By Minh Hung
The death of a young elephant in the Central Highlands on March 24 became the latest blow to the shrinking elephant population in Vietnam, which has been pushed to the verge of extinction recently. The animal, weighing about 100 kg (220 lb), was found dead with a large loss of skin, damaged toes and no tail. A few weeks earlier, conservationists rescued a 550-kg elephant with serious injuries caused by poachers' traps. Scientist Nguyen Xuan Dang, deputy chair of the science council of the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, said that virtually all elephant deaths in Vietnam have been linked to humans, including many cases of poaching and deforestation. Experts have called for more actions to protect the population of Asian elephants in Vietnam, which faces serious extinction threats. According to the conservation group WWF Vietnam, five elephants died in Dak Lak Province in the first four months this year, including four domestic and one wild elephant, due to lack of food, human attacks and old age.
Nearly 2,000 deaths
According to a WWF report, the number of wild elephants in Vietnam has fallen from 2,000 in the 1980s to around 100 recently. Home to one of the largest elephant herds, Dak Lak Province's forests used to be inhabited by more than 550 wild elephants in 1980. However, the number has significantly shrunk to five herds with a total of 60-65 individuals. Some 20 wild elephants have died since 2009. Meanwhile, the number of domestic elephants in the province has also reduced from 502 individuals in 1980 to only 43. Elephants in Vietnam have been killed for their tusks, skin, toes and tail hair, mostly for decoration and unjustified beliefs of good luck. Conservationists have attributed the shrinking wild elephant population to poaching and deforestation. Domestic elephants, on the other hand, often died due to exhaustion after serving tourists and hunger. Van Ngoc Thinh, director of WWF Vietnam, said that Vietnam should learn from the extinction of rhinos and tigers and take emergency action to rescue wild elephants. “Scientists officially declared the extinction of rhinos in Vietnam in 2010. There have been no traces of wild tigers in the country for a decade,” he told a conference held in Hanoi on Friday by the Vietnam Forestry Department and WWF Vietnam.
Scientist Dang said the population of about 100 wild elephants in Vietnam are spreading in eight provinces. “Some herds are small with only one to five individuals and they will likely die due to reproduction difficulties caused by inappropriate age and gender structure, except for the herds in Dak Lak, Dong Nai and Nghe An.”
Conservationists have recorded elephant herds with 10 individuals in Nghe An’s Pu Mat National Park, 11 in Dong Nai’s Cat Tien National Park and around 60 in Dak Lak’s Yok Don - Ea Sup National Park. “But the habitat for elephants in these provinces has turned worse due to deforestation. There's not enough food and water for them,” Dang said. “In some places, forests have been cleared for cultivation of plants, which then creates more encounters between human and elephants.” Dang said the number of conflicts between humans and elephants has risen significantly the past 10 years, resulting in deaths on both sides. “Personally, I think almost all elephant deaths in Vietnam have been caused by humans.”
Prompted by elephant extinction threats, Dak Lak authorities formed the Elephant Conservation Center in 2011 and approved an “Emergency Project for Elephant Conservation” in 2013. The VND85 billion (US$3.9 million) project, to be carried out until 2020, aims at sustainable management of both wild and domestic elephants, preventing elephant-human conflicts and stepping up anti-poaching activities. However, the “emergency” project has been carried out at a slow pace due to multiple difficulties. Regarding the population of domestic elephants, Nguyen Van Lang, deputy director of the Elephant Conservation Center, said most elephants belong to local residents who decide how they want to treat the animals. There's little that can be done when an elephant is overworked, he said. “All we could do was to offer them training courses on taking care of the elephants and give them medicine,” he said. Other difficulties include slow disbursement of funding and insufficient staffing, Lang said. Early this year, the Ministry of Planning and Investment provided VND10 billion and Dak Lak authorities allocated over 200 hectares of forest land in Buon Don District for the conservation center. However, Lang said it will take at least three more years to complete the construction of facilities, including an elephant clinic and a grazing ground for elephants during treatment. “Only until then can elephants in Vietnam be saved from extinction threats.”