The increasing threat from tusk thieves has left mahouts of a national park in Vietnam with no way to protect their tamed elephants except by watching them permanently, even sleeping with the animals at night.
In Yok Don National Park in the Central Highlands Province of Dak Lak, mahouts have raised the theft warning level after an elephant named Thoong Ngan had one of its tusks severed by thieves early this month.
Thoong Ngan had been released into the wild forests to find food at night when the mammal was attacked.
Thieves tied the animal to a big tree to saw its tusk, with one of its legs bound with a chain. The elephant resisted fiercely when the saw blade cut into the marrow in the middle of its tusk, forcing the thieves to run away.
However, doctors and animal health experts later decided to cut off the injured tusk to prevent it from being further infected.
Thoong Ngan and another elephant named Thoong Kham have the most beautiful tusks in Vietnam and have become the iconic elephants of Dak Lak, which is the home of elephant hunting and taming activities in the nation.
Y Mut, who lives in Krong Na Commune in Dak Lak’s Buon Don District and is Thoong Kham mahout, said Thoong Ngan and Thoong Kham previously lived in the wild forest in Suoi Kiet Commune, Tanh Linh District, Binh Thuan Province in the south-central region.
They were caught in 2002 by six experienced mahouts and taken to Yok Don, Y Mut said.
The one with yellowish hair was then named Thoong Ngan, while that with silver hair was named Thoong Kham.
While Thoong Ngan is obedient, Thoong Kham is stubborn and unruly.
“Once I was riding Thoong Kham, he went straight into the deep water of the Serepok River to soak me,” the mahout said.
“When he emerged on the water’s surface, I was nearly suffocated and pale.”
The elephants have recently been targeted by thieves because of their precious tusks, which are getting longer and more handsome.
Sleeping with elephants
While Y Mut takes care of Thoong Kham, Y Vi Xien has been assigned to take care of Thoong Ngan.
“I lead Thoong Ngan into the forest of Yok Don and watch him eat in the morning till lunchtime,” Xien said.
“When I go out for lunch, he is watched by another mahout.
“In the late afternoon, he leads the elephant to the river to bathe. On the way home, I chop down some banana trees and sugar canes as gifts for Thoong Ngan.
“In the evening, I tie up my hammock to sleep by the side of the animal.”
Before, the tamed elephants were released into the wild forests to find food without any care and returned home the following morning to carry tourists during the day.
Xien confessed that he was previously proud of leading a big and handsome elephant like Thoong Ngan when its tusk was not cut.
Both Thoong Ngan and Thoong Kham are healthy elephants because “all experienced mahouts know that a healthy one has tears rolling down and sweat on its legs,” Xien revealed.
“The elephants are now national-level assets, and we must be responsible for protecting them,” a mahout in Yok Don said.
“Before, we worried about elephants falling into traps in forests. Now, we fear they may have their tusks cut off by thieves.”
The areas where tamed elephants work and wander around to find food in the forest are vast, so it would be expensive to install cameras.
Do Quang Tung, the director of Yok Don National Park, said he has taken “all measures to protect elephants,” including adding more guards and putting together a quick response team to coordinate with rangers for the protection of the animals.
“I know that our mahouts have been permanently watching the elephants, and thieves have been watching our mahouts regularly as well,” Tung added.
“They will take action if we are reckless.”
Nguyen Cong Chung, vice director of the center for the conservation of elephants in Dak Lak, said the province has 43 tamed elephants left.
The center has sent staff to study in Sri Lanka, Thailand and India for the conservation of elephants.
It will also build facilities to take care of elephants and help tamed elephants give birth.