BUON DON, Vietnam – Only around 80 elephants remain in the wild in Vietnam, as the threat of humans and deforestation becomes ever greater, pushing their population to the brink of imminent extinction if sufficient measures are not taken to protect their habitat.
“There were at least 500 wild elephants in Vietnam in 1980, and now we estimate that 80 remain, divided into seven herds, besides another 44 domesticated ones that are used mainly for tourism,” Pham Van Thinh, veterinarian at the elephant conservation center in Dak Lak province, told EFE.
The biggest threat is deforestation caused by illegal logging and the rise in number of lucrative coffee fields (Vietnam is currently the world’s second largest coffee exporter, after Brazil).
“These animals need a lot of space but increasingly they have less of it. This also means they will have less food,” Thinh said.
While poaching was common in the past, tougher laws in recent years has checked this problem.
However, many locals continue to set up traps, not for the ivory but to prevent them from getting closer to their houses and destroying their crops.
According to government statistics, between 2009-2015, 23 elephants were killed by humans across the country.
Thinh admitted there is a conflict between elephants and humans, but blamed it on the lack of vital living space for the animals, who face more risks and become more aggressive in search of food.
The conservation center of Dak Lak, established in 2013 with the help of the organization Animals Asia, is one of the latest attempts to save the species.
Closed to tourism, their aim is to conserve the last remaining elephants of Vietnam and help to end their exploitation. In future, they hope to increase the elephant population in captivity through a breeding program.
The star of the center is a baby elephant named “Gold,” who was found trapped in a five-meter deep (16.4 feet) natural well.
However, he cannot return to his life in the wild as his mother rejected him when attempts were made to reintroduce him to the wild, most likely for having come in contact with humans.
Since then, he has found a companion in Jun, another young elephant, who was rescued from a trap that damaged his leg and trunk.
“Although we teach them to look for their own food, Gold and Jun are too accustomed to being cared for by us. They will have to spend their entire lives with us,” Thinh said.