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Elephant rides discontinued in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, replaced with photoshoots

Elephant rides discontinued in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, replaced with photoshoots

Wednesday, March 08, 2023, 18:57 GMT+7
Elephant rides discontinued in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, replaced with photoshoots
Tourists are seen posing next to an elephant at the Buon Don Tourist Center in Dak Lak Province, Vietnam. Photo: Trung Tan / Tuoi Tre

Since February 10, 2023, the Buon Don Tourist Center, located in Dak Lak Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and part of Simexco Daklak Ltd., has substituted their much-in-demand elephant rides with a photoshoot in an attempt to protect the remaining tamed population.

This move, however, has brought about conflicting feedback. 

Le Van Toan from Nghe An Province in north-central Vietnam was visiting a relative in Cu M’Gar District in Dak Lak Province. 

Taken to the Buon Don Tourist Center, he was expecting an opportunity to ride an elephant. 

However, having paid for the VND40,000 (US$1.69) ticket, he learned that the service was terminated.

According to the current policy, tourists having paid admissions to the Buon Don Tourist Center are supposed to buy an extra ticket if they wish to pose for a shot with the tamed elephants there. 

“I came here to try riding the elephants. I could have easily watched them elsewhere,” said Toan angrily. 

Toan’s companions tried bargaining with the tour guide considering the lengths the man had gone to get his one chance at riding the huge animal. 

“He traveled almost a thousand kilometers here. We can pay more if you like. Just get him to sit on the elephant’s neck and pose for a picture,” said one of his companions. 

“What an absurd service! We already paid the entrance ticket. Now you’re making us buy another one just to pose with the elephant?”

Dung, the tour guide working at the Buon Don Tourist Center, gave the best explanations she could muster, trying to soothe the outraged visitors. 

According to her, the elephant rides were still available until February 10, when it was officially put to an end.

“Unaware tourists tend to feel bitter as they cannot ride the elephants,” she said. 

According to an elephant keeper at the Buon Don Tourist Center, only a few photoshoot tickets get sold every day.

As the owner makes a poor income, their elephants do not get extra food servings. 

“Every night, I have to tie my elephant in the forest, fearing it might destroy people’s crops. Or worse, it might run the risk of having its tail or tusks removed,” he said.

“I delivered the elephant back to the center at pre-dawn hours, but now it’s already 3:00 pm and I haven’t sold a single ticket.”

Joint efforts to protect the elephants

Aware of the disappointment of the elephant owner, a group of Hanoian tourists offered to buy five tickets to pose with his pet. 

Two packs of sugarcane sticks were rapidly chewed by the 40-year-old mammal within a few minutes. 

Three extra packs of sugarcane sticks were ordered for him by one of these people. And everybody had great shots with the friendly creature. 

They took turns to pose with the elephant to avoid potential agitation and hostility. 

“Why are you eating so fast! Take it easy. There are still more. You must have been so hungry for days!” said Hoa, a 60-year-old tourist while feeding the sugarcane sticks to the elephant. 

The elephant itself got excited by this group of tourists who were kind and caring, especially with their sweet treats.

It was leaning forward and reaching out its trunk to fetch the snack. 

Those who could capture moments of the elephant so powerfully displaying its might against the blue sky were extremely excited and simply burst out laughing. 

Le Duc Huy, director of Simexco Daklak Ltd., acknowledges that riding elephants has been the norm among Vietnamese tourists coming to this area. 

“The best thing here has always been to ride an elephant and bring home a nice photo as proof. Should this continue, however, the elephants will crack,” he said.

“This has to change.”

According to him, this tourist destination is known as a land of heroic acts and historic legends. 

Occupied by ethnic Lao people in its very early stages, the land features plenty of mighty stories about hunting and taming elephants.

A group of tourists from central Vietnam show excitement at the switch from riding elephants to posing with them at the Buon Don Tourist Center. Photo: Trung Tan / Tuoi Tre

A group of tourists from central Vietnam show excitement at the switch from riding elephants to posing with them at the Buon Don Tourist Center in Dak Lak Province. Photo: Trung Tan / Tuoi Tre

Besides, the majestic Srepok River, a major tributary of the Mekong River, which runs through Dak Lak Province, is lined with various waterfalls and river islands filled with peace and beauty. 

Tourists coming here can admire old banyan trees with branches hanging like glistening hair reaching down to the water surface. 

These are appealing features for travelers near and far. 

However, the Simexco Daklak Ltd. met certain challenges following its takeover of the Buon Don Tourist Center. 

Noticeably, it is based on over hectares of farmland rented from local residents.

“Because of this, we are very reluctant in our investments in further tourism facilities," director Huy said.

“Therefore, the lingering image in tourists’ minds is the elephant riding tours. The elephants have had to carry people on their backs for years.”

The logo of this company features a powerful and friendly elephant in the region.

“However, elephants in this area have been negatively exploited," he said.

“They are aging, and one day there will be no elephant left.

"Therefore, despite our reservations, we have finally decided to switch from riding the elephants to simply posing with them.

“Very soon we will construct houses in the Lao people's style to welcome their traditional Tet holiday in April. This will be a good chance for tourists to pose with both the elephants and these houses.

“Also, we will design a tour that takes tourists from the Yok Don National Park to the Srepok waterfall. They will get to enjoy the varied dishes of the Lao, H’Mong, and Ede ethnic minorities and will see the ancient house of Ama Kong – the king of elephant hunters.”

Elephant products banned

The readily available products from elephants, including rings made from their tail hair, or from their tusks, have now become a thing of the past due to the strict ban recently approved. 

A lot of stores publicly advertised these products, though it was hard to determine their authenticity.

Some elephant keepers even plucked the elephant’s hair tail to sell directly to tourists. 

According to the tourist center management, all of the souvenir stores in this area have been required to stop placing elephant-based products for sale, whether they are real or fake. 

“The police forces and forest rangers go on regular patrols around here. Stores violating this law are subject to immediate heavy fines,” he said.

“The elimination of elephant-based products has helped to increase tourists’ awareness of protecting wildlife, including the elephants themselves.”

Elephant races disappear from future coffee festivals

Representatives of the 8th Coffee Festival of Buon Ma Thuot City in Dak Lak Province have affirmed that this year’s event, starting March 12, will still be held as one of the 18 major annual events, but the elephants will not have to experience any health-damaging activities. 

In particular, races, swimming contests, football matches, and tugs of war with elephants as players will all be removed. 

Instead, there will be other pro-elephant activities making offerings to the gods praying for their well-being, a make-up contest for elephants, a buffet party, and a posing competition. 

The elephant festival at the Buon Don Tourist Center is part of an attempt to follow through with the memorandum signed between the Dak Lak authorities and the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), which focus on the switch from riding elephants to more sustainable tourism practices. 

The memorandum also states that there will be no elephant parades in the 8th Coffee Festival in Buon Ma Thuot City.

The organizing committee will commission international artists and performers, as well as coffee planters, to join in the performances in place of the protected mammals. 

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Tien Bui - Trung Tan / Tuoi Tre News

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