Three years ago, a conservation group, the Hanoi office of Britain’s Fauna and Flora International (FFI), warned that Vietnam’s remaining elephants — only numbering 150, according to some estimates — were in danger of becoming extinct. In 1990, there were about 1,500 to 2,000 elephants.
Now there may be only a few dozen.
Poachers have slaughtered and are slaughtering Vietnam’s elephants to the point that extinction seems not a possibility, but inevitable. In 2009, FFI representative Frank Momberg spoke to CBS News about undertaking a feasibility study to create an elephant training center in the central Vietnamese province of Daklak, where the majority of Vietnam’s domestic elephants were living.
But now, in September of 2012, Mark McDonald says in the New York Times that “life conservation groups have essentially thrown in the towel” about saving Vietnam’s elephants, who were still roaming the country’s jungles and forests just a generation ago:
A minuscule and poorly funded Elephant Conservation Center is located in a national park in Dak Lak Province, in south-central Vietnam, and it has been sheltering a herd of 29 elephants. But two weeks ago, a pair of elephants from that group were found slaughtered in a forest, including the herd’s only remaining male, whose head, trunk and tusks were severed.
Without an adult male, Vietnamese forestry officials said, the herd is no longer “sustainable.” The park’s interim director said elephant poaching has now become “rampant,” with six males from the herd having been killed this year.
Economic development that has encroached on the elephants’ habitat since the early 1990s is just as much a culprit. Rice farms, coffee and rubber plantations, factories, dams, roads: these have all arisen in places where elephants once roamed. Forests of mahogany, teak and ironwood that stood for centuries have been chopped down and sent overseas.
Will No One Save Vietnam’s Elephants?
McDonald recalls a 1999 conversation with Momberg in which he said that “local authorities are making decisions about development without any environmental concern.” His statement has been cruelly borne out by events.
In 2006, the Vietnamese government adopted an “urgent action plan” to protect elephants. But it has not been implemented.
McDonald uses phrases like “bleak” and “nothing short of disastrous” to describe efforts to protect elephants. A 1993 effort to relocate 13 elephants from their habitat in southern Vietnam — which was to be turned into industrial farms — resulted in all but one of the elephants dying. The last one was sent to the Saigon Zoo.
With their habitats stripped away and food supplies depleted, it hardly seems surprising that elephants — highly intelligent and social animals — have responded. McDonald describes hungry, “marauding” elephants leaving the forests and tearing apart farmers’ crops of potatoes and sugar cane, sometimes trampling people in the process. Villagers have dug deep trenches to trap elephants or sought to fight them off with “homemade shotguns and flame-throwers.”
Demand For Ivory in China Responsible For the Slaughter of the World’s Elephants
The rise of the middle class in China has created a seemingly insatiable demand for ivory, to turn into statues, jewelry, chopsticks. A pound of ivory can be sold for $1,000 in Beijing. As Robert Hormats, a senior U.S. State Department official simply states, “China is the epicenter of demand. Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up.”
The illegal market for ivory is fueling what Care2′s Judy Molland described as a sickening slaughter of elephants worldwide.
On a far more hopeful note, Flora and Faura’s Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group has discovered a “remote wildlife Eden in the Cardamom Mountains.” Elephants, serow (an antelope with goat-like attributes) and gaur (a huge species of forest cattle) have been caught on camera at a salt lick; a marbled cat, wild dog and the rarely seen spotted linsang have also been spotted in the surrounding forest.
The location of the salt lick is, for understandable reasons, being kept secret.
Cambodia’s economy is still developing. Let us hope that the country’s government will not make the tragic mistakes that Vietnam has and promote economic development that can still ensure sustainable use of natural resources and, most of all, work to protect elephants.
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Photo by Arian Zwegers