Exploitation in Central Highlands robs elephant calves of first breath

By Tran Hoa   December 25, 2019 | 10:00 pm PT
No calves have survived birth since 1989 in a Central Highlands district where elephants are considered kin and buried among family members.
Y No Ni, a mahout in Yang Tao commune, Dak Lak Province sits by a tomb of a baby elephant called Thong Nang. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa

Y Yo Ni, a mahout in Yang Tao Commune, Dak Lak Province sits by the tomb of baby elephant Thong Nang. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa.

Y Yo Ni, of the M’nong ethnic minority, wades through the mud to reach a cemetery near his home in Bhok Village of Yang Tao Commune, Lak District, Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

The 21-year-old is visiting Thong Nang, a baby elephant that died earlier this year.

"We took turns performing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) on him, but to no avail," Ni says, crouched next to an unmarked rectangular tomb in a one-hectare village cemetery.

Between bouts of conversation, Yo Ni plucks weeds and clears away dry leaves from the tomb, a common practice among Vietnamese.

The mahout is unclear why Thong Nang succumbed at birth, though he ascribes the incident to the mother being too old, heavily exploited by tourism, and confined to a small space.

Five years ago, Yo Ni married and moved to Yang Tao Commune. Here, his father-in-law had made a living by providing tourist rides on a 40-year-old elephant named Bak Kham. When Bak Kham grew pregnant, she was transferred deeper into the mountain. Protected by nature, Yo Ni cared for her during the next two years.

On the morning of December 1, feeling inexplicably ill at ease, the mahout found Bak Kham crumbled to the ground, gripped in the throes of labor.

The same evening, Bak Kham gave birth to a stillborn infant the family was unable to resuscitate, having blown air into its trunk for nearly 30 minutes.

"My father-in-law couldn’t let go of the corpse. He just held it and wailed. Thong Nang weighed 100 kilograms," Yo Ni explains.

As the M’nong consider elephants kin, often cohabiting beneath the same roof, Thong Nang was interred next to Yo Ni’s family ancestors.

Y Vinh, a 34-year-old mahout from Lien Son Town, tells of how he had previously assisted several elephant conservationists to encourage male elephants in the area to mate with five females in Yang Tao Commune, one called H’Ban Nang, aged 40.

H’Ban Nang was the only elephant to fall pregnant, but after 2 years of determined care, also produced a stillborn Y Bak No, which weighed 90 kilograms.

"Many villagers joined mourners trailing Bak No to the cemetery," Y Vinh recalls.

About a kilometer from Thong Nang’s tomb, seven elephants stand chained waiting for tourists in Buon Le tourism area beside Lak lake.

A tourist poses for a picture taken by a mahout atop an elephant in Lak district, Dak Lak Province. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa

A tourist poses atop an elephant in Lak District, Dak Lak Province. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa.

Two visitors from Hanoi mount an old elephant in no time, taking selfies while the animal spends the next 30 minutes slugging them around. At the water’s edge, it stops exhausted, only to be flogged by its mahout, fatigue replaced by fear.

For every 15-minute ride, mahouts earn VND100,000 ($4.3). They make VND150,000 ($6.5) extra for 30 minutes. During the peak holiday season, a mahout could rake it VND1 million a day ($43).

"I don’t agree with these prices. More than a month ago I permanently relocated Bak Kham to the forest. I want her to be free," Y Yo Ni explains.

According to the mahout, the local tourism cooperative now operates about five elephants. Those unassociated with the coop are asked to supply their elephants only in the case of large tourist numbers. The animals work from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in busy periods, fed with banana trunks, grass, and sugarcane during breaks.

Legs of an elephant chained in the tourism cooperative  in Yang Tao commune. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa

A cooperative elephant bound to the tourism trade in Yang Tao Commune. Photo by VnExpress/Tran Hoa.

In the past 30 years, three local elephants conceived, all producing stillbirths. Among nearly 100 wild elephants, only four babies were birthed, according to Huynh Trung Luan, director of Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center.

Encroachment on natural habitat, contaminated food supply, and tourism are all blamed for the high mortality and low birth rates.

Between 1980 and 1990, there were more than 500 elephants in Dak Lak Province. Currently, only 45 have been recorded, a near 90 percent decrease.

"That's an alarming number," Luan says, adding the reserve has collaborated with mahouts in Lak and Buon Don districts to monitor health and test for pregnancy.

The Dak Lak Province provides VND650 million ($28,000) to elephant owners to assist in breeding. In case of elephant mortality, a mahout typically receives VND171 million ($7,355).

"But in the end, all our efforts have failed, babies still dying in the womb," Luan confirms.

Recently, Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center for the first time released eight wild elephants into Yok Don National Forest in Buon Don District where they can roam free across almost-200 hectares of land.

More than 100,000 Asian elephants may have existed at the start of the 20th century, but numbers have fallen by at least 50 percent over the last three generations, and they are still in decline today, World Wildlife Fund announced last year.

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