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Dutch vet seeks to save near-extinct elephants in Vietnam

Thursday, January 26, 2017, 13:04 GMT+7

A seasoned veterinarian from the Netherlands has been a lifelong ally of the shrinking herd of elephants in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Dr. Willem Schaftenarr, 63, has been a household name among elephant conservationists, mahouts, and the pachyderms themselves in Ban Don (Don Village), which is nestled in the namesake district in Dak Lak Province.

Ban Don is now a popular destination for domestic and foreign tourists because of its elephant population, often used as a means of transport in some tour packages, as well as raced during traditional festivals.

Data shows that the domestic elephant population of Dak Lak experienced a sharp decline from 500 in 1980 to just 43 in March 2016.

Among these, only 16 out of 25 females are under 40 years old, an age when elephants typically stop reproducing.  

Dr. Schaftenarr has visited the village three times over the past few years to help local caretakers and doctors treat diseases and injuries on the last tame elephants in an effort to prevent them from dying out altogether.

He has also passed on his knowledge and experience to his Vietnamese colleagues at the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center. It is their job to safeguard and repopulate the dwindling domestic herd, overcoming the threat of rampant poaching and poor fertility in the female animals.

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According to Huynh Trung Luan, the center’s director, when the center rescued a wild elephant named Jun in April 2015, the 500-kg jumbo was in excruciating pain.

The animal had fallen into a trap while roaming for food in the forest, with his trunk almost severed and bleeding badly.

One of Jun’s feet had become gangrenous, rendering him unable to walk.

The seriousness of the situation prompted the conservation center to seek assistance from foreign experts.

“I instantly thought of Dr. Schaftenarr, who promised to buy an air ticket as soon as possible. Only days later, he arrived, with great concern for Jun’s condition,” Luan recalled.

The veteran doctor identified a foreign object in the mammal’s foot before an X-ray machine was borrowed to confirm that this was the case.

Dr. Schaftenarr stayed around for weeks to conduct an operation to remove a large piece of rusty steel trapped inside Jun’s foot. 

“I was revolted at the sight of the metal strap when I took it out of Jun’s foot, but was still able to cope thanks to my experience,” the Dutch vet said with a shrug.

After his first visit to rescue Jun, Dr. Schaftenarr later returned to conduct check-ups on how elephant care and conservation activities were going in Dak Lak generally.

During his third trip to Ban Don, the Dutch expert, Luan and local vet Do Viet Thu worked together to give the domestic elephant population ultrasound scans to confirm their fitness for breeding.

Dr. Schaftenarr said he had gone to great lengths to contact foreign wildlife protection organizations to borrow their mobile ultrasound scanners developed specifically for elephants. 

After chaining the females one by one to nearby trees to limit their movement, the slightly built veterinarian asked everyone to back up.

In scorching heat typical of the Central Highlands, Dr. Schaftenarr put on a raincoat, applied cooking oil to his shoulder-length gloves before inserting his arm into the female elephant to determine whether she was in good shape for carriage.

As the ultrasound device slowly made its way toward the elephant’s reproductive organs, she became enraged, whipping her trunk wildly, shaking the elderly vet in the process.

Dr. Schaftenarr hung on however, trying his best to push his arm deep into the raging mammal’s body, though she was continuously releasing gas and feces onto his face.

As the mechanical device went deeper inside the elephant, her vagina, cervix, and ovaries came into sight on the monitor.   

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Rangers, elephant caretakers and conservationists in Dak Lak have credited the highly dedicated vet with the herd’s considerably improved condition.

He always shows up without delay when most needed and keeps himself updated by email and over the phone on each of the animals’ health.

During his trip to Ban Don in July 2015, it was Dr. Schaftenarr that conducted surgery on Thoong Ngan, one of the herd’s most beautiful bulls, to amputate his almost severed tusk in an attempt to save the animal from dangerous infections.

The operation took place two days after poachers had already attempted to saw off one of his tusks, with the elephant resisting forcefully, sending the thieves scurrying away.

However the resulting wound gnawed at Thoong Ngan, with his marrow and blood dripping from the cut for weeks.

“I have a wife and a daughter who have been wholeheartedly supportive of my efforts to cure and nurse elephants in Vietnam back to health,” Dr. Schaftenarr said.

Through a vet who was also his student, he learned that the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center was in dire need of assistance to save Jun, the ensnared elephant in early 2015.

“I was eager to go to the poor animal’s rescue, and just days later, the center called us for help,” he said.

“Elephant conservation in Vietnam remains inadequate, and the herd is dwindling alarmingly. My friends also encouraged me to come and help their Vietnamese colleagues and the endangered mammals there. So I did."

Elephants would previously roam freely in the area, mingling with potential mates, but human settlements have cut off once-popular breeding grounds.

Those kept in captivity are mostly used to ferry tourists around leafy forests.

Their ailing condition, advancing years, loneliness and even mental illnesses have kept females from becoming pregnant on their own, Dr.  Schaftenarr observed.

“At the rate they're disappearing, we'll lose the elephants altogether in 10 or 15 years unless we take drastic measures immediately,” he said.

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