Thoong Kham, a 26-year-old male elephant, stands amid a forest patch in the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC), Buon Don District of Central Highlands’ Dak Lak Province. He is one among 38 tamed elephants in the locality.
Around two decades ago, a pack of wild elephants trampled crops and houses in Tanh Linh District of central Binh Thuan Province, killing 12 locals. Authorities later captured six elephants to be kept at Yok Don National Park. But two young elephants at the time, after being released into the wild, returned to wreak havoc, forcing their recapture and taming. The two were subsequently named Thoong Kham (Golden Boy) and Thoong Ngan (Silver Boy).
From 2006 to 2007, Thoong Kham performed with a circus carnival. Due to frequent traveling and time spent in captivity, he became aggressive. He has now been released back to the forest, taken care of by an elephant trainer in areas managed by ECC.
Y Ty Nie (L) is the only elephant trainer in Buon Don capable of tempering Thoong Kham’s tantrums.
Around 20 kilometers away is Yok Don National Park, where Thoong Ngan is being kept. Part of his ear had been torn while one of his tusks was sawed off by poachers in 2015.
Thoong Ngan used to carry visitors in Buon Don, but since March 2018, he has been a part of a new tourism model that does not allow elephant riding by Animals Asia.
Thoong Ngan’s right tusk has grown back after six years. He is now an adult elephant in his reproductive period, released into the forest under the watch of trainers.
ECC said there has been cases of elephants in Dak Lak being electrocuted and killed to have their tusks stolen. Many others had their tails and fur cut off to be sold to tourists. The elephants are now being guarded by ECC at Yok Don National Park.
Jun, 11, is a wild elephant rescued by ECC in 2015. One of his legs was injured when caught in a trap back then. Despite medical treatment over several years, the wound never completely healed. He is the youngest elephant with both tusks intact in Dak Lak.
Every day, Jun’s wound is dressed by vets four times, typically in between feeding and showering. He is now roaming an area spanning 7,000 square meters, surrounded by fences to ensure safety for both humans and elephants.
Y Mam, 49, is owned by a tourism business in Lak District. He was bought from Ea Sup District, and had a history of attacking elephant trainers.
In May 2020, he killed his carer in Lak District. His tusks were subsequently sawed off and his legs chained before being taken to a desolate mountainous area so he would not endanger people.
Y Vinh is currently the only elephant trainer who Y Mam’s willing to listen to.
Y Vinh is also taking care of another elephant, 29-year-old Y Kham Sen.
“He is a docile male, but still a wild animal. He only listens to his trainer, so strangers should not come near. He is currently released into the forest, and only called back when needed,” he said. Y Vinh is the fourth generation trainer in his family, who follows the tradition of hunting and taming elephants in Lak District.
Every year, Y Kham Sen is taken home to work for a week, either by carrying tourists or helping with farmwork. The rest of his time is spent in the woods.
For the last three years, elephants have been incorporated in a first-time tourism model in Vietnam where they would not be used for riding or heavy labor, but allowed to live freely in the wild under the care of a trainer. Tourists are only allowed to view the elephants from afar.
Kham Sen, 58, is one of the oldest male elephants in Lak District. He and other female elephants often gather near Lak Lake to serve tourists during the day, before returning to the hills to rest at night. For each 10-minute ride, elephants bring their owners VND200,000-300,000 ($8.67-13).
Part of Kham Sen’s tusks were sawed off so he would not endanger his carers and tourists.
Dak Lak has the largest number of elephants, including wild and tamed, in Vietnam. According to ECC, about 80-100 wild elephants and 38 domesticated ones are left as of 2019. Vietnam’s breeding efforts among domesticated elephants over the past three decades have proven unsuccessful due to limited space for mating and poor health of the animals.