Vietnam acts to protect last remaining wild elephants

By Dac Thanh   July 1, 2020 | 10:00 pm PT
After rampant habitat destruction and poaching have pushed Vietnam's elephants to the brink, rangers are working hard to protect a small pachyderm herd.

Environmental destruction and wildlife protection largely ignored in the rush to "develop," it has taken decades for Vietnam to initiate effective action to protect the rapidly dwindling population of its elephants, but 30 rangers now take turns to patrol a forest sanctuary in Quang Nam Province once a week or more to check on the elephants living there.

One day last month, a team of six rangers got on their motorbikes and set out on a trail that runs through Quang Nam and Quang Ngai Provinces in the central region as well as several other provinces in the Central Highlands.

They followed a path through rubber plantations before reaching the edge of an old-growth forest. There, they got off their bikes and walked into the forest. Each of them carried a package full of food, hammock and other items needed for them to spend five days in a sanctuary area where a herd elephant is living.

Along their trek, rangers saw elephant footprints of many sizes on the soil, aside from the animal’s excrement along a stream. They also found tree parks peeled, a sign that the elephants could have been there for a meal.

"This area belongs to the primary forest but it is also mixed with a combined cover of shrubs and bushes with many favorite foods of elephants like rattan, banana and liana (a woody vine that climbs up trees)," said Do Dang Vu, one of the rangers.

A team of six rangers of the Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area in Vietnams central province of Quang Nam trek through a forest to check on a herd of elephants, June 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

A team of six rangers of the Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area in the central province of Quang Nam trek through the forest to check on a herd of elephants, June 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

After two hours of trekking, they heard a scraping sound in the distance. The team stopped their trek and moved to a nearby hill. As they reached the top, they saw the elephants eating leaves by a mountain's flank, using their trunks to pick off the leaves and put them into their mouths. After some time, they moved deeper in the forest.

The rangers took out their tools immediately to identify the coordinates and the location that the herd had just stopped for food.

"There's a new calf so the herd is more protective and aggressive these days. To keep everyone safe and ensure they come to no harm, we have to watch them from a distance," said Vu.

The six rangers tracked the elephants, going deeper into the forest themselves. On the way, they removed several animal traps, set up camera traps, and as the sun went down, set up camps to stay for the night.

Every month, 30 rangers of the Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area take turns to patrol the elephant sanctuary four to six times. In all, a ranger spends an average of 15 days in the forest each month.

Urgent conservation

An elephant of the herd at the Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area in Vietnams central province of Quang Nam as captured by a camera trap in the santuary.

A camera trap captures an elephant from the herd at the Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area in Vietnam's central province of Quang Nam.

In the 1990s, Vietnam had around 1,500-2,000 elephants in the wild but the number has dropped dramatically to 124-148 in eight of 63 localities in the country.

The nation had 165 domesticated elephants in 2,000 but just 91 in 2018. These animals are living in zoos, parks or tourism and entertainment areas in 11 cities and provinces.

Human encroachment into forests through the years has robbed the elephants of their natural habitats and main source of food.

Data from the Vietnam Administration of Forestry shows that in seven years between 2008 and 2014, the natural forest area in the Central Highlands, which used to be the biggest habitat for elephants in Vietnam, shrank by more than 358,700 hectares.

The Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center has said that more than 45 domesticated elephants in the Central Highlands province are chained and used to serve tourists or carrying goods, mostly agricultural products. The tusks of these elephants have been cut to prevent the animals from being killed for the ivory.

The Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area in Quang Nam was established in June 2017. The sanctuary covers nearly 19,000 hectares in Phuoc Ninh and Que Lam communes of Nong Son District, and a buffer zone spreading about 25,000 hectares sprawling over nine communes in the districts of Nong Son, Dai Loc, Nam Giang, Phuoc Son and Hiep Duc. The team of 30 rangers was also set up then with the mission of protecting the elephants.

It came two years after the Vietnam Administration of Forestry identified the province as a location for urgently initiating a conservation program for elephants.

A group of experts was sent to the province to coordinate with local rangers. Together, they counted six-seven elephants in Que Lam Commune.

From the beginning, the United States Agency for International Development has lent the conservation project a helping hand, supporting it in conducting biodiversity inventories, applying the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) in patrolling, developing a Sustainable Forest Management Plan, raising conservation awareness among local communities, and helping improve livelihood opportunities for people living in and around the protected area.

Mai Van Duong, deputy manager of the elephant conservation area, said ever since the sanctuary came into life, the elephants have been free from human impacts, their habitat is guaranteed, their food source more stable, and over the past several years, they have stopped intruding into local fields in their search for food.

Don’t harm them

Apart from keeping the forest safe for the elephants, the management board has also worked on making sure locals know how to respond if they see elephants near their neighborhood.

Training courses have been organized to equip farmers with skills to send the elephants away without harming them in any way.

"Apart from such solutions, we are growing Gleditsia trees to build a barrier 2.4 kilometers along the edge of the forest. As this tree has thorns, it will help prevent the elephants from leaving the forest and moving into residential areas," said Duong.

Five of the herd of eight elephants, including the calf, at the Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area in Vietnams central province of Quang Nam in this photo captured in March, 2020. Photo by USAID Green Annamites.

Four adult elephants and a calf caught on camera at the Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area in Quang Nam Province, central Vietnam, March 20, 2020. Photo by USAID Green Annamites.

Do Van Ngoc, a biodiversity conservation expert with the USAID’s Green Annamites, said that the elephants are being protected under a project launched in 2018 to support Vietnam in forest management and biodiversity conservation in the two central provinces of Quang Nam and Thua Thien Hue.

The herd has expanded to eight after a baby elephant was born last year. It has four female grownups, one female and two males that are yet to attain full maturity.

"The structure of the herd now is quite ideal, with different ages and sexes. The fact that an elephant calf has appeared in the nature is a very good sign for the work of elephant conservation here," Ngoc said.

However, it will still take a lot more effort to protect and develop the herd, he added.

Scientists have said that for the long-term survival and to avoid short-term genetic erosion of an elephant population, the minimum number of individuals in a herd should be 100, and the current herd is too small for a long-term development, Ngoc said.

He said the first priority is to protect the eight elephants and their habitat so that they can increase their population. Then much more work should be done to expand their habitat.

To do this, "further studies need to clarify the ecological pressure, genetic diversity and demographic changes of elephant populations in the sanctuary," he said.

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