By Ngoc Quyen
Ae No used to raise four elephants, but they are all dead now. Now he sells pieces of sugarcane in the Central Highlands for tourists to feed other elephants for photos. Sadly, that is the only food elephants get from serving tourists for a whole day, according to locals in Dak Lak Province. Domesticated elephants in the province are dying of hunger since people have turned most of their habitats into farmlands while the government will only provide for their food if they give birth. “Before we put them into tourism, we let them wander in the jungle for a week to feed, and they were all fat and strong,” the 80-year-old No says. “Now they have nothing to eat except for the sugarcane tourists give them. Poor things.” The population of domesticated elephants in Dak Lak, which has the highest number in Vietnam, has shrunk rapidly -- from around 500 in 1980 to 43 now. It has prompted the province to offer owners VND600 million (US$27,580) if one of their elephants has a calf. Sadly, no elephant has been strong enough to give birth in the last three years, and it might not happen any time soon either. Besides, there is not an area big enough for two elephants to mate comfortably.
Y Thong Kham, a commune chairman who used to work as a mahout when he was young, says most of the 19 elephants in his commune carry tourists during the day and look for food at night when they are chained in a nearby jungle. “Elephants are no longer let free to look for food as there is farmland all over the place,” Tham says. “So they’re just getting weaker.” Since the pachyderms depend on tourists’ food, they face the risk of illnesses since the sugarcane and fruits given by tourists could carry pesticides, he says. Five elephants died in the province this year and no one knows exactly why. Nguyen Cong Chung, deputy director of Dak Lak’s Elephant Conservation Center, says more and more elephants have been dying of late. Only four died between 2011 and 2014. Chung says the poor nutrition and care have done little to help the aging animals. He says his center can only afford a few training classes a year for elephant owners and occasional checks, deworming and treatment for the animals. “We cannot know if the elephants have any disease since we do not have equipment.”