An elephant exploited to carry tourists in Lắk District. VNS Photos Dương Minh Hoàng
by Vân Nguyễn
More elephants in the Central Highlands of Việt Nam are set to retire from their laborious and controversial work in tourism from 2022, amid growing concern over the welfare of this extraordinary animal that is on the brink of extinction.
There are now just 37 domesticated elephants living in three districts of Buôn Đôn, Lắk and Krông A Na in Đắk Lắk Province, once a safe haven for the majestic wild mammal.
The province has cooperated with Animals Asia, a not-for-profit organisation that campaigns for long-term changes in animal welfare in China and Việt Nam, to end elephant riding in the tourism sector.
The agreement between the two sides on developing an elephant-friendly tourism model was signed in late 2021, and will be effective for five years.
Under the agreement, Đắk Lắk will take action to minimise and end activities, “with concerns for elephants welfare”. This includes riding, elephant-related games such as swimming, football and racing, elephant parades on asphalt or concrete roads, and the use of elephants to recreate hunting scenes.
The domesticated elephant population in the central highlands province has experienced a precipitous decline over the past four decades and has reached a concerning level.
The number dropped by more than 90 per cent in 1980-2021, equivalent to 465 elephants lost, or an average of 11 deaths a year.
Recovering the declining domesticated herds is a vain hope, as there has not been a successful birth of a domesticated elephant in the whole country in the last 30 years.
“Unless we do something about conserving elephants, I'm afraid that, in a generation or two, we will lose the elephants in Việt Nam,” said Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam Director of Animals Asia.
Đắk Lắk is where most elephants in the country are found and are often used in various cultural and festival settings.
“When talking about elephants, we think of Đắk Lắk. That's why it is important to implement the initiative there,” Bendixsen said.
Amid growing concern over the declining elephant population and calls for better welfare for the animals, the local authorities are expanding an ethical elephant-tour model that was first introduced in the province in 2018.
No more chains, overwork or poor diets
Elephants are considered an animal of great cultural, religious and economic significance in Việt Nam, especially among certain ethnic minorities where they are used for a variety of purposes, including transporting logs and other heavy products, or for the purposes of tourism. In some parts of the country, elephants are used in zoos, circuses and at festivals.
Over-exploitation, lack of human resources in conservation and elephant-human conflicts are major reasons leading to the declining population, while the advancing age of female elephants is a challenge to reproduction efforts in Đắk Lắk.
Elephant rides are a popular tourist service in Asia. They have raised growing concern over animal welfare.
According to the province’s Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC), of the 37 individuals elephants, only four are under 30 years old, and they are all male. The ages of the female elephants, which form half the population, range from 34 to 66, which is not ideal for breeding.
The 30-year hope to revive the elephants was crushed when the first baby conceived by a domesticated elephant in the country in three decades died during birth from a 38-year-old elephant in 2017.
The centre has proposed to bring four female domesticated elephants from Myanmar to breed with Đắk Lắk elephants but COVID-19 has disrupted the progress.
Currently, the 37 elephants are kept by several organisations and individuals with the ECC owning the most (5), followed by an individual in Lắk District and a tour company in Buôn Đôn District, which own four each, and Yok Đôn National Park (3).
Trần Xuân Phước, director of the ECC, said locals had often used elephants for transporting timber or riding services.
“They often had to overwork with little time to rest and were not properly fed,” he said.
Director Bendixsen said: “Elephants used in riding spend many hours in the hot sun, sometimes on concrete ground, which is not good for their feet, and they’ve been asked to carry a heavy load, and then they are not fed at all."
When they are not riding, they are chained up, just stand in one place and are not able to move around. This makes many elephants become frail and sick. They are not well in terms of both physical and mental health, he said.
“It's important to move them to either a forest setting or a place where they can be free to move around and act like an elephant,” he added.
Director Phước said: “Locals are becoming more aware of the need to treat the animals better and are willing to work with the government and organisations to improve the situation.”
A lack of conservation specialists and qualified facilities is also among the challenges in conserving the elephants in the province.
“There is no real expertise in the country to look after or care for the elephants. So anytime that there's an injured elephant, we need to step in to help with the veterinary care,” Bendixsen said.
Currently, the ECC, which is in charge of 37 domesticated and around 100 wild elephants, is run by 15 staff. Only five of them have a specialisation, three vets and two zoo technicians.
Director of the centre Phước said it was crucial to cooperate with international organisations in human resources training to improve the care, treatment and conservation of the giant mammals.
Yok Đôn National Park has offered an ethical elephant tour that lets tourists observe elephants in their natural habitat.
It is expected that the new elephant-friendly tourism model will ensure better welfare for the wild animals.
When the elephants go to this model, the owners are compensated for income loss.
“We hope that once people know about this model, we will get more tourists coming to see the elephants roaming free in the forest, naturally behaving like an elephant," said Bendixsen.
"It is expected that the tourists will also bring an income for Đắk Lắk and the reputation of the natural park in the province, which will also benefit.
“It's going to be a win-win for everyone when the elephants are removed from riding, into an elephant-friendly tourism model," he said.
Free roaming in natural habitat
In July 2018, Yok Đôn National Park became the first in Việt Nam to stop elephant-riding, replacing it with a new tour that enables tourists to observe elephants in their natural habitat.
Under a full-day tour, costing US$80 per adult, visitors can enjoy a day exploring the forest and seeing elephants freely roaming in the national park.
They can see how the elephants, which used to give rides to tourists, really behave in their own environment. With this tour, travellers have the chance to learn more about elephants, their personalities, their background and why they are living in Yok Đôn, as well as stories from the people who take care of them.
An elephant plays in a pond in Yok Đôn National Park.
Besides elephant sightseeing, tourists can join treks in the jungle, learn about plants and wildlife, or even encounter signs of wild elephants in the park.
Vũ Đức Giỏi, deputy director of the Environmental Education and Services Centre of Yok Đôn National Park, said the new tourism model would improve welfare for elephants, helping them improve their health.
“It also gives an environment for elephants to live in a herd as in nature, and increases their reproduction chances,” he said.
Among 30 groups of tourists asked to give feedback on the ethical elephant experience in 2021, seven gave a mark of four out of five and the rest gave five, indicating huge satisfaction with the tours.
"The number of tourists joining the new elephant tours has also increased," Giỏi said.
Director Bendixsen said: “We're hoping that once these models get going, people will see the benefits of not only seeing elephants in a natural environment but also, hopefully, they're going to be educated about how and why they should treat animals better.
“What we would like from the public, is to support the project by coming to Đắk Lắk and refusing to get involved in elephant riding, or any kind of tourism that uses wildlife or animals." VNS