The brutalisation and eventual death of Pac Ku the elephant

Vietnam Heritage, March 2011 -- The first Vietnamese bull elephant I glimpsed was Pac Ku, at Ban Don Eco-Park, in Yok Don National Park. He was being hosed down a little distance away, as I arrived by xe ôm. A female elephant, Tuk, was chained to a tree by the river, looking restless and bored. I went over to meet her. It pained me to see the chain around her leg. She seemed somewhat disdainful of me, though she did raise her trunk and wave it in front of me, as if smelling me out.
Soon after this, a handsome young lad rode her into the river, which was flowing very fast, though not too deep for her to roll on her side. The boy remained on her back, just about, and then not always. He was wearing rubber flip-flops, which he remarkably managed to keep on his feet. He was also holding a goad, one of those especially for elephants, with a sharp point and hook at one end. Now and then he would press the point into her back, signaling her to go down and roll in the roiling river.
When they came out of the water, he shouted commands and Tuk followed this slip of a boy to the nearby longhouse, to be saddled up for my ride. The saddle ‘blanket’ was a thick wad of dark bark, on which the howdah, a wooden crate, was placed, attached by a girth under the belly and ropes under the tail and neck. She put her head under a wooden platform, so I could climb up a few wooden steps and into the howdah. The lad climbed on to her neck, goad in one hand, and lit cigarette in the other, and we were off. His name was Y Cau, of Ede-Nong parentage, and he spoke Ede to the elephant, directing her this way and that with verbal commands and by tickling her behind her pink-spotted ears with his feet.
On this brief ride, we passed the first elephant, Pac Ku, which was in such a sorry state. I was determined to know what had happened to him. At reception, I was told the story: at night the elephants are released into the forest to forage, and one October night a gang of poachers ambushed Pac Ku to get his long tusks and tail. The brutality of the attack beggars belief: they threw petrol on his face and rump, set him on fire, and hacked at him with machetes and axes over 200 times. Miraculously he escaped, and perhaps more miraculously, survived. His burns and wounds were dreadful and the fire had blinded his left eye. He looked so depressed; I just squatted down and sobbed. The attack was all the more poignant considering this elephant had served humans for 30 years.
Until that day I knew nothing of the plight of Asian elephants, especially those in Vietnam. But meeting Pac Ku set me off on a trail. I was appalled to discover that due to poaching and deforestation there were fewer than 80 wild elephants left in Vietnam, according to Bush Warriors, a wildlife conservation organization. I had no idea they had been hunted for their ivory. They were classified as endangered in 1973, over a decade before the African elephant, but the latter got most of the attention.
And there was another twist I was also unaware of: the tail is highly prized, because elephant tail hair is said to bring good luck. A single hair is often crafted into silver rings, or whole bracelets are woven from it. As demand for these has grown, an individual strand of hair now fetches from VND300,000 ($15.38) to VND1 million ($51.28), a great temptation for the poor or greedy.
The elephant is hairless, but for long bristles on the tail for swatting away flies and mosquitoes. These hairs can be cut off, but do not grow back, and it leaves the elephant vulnerable to biting insects. Although elephant skin is up to one-and-a-half inches thick, and indeed gives them the name pachyderm (thick-skinned, in Greek), their skin is very sensitive. Poachers sometimes hack off the whole tail of an elephant, which is not only excruciatingly painful but can cause the animal to bleed to death or shorten its life by 15 to 20 years. To deter poachers, owners of domestic elephants often remove the tail hairs. Have a look in the souvenir shop. Elephant skin is also believed to have medicinal properties.
Two months after the attack, Pac Ku was still healing. He spent hours loosening Dak Lak’s red earth with his toe nails, scooping it with the curl of his trunk and throwing it back over his body, to the left and to the right. Evidently in pain still in his haunches from two very deep wounds, he walked slowly and deliberately. Yet astonishingly, this animal was able to continue to trust human beings. The attention and care of his keepers and visitors has lifted his spirits. On my second visit to Ban Don for a long weekend, I went to him often, stroked his enormous face, spoke softly in his ear and gave him treats. I was rewarded more than once with a sustained, low rumble of pleasure, somewhat akin to the purr of a big cat.

But Pac Ku’s wounds did not heal. On 7 January, I received the sad news that he had died the day before. Two days later the villagers held a funeral for him and a tomb has been built in his honour.
Vietnam’s elephants are at risk not only from poachers. Habitat-loss and ever-decreasing areas where they can roam and feed drive them to raid crops and hence into conflict with humans. Sometimes people have been killed, most recently a young boy. A lot of negative feeling has arisen towards wild elephants in recent years. A number of them have been found dead, shot or poisoned by angry villagers.
So, has it come to this? The origins of Elephas maximus can be traced back 25 million years. Modern elephants evolved 5 million years ago along with the mammoth. They once ranged from the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys of Syria and Iraq to the Yellow River of China and south to Sumatra. Today the elephant’s territory is fragmented. Isolated and vulnerable populations exist in 13 countries: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Can the Vietnamese elephant be saved?n

Text and photos by Annie Eagle
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