A gloomy journey through the elephant kingdom

(No.10, Vol.2, Oct 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

In 2010, the public shuddered at images of the elephant named Pac Ku that was found dead in Dak Lak in the Central Highlands, his putrid body lying in a pool of blood, with a staggering 217 lacerations inflicted by poachers. Unable to restrain their indignation in the face of such images, two men from Hanoi – Le Van Thao and Nguyen Ba Ngoc – decided that they had to do something.
“Actually, I had no idea what exactly I would do. I only knew that I had to go there first and see the actual circumstances of how elephants in the Central Highlands were currently doing,” Le Van Thao recalled. Luckily, a friend of his, who was carrying out a project in Dak Lak, agreed to take Thao to the Central Highlands. “We were elated and sufficiently readied all sorts of paperwork and introduction letters in preparation to meet with the local agencies. We thought that sufficient preparation would bring results, but in actuality it turned out to be a protracted journey,” Thao said.
Le Van Thao’s first expedition took him a month. He ran in circles from one agency to the next, but he was still unable to rendezvous with an elephant. The reason was that the foresting counties themselves did not thoroughly grasp the identities of each elephant’s caretaker and hence, could not contact the owners. Disappointed and out of money, Thao could only return to Hanoi.
However, Thao did manage to become acquainted with a friend and trustworthy translator of the local dialect, Y Van, who lives in Don Village and is the younger brother of the famous Central Highlands vocalist Y Zac.
After his first trip failed, Thao and his partner, photographer Nguyen Ba Ngoc, could not recall how many times they went back to Dak Lak over a year’s time. Some trips lasted only a week, others a month. They just went, searched, recorded, and took photographs, and whenever their pockets ran dry, they would return and wait until they could reload with cash.
In the two years spent following the tracks of domestic elephants living in Dak Lak, Le Van Thao and Nguyen Ba Ngoc have experienced moments of dread, exhilaration and grief in order to witness and record the stories of the last representatives of Central Highlands’ domesticated elephants.
The two individuals ultimately managed to make a photography collection of 51 out of the 52 domesticated elephants that remain in the Central Highlands, known as the elephant kingdom of Vietnam. The book, Our Giant Friends, includes 150 photographs along with the histories and some details of these elephants. These stories may differ, but they are all moving to hear. “The remaining elephant went into the forest too long, so we ran out of money and could no longer wait,” Thao said with regret in his voice.

Returning to Dak Lak for the second time, Thao and Ngoc decided to go straight into the villages in search of the elephants’ owners. With Y Van’s company, the team met with families that own elephants for tourism, and expressed a desire to find out more about their elephants. ‘The majority of them were hesitant. They didn’t understand want we wanted, whether or not we would affect the elephants in any way– elephants that are now an important source of an entire family’s income for many folks in Don and Gia villages. Thus, we received almost no cooperation at first.’
In 1994, Vietnam became a member of the Cites Convention, an organization working for a ban on the international trade of endangered wild animal and plant species. Not only was trading disallowed, but for the past decade, the traditional hunting of elephants was completely banned. In summary, ownership of domesticated elephants is a sensitive issue for elephant owners.
“Use of elephants to transport illicit lumber is another factor that made it difficult for us to find the domesticated elephants,” Thao further explained. “Currently, one elephant brings its owner an average of $500 per month when it’s used for tourism services. However, you just have to let the elephant transport illicit lumber and, in one trip, you can get around $200 without much effort.”

Elephant Bac Lanh with mahout Y Phong Srue, Lak District, Dak Lak, 2011

Y The K’nul is bathing elephant Y’Ghen, Don Village, Dak Lak, 2011

Fortunately, they were introduced to Mr Dang Nang Long, who lives in the town of Lien Son in Lak district. Long raises seven elephants and is also someone struggling vigorously against illegal elephant poachers. When he learned that the intentions of the two fellows from Hanoi appeared to be to do something quite extraordinary, Long immediately agreed to collaborate and, in particular, utilize his prestige to introduce the two to elephant owners all over Dak Lak. “Long was born from a longstanding family lineage of traditional elephant traders. And for the people of Dak Lak, elephant traders enjoy extremely high prestige. That is precisely why his reference guaranteed us an extremely important passport that allowed us to meet each elephant,” Thao explained.
The first elephant that Ngoc photographed was Bac Lanh. Bac Lanh is Dang Nang Long’s elephant. The village elders apprize Bac Lanh’s pair of tusks as the most beautiful among the elephants in the Central Highlands today. Precisely for this reason, Long does not want to saw them off so that everyone can admire the natural beauty of the pair of tusks, despite Long’s knowledge that “perhaps that’s harmful to him, since the several thousand dollars value of the ivory tusks makes him the target of thieving poachers.”
Thao said that one of the elephants that really touched him is Patt Tuc. This 36-year-old female elephant was raised by the Thanh Ha Tourism Company in Buon Don District. Patt Tuc had been raised together with Pac Ku, the elephant that was savagely killed in 2010. Thao said that the day Pac Ku died, Patt Tuc would not eat and just stood there trumpeting in heartrending succession.
The shrinkage of living space is another problem for the development of domesticated elephants in the Central Highlands. Bak On is a 33 year old female elephant in Lak District with the nickname Siren. In order to approach Siren, Thao and Ngoc had to trudge more than a dozen kilometres deep into the forest, constantly sticking close to an elephant trainer to avoid getting lost. Although she has a smaller frame than her companions the same age, Bak On eats quite heartily. She can consume several dozen kilograms of grass, sugarcane, or banana plant per day. But the forest is shrinking everyday; finding a place for her to feed is already difficult, let alone concerns that forest rangers will penalize them, so elephant trainers can only take her deep into the forest hoping to find a good place.
Another story concerns the elephant Kham Thung. Kham Thung in Don village is truly the epitome of a mad elephant. Everyday Kham Thung is confined together with the female elephant Kham On. When rutting season comes, if he does not see Kham On, Kham Thung becomes ferocious and turns into a mad elephant that yanks off his fetters and wanders around causing disturbances. The family of Mr Y Don, the owner of the elephant, had to set up a team of elephant trainers to recapture him and then fetter him in the forest with a large chain that prevents him from escaping again. “In the past, domesticated elephants were released together into forested areas that were, at that time, only a few hundred meters from the village at most. Nowadays, elephants are released individually because people don’t want the male and female elephants to get together and cause complications. When they see that a male elephant appears in rut, people take it to the forest, restrain it with a larger chain, and then leave it there hungry and exhausted until its cravings subside,” Thao explained.
During the process of taming a forest elephant, man and elephant become friends. The quintessential image of this traditional relationship is shown on the back of the VND1,000 bill. But now, elephants are just an instrument by which the people earn a living. If in the past, people used elephants primarily to build homes, transport commodities, carry people across rivers and streams, and go into the forests, today they are mainly used for tourism. They are bought and sold and exploited until they are utterly worn out. Thao heaved a long sigh and said, “I titled the book Our Giant Friends because I wanted to pose the question: ‘Are we, humans, betraying our large friends?’”
Nevertheless, there are also exceptions, such as the story of two elephants Thong Kham and Thong Ngan and their two young elephant keepers, the brothers Y Sien Nie and Y V Sien Nie in Yok Don National Park.
In 2001, the government set aside $109,523 to capture a pack of six ferocious elephants in Tanh Linh district in Binh Thuan, who were released back into the forest of Yok Don after they trampled 12 people to death. Among their numbers, two elephants refused to go after being released, and loitered about, ruining fields. The two elephants were finally recaptured and entrusted to Y Sien Nie and his brother to tame, under the guidance of a number of experienced gru. At that time, Y Sien Nie and his brother were just in their twenties. They grew up with the elephants, cared for them, learned to tame them, bathed them, fed them, played with them, and became true elephant keepers for them. ‘These are two rare instances today that transmit the ways by which experienced elephant trainers tame elephants in accord with the old traditions. That means that they must live with and care for the elephants from the time that they are small and create authentic emotional bonds so that the elephants follow people’s orders on their own accord without the need for coercion,’ Thao explained.
Born in 1982, able to take fine photographs, and fond of wandering, Nguyen Ba Ngoc proudly stated that there are only two provinces in the entire country in which he has never set foot. “But to this day, those expeditions to photograph elephants still remain my most terrifying experiences,” Ngoc recalled. Ngoc and Thao both work at The Gioi Publishers, doing various work related to publishing.
If photographing elephants in tourism is rough, then photographing those that are not in tourism is even more arduous several times over. “Encountering them was a matter of formidable perseverance,” Mr Le Van Thao related. Families that have elephants, but do not exploit them for tourism, often do not live in villages crowded with people. Therefore, finding them is not easy, not to mention that the domesticated elephant registry the forestry agencies provided was full of inaccurate information. ‘Almost half of the elephants in the registry were sold to other people, taken to another area, sick or old, or even already dead. Therefore, it was just as if we were groping around all over from the beginning,’ Thao confided.
In the scorching conditions of the Central Highlands, not a day goes by in which the two men fail to perambulate several kilometres through the forest.
A memorable photography expedition for Ngoc was photographing the Biet Dien Tourism Company’s Kham Gut. Kham Gut was in rut and was quite vicious. Even the elephant keepers did not dare get close to him. “Kham Gut was chained far away. Y Khiem and his son had to get a canoe and take us across the river to where the elephant was chained. The instant I saw the elephant, I was truly terrified,” Ngoc reminisced. In the photos taken by Ngoc, one can see Kham Gut’s glaring red eyes.
When asked what is the greatest thing he gained out of his two years of experience with elephants in the Central Highlands, Ngoc said, ‘I truly understand the meaning of a statement made by a scientist whom we read in the process of investigating elephants: “It’s not as if every country in the world has elephants, too.” Finishing the book, I only want to make a small contribution so that in the future we will not turn into one of those countries without elephants.’
And the two have already started a new venture: hunting wild elephants.
The article was published on Sai Gon Tiep Thi of May 2012.

According to figures from the Dak Lak Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, in 1985, Dak Lak had over 500 domesticated elephants but by 2011 only 52 remained. Scientists warn that by 2030, these elephants will be extinct, along with the industries of capturing and domesticating forest elephants.

Text by Dung P., photos by Nguyen Ba Ngoc
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