Buon Don District has long been famous for its elephants, with many local rituals centered on the huge beasts. But elephant tourism is not bringing in enough money to assure their future.
An elephant racing festival in Dak Lak Province’s Buon Don District
For the past four decades Buon Don, in the Central Highlands Province of Dak Lak, has been famous as the place where tourists can take an elephant ride or see the annual elephant races.
Locals also regularly perform “welcome” ceremonies for new elephants and elephant “weddings” in the mating season.
In the past, elephant-raising could influence a family’s status in society - the more elephants owned the higher the class.
According to “Tame Elephants in the Cultural Life of M’Nong” by Tran Tan Vinh, there were 503 tame elephants in Dak Lak in 1987. By 1997, the number was only 166, of which 64 were in Buon Don.
The M’Nong are a Buon Don ethnic minority, considered the best elephants hunters and tamers in the region.
Now, there are only 36 tame elephants left in the entire province. Buon Don has the highest number with 24, while private owners have another 12 and the remainder belong to Yok Don National Park and tour companies.
Locals fear there will be no tame elephants left in Dak Lak Province if the current trend continues.
Poachers prey on elephants in Dak Lak Province for their ivory and bones. The destruction of forests has also limited elephants’ natural habitat.
The slow-growing elephant takes a long time to reproduce, so the poached mammals are not being replaced.
Elephant owners often release their elephants, usually males, into the jungle the mate, hoping to boost the number of wild elephants in the region. But about 70 percent of the male tame elephants in the province are too old to attract a female.
Releasing an elephant also carries the risk that poachers will find the animals before their owners do.
The expense of keeping a tame elephant has led many local owners to sell their beasts to people in Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.
About 20 or 30 years ago, tame elephants were able to earn a good income carrying goods but that work is now done by machinery.
The amount of money that the elephants can make from tourism, according to many owners, does not pay for their keep.
“Buon Don’s elephants are in danger of disappearing,” said Y Ka, Party Committee Secretary of Krong Na Commune in Buon Don District. “This region will not be the same without elephants. There will be no elephants racing festival, elephant ‘weddings’ and a lot of other rituals will cease.”
“The elephant is the symbol of the region, of the culture and natural beauty of Dak Lak. They are the soul of Buon Don,” said Y Ka. “We have to save them.”
The only type of elephants in Vietnam, the Asian Elephant, is listed as an endangered species.
According the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, in 2006 there were only 76 elephants left in the wild in Vietnam.
Vietnam was estimated to have as many as 2,000 wild elephants in 1975.