised as the Asian elephant and considered “endangered” on the IUCN Red List and “critically endangered” on the Viet Nam Red List, and found in Appendix I of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species in Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD), there were 91 domesticated elephants in Viet Nam in 2018, down from 165 in 2000. The 1,500-2,000 wild elephants in the country in 1990 have now dwindled to 124-148.
Elephants are losing their natural habitat and food sources and their altered movements and migratory paths are leading to serious, even dangerous, encounters with humans. Large swathes of land that were previously forest now serve economic development and national defence. Wild animals have long had their seasonal migration paths and know where they can find food and where it’s safe to breed.
Now that these areas have undergone great change, the animals destroy the industrial crops being planted, triggering huge economic losses and affecting the daily lives of farmers. Without a sustainable food source, the wild elephants must leave the forest for the fields, harming property and threatening locals’ lives.
The situation has become particularly dire in recent times, with wild elephants coming out of their newly-bare habitat after the Government assigned forestry companies to reclaim forested areas.
“In the entire area where wild elephants live these days, only the very centre of Yok Don National Park is virtually untouched by humans,” Bao Huy, head of the research team on elephant conservation in Dak Lak at the Central Highlands University’s Department of Forestry, said with regret.
“Northwest of Ea Sup District, which is the ideal natural habitat for wild elephants, tens of thousands of hectares of forest have been assigned to companies planting rubber trees.”
The MARD has since 1996 decided a course of action to conserve the elephant population. The Prime Minister followed that up with a decision in 2006, containing a five-year urgent conservation action plan.
Positive outcomes were gained during those five years, including the completion of elephant conservation projects in the provinces with the largest elephant populations: Dak Lak, Dong Nai and Nghe An. At the same time, the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Centre was established to care for and support elephant reproduction.
According to the MARD, the project had reached certain goals by 2018, such as reductions in elephant hunting and killing, increases to elephant numbers, and fewer conflicts between elephants and humans.
Dak Lak began its conservation scheme early, reporting that VND61 billion had come from the People’s Committee for the Elephant Conservation Project between 2010-2015.
With COVID-19 pandemic causing major economic issues worldwide, governments have been enforcing bans on the illegal sale and trade of wild animals. The Prime Minister issued a directive on July 23, containing immediate solutions for managing wild animals. He has been resolute in abolishing the consumption of wild animals and imposed sanctions on those continuing to break the law.
Source: The Government Public Relations Department