85. The Elephants Are Fighting Back

Even in the same rural precincts where a park promotes elephant conservation, local “sanctuaries” are encouraging visitors to go for rides.

A tethered elephant eyes an intruder with suspicion. (JGA photo)

I can’t even say it was a sucker punch.

Like a prize fighter, my unintended opponent had connected solidly with a roundhouse hook to my jaw.

I was staggered. I stumbled backward. I lost my footing and I found myself launched into a muddy, well trodden bed of elephant shit.

It was later suggested to me that my red T-shirt may have inspired the elephant’s response, much as a tortured toro reacts to a crimson cape in a bullfight arena. I think otherwise.

I think the bedeviled pachyderm, tethered as it was to a tree, and with a howdah (a riding platform) strapped to its back, was mad as hell at the human race and simply wasn’t going to take it any more. Its muscular trunk took a swing and didn’t miss.

Soon thereafter, the shit hit the fan … or, rather, the photographer. (JGA photo)

Hey, I get it

I forgive the beast for its reaction, as my intrusion into its terribly restricted territory had been naive. Without asking first, I had approached for photographs, and my advance had been no secret. I marched through a pasture shared with sheep and miniature horses, lifted my iPhone and shot.

The creature appeared nonplussed. In its eyes I saw only a dull awareness, not the bright gleam of a happy elephant. I told it I felt sorry for its predicament. I slowly reached out my hand for its trunk. Its answer was not what I expected.

In fact, the Anh Duong nature park was a general disappointment. I had gone there with my close friend Lan Hà, her sister Thu’ and nephew Gia, hoping to do some walking in the scrub-jungle environment of Vietnam’s rural Đắk Lắk province. We paid 280,000 dong (about US$12) for the privilege of parking beside a reservoir, crossing a boardwalk to a simple floating marina, and clambering up a primitive pair of raised bridges for views across the water.

Lan Ha poses on a bridge at Cau Treo. (JGA photo)

Where’s the wildlife?

I listened for the sounds of birds, the chatter of monkeys. There was none. I asked a caretaker where we might wander to see some wildlife. He motioned to the two constrained elephants in the pasture area and laughed. For 200,000 dong, he said, we could go for a ride on their backs. Indeed, they could carry two people.

I objected. Conservationist groups the world over have called upon tourists to not ride elephants for a variety or reasons. Foremost are the cruel manner in which wild elephants are broken for riding; the conditions to which they are subjected in captivity; and the vertebral damage they experience in repeatedly toting heavy human loads.

I had thought we were going to Yok Đôn National Park, which has an official animal-welfare agreement with Animals Asia. The covenant was signed in 2018, three years after several of Vietnam’s domestic elephants died from exhaustion. As recently as the 1980s, the country’s wild elephant population was estimated at 2,000; today is is said to be as few as 100.

An elephant munches bamboo while carrying two passengers and its mahout (elephant driver). (JGA photo)

At the headwaters

But neither Anh Duong nor the next “sanctuary” we visited, Cầu Treo, are in Yok Đôn National Park — although we couldn’t have missed it by much. Directions to all three had us traveling 40 km (25 miles) west from Buôn Ma Thuột city to Krông Na commune near the village of Buôn Đôn. We just missed the turnoff.

Founded in 1992 and the second largest national park in Vietnam, Yok Đôn covers 446 square miles (1,155 sq km) of mixed deciduous and evergreen forest on hills and lowlands bordering Cambodia. The park surrounds the headwaters of the Srepok River, which flows westerly into Cambodia to feed the mighty Mekong, later doubling back to enter the South China (East) Sea southwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Jungle dendrils tickle the Srepok river at Cau Treo. (JGA photo)

Naturalists have documented more than 850 species of trees and other vegetation in Yok Đôn, as well as 300 types of birds, a great many reptiles and insects, and 89 mammals — various monkeys, red wolves and muntjac deer among them. Other severely endangered species, elephants, tigers, leopards and bison-like gaur persist in small numbers, victims of hunting, deforestation and illegal wildlife trade.

“There are no wild animals here,” insisted Lan Hà, who was born and raised in Buôn Ma Thuột. “The Vietnamese people, they just eat them.”

I shed another tear. Indeed, although dogs are a popular pet in this nation, Vietnam is notorious for eating dog meat, especially in rural areas. I have seen no evidence of that in Đắk Lắk, although I’m sure it still occurs. Indeed, I have been offered dog meat on more than one occasion in working-class (but not tourist) neighborhoods of Saigon.

A brilliant butterfly visits a flower garden beside the Srepok River. (JGA photo)

And bamboo to eat

Our second conservation park (Cầu Treo) visit on this day was more satisfying than our first, although elephants were still being offered for rides. At least this park’s trio of elephants had more freedom of movement in their pen, along with lots of fresh bamboo to eat.

Significantly better maintained than the first park we had visited, Cầu Treo was also more reasonably priced: 160,000 dong (US$7) for our quartet. A handful of tour buses had delivered a pack of friendly schoolchildren, drawn to swaying rope bridges that crossed Srepok tributaries, as a dozen-odd Chinese adults scoured a gauntlet of souvenir shops selling elephant woodcarvings in all sizes and a flamboyant selection of brilliant fabrics woven by the resident minority cultures, Ede and M’nong and Lao.

The bridges delivered the curious and intrepid to a broad riparian island. Wildflowers — golden, purple, magenta — blossomed furiously along its banks. Colorful butterflies were drawn to their sepals like moths blinded by lights. In the trees, a handful of birds made their presence known: The collared laughingthrush offered a high-pitched whistle, the vernal parrotlet a muted rasp, the white-rumped shama an astounding multi-octave melody that challenged mimics.

Gia, Thu’ and Ha enjoy an Ede-Lao feast in Dak Lak province. (JGA photo)

An Ede-Lao feast

Next to a traditional family longhouse in the Ede village outside the entrance, a Lao family served us an unforgettable feast. The chicken was freshly plucked and barbecued, the cabbage and other vegetables tossed with crispy pork rind, the soup delivered from a stock of locally caught Srepok carp, the sticky rice stuffed into a tube of bamboo.

I even tried Rượu Ama Công, a strong but sweet alcoholic beverage said to have been a vital tonic for the late, legendary Ama Công. When he died in 2012 at the age of 102, this Ede elephant hunter had 21 children and 118 grandchildren. It is said the booze contributed to his virility. For my part, it’s too early to post results.

A family of dogs (forget about sterilization) surrounded our table as we ate, glad for whatever morsels fell, or were tossed, in their direction.

Meanwhile, I was still massaging my bruises, ego as well as jaw. I was grateful to find no elephant on the menu.

An Ede longhouse of traditional style was built of bamboo. (JGA photo)


The bridge led to the jungle … but where was the wildlife? (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

3 thoughts on “85. The Elephants Are Fighting Back

  1. Good on the elephant for knocking a human (even if it was you!) on your keister.
    I thoroughly enjoy your blog ad have shared it with friends, especially those who have traveled or lived in Vietnam.

    Like

  2. Hey Larry! Thanks for the reponse! Yeah, like I said, I’m not pissed off at the elephant. I hope you’re staying healthy these days! Best, John

    Like

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