Elephants are indigenous to Southeast Asia, and people from all around the world visit the region to see these magnificent mammals. The vast majority of Asian elephants live in Thailand, India, and Myanmar. But what about nearby Vietnam? Are there any Asian elephants in Vietnam?
Long ago, there were thousands of elephants living in Vietnam, especially in the Central Highlands. But sadly, habitat destruction, illegal logging, and hunting have decimated elephant populations in Vietnam. Today, only 100 to 150 elephants remain in Vietnam in captivity and in the wild.
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Are There Any Elephants In Vietnam?
Elephants are of great cultural and religious significance, not only in Vietnam but in many parts of Southeast Asia. The tropical forests of Vietnam were once home to large populations of elephants.
Like many animal species around the world, elephant populations have suffered and declined to the point that they are now critically endangered.
If you are traveling to Vietnam, you may be wondering if you can still see elephants there. After all, elephant tourism is very popular in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Laos.
There are still a small number of elephants living in Vietnam, but their numbers have decreased drastically over the last three decades. In 1990, there were between 1500 and 200 elephants in Vietnam. Today, it is estimated that only 100 to 150 elephants remain in Vietnam.
In 2016, an elephant survey revealed that there were only 38 captive elephants in Vietnam. These elephants are used for tourism. The same survey estimated that 60 to 100 wild elephants live in Vietnam.
According to zoologists and conservationists, the number of elephants in Vietnam is not high enough to ensure the survival of the species. Sadly, it’s expected that elephants will be extinct in Vietnam in the near future.
Travelers to Vietnam can see captive elephants in zoos, sanctuaries, tourist centers, and circuses, but these are often exploitative and do not support the conservation of elephants.
Because the number of wild elephants in Vietnam is so low, it is extremely difficult to see them in national parks in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, tourists in Vietnam almost never see wild elephants.
Why Are There So Few Elephants Left In Vietnam?
Vietnamese people have had close ties with elephants for hundreds of years. The most famous group of people in Vietnam known for taming wild elephants are the MNong people in the Central Highlands. Traditionally, elephant handlers are known as “mahouts.”
Wild elephants were captured, tamed, and trained to transport heavy loads. Their large size and immense strength made them extremely valuable to people. It was in peoples’ best interest to take care of their elephants’ well-being because their livelihoods depended on it.
As machinery became more readily available, people relied on elephants less and less. When Vietnam’s tourism industry boomed, people realized that they could earn a good living by offering elephant rides, opportunities to swim with elephants and elephant shows.
The welfare of the elephants was not important anymore. Thousands of elephants were poached from the wild to support elephant tourism. If an elephant died of abuse or exhaustion, there was a steady supply of elephants to replace them.
Therefore, elephant tourism is a major factor contributing to the decline in wild elephant populations in Vietnam (and Southeast Asia in general).
Habitat loss is another major problem for elephants in Vietnam. The forests of Vietnam are plagued by illegal loggers, and in the last few years, 358 000 hectares of forest have been destroyed.
Human-elephant conflict is another serious problem that is threatening Vietnam’s elephant populations. People kill elephants when they cause damage to property or threaten farmers’ livelihoods.
What Kind Of Elephants Are In Vietnam?
There are three main species of elephant in the world. Two of them are endemic to Africa, and one is native to Asia. There are also four different sub-species of Asian elephants – Indian, Sumatran, Sri Lankan, and Borneo pygmy elephants.
The Indian elephant is the kind found in Vietnam. They are significantly smaller than African elephants, only reaching about 6.5 to 11 feet in size. They can weigh up to 5.5 tons!
Where Are Elephants In Vietnam?
There are wild populations of elephants in a few places in Vietnam, like the Pu Mat National Park, Yok Don National Park, and Quang Nam. The largest population of elephants in Vietnam is in the Yok Don National Park.
The Pu Mat National Park is located on the border of Laos. The park is extremely beautiful to visit, but unfortunately, the odds of seeing any elephants are almost zero.
Quang Nam in Hoi An province is home to a large elephant sanctuary. It is almost 19 000 hectares in size. However, tourists are not allowed to access the sanctuary, so you cannot see any of the wild elephants.
Where To See Elephants In Vietnam?
Travelers in Vietnam who want to see elephants need to travel to the Yok Don National Park in Dak Lak province. The park is very near the Cambodian border, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The park entrance is about a 30-minute drive from Buon Ma Thuot City.
The park has worked closely with organizations like Animals Asia and WWF to develop an ethical elephant tour for visitors. This new model of elephant tourism focuses on observing the animals in their natural habitat rather than interacting with them.
The park buys elephants from local Vietnamese people who use them for elephant rides, photoshoots, and bathing experiences. The elephants are brought to the park along with their mahouts, where they can live in peace.
You are not allowed to ride the elephants, touch them, swim with them, or bathe them. Visitors to Yok Don National Park are guided through the forest and can walk with the elephants and observe them eating and going about their day-to-day life.
Support Ethical Elephant Tourism In Vietnam
There are still plenty of places in Vietnam that allow tourists to ride elephants and interact with them. You will find some of these places right near the Yok Don National Park. Tourists are strongly encouraged not to support these places.
To tame wild elephants and train them to be ridden by tourists, they are tied up in small cages. This is supposed to make them submissive to their owner. The process is called the “crush” because it breaks the animal’s spirit. The crush also involves beating and stabbing the elephant as punishment.
Apart from the fact that the taming process is cruel, it is also dangerous for elephants to be ridden. Despite their size, their backs are not strong enough to handle loads of tourists, day in and day out. Often elephants die from exhaustion or a broken back.
Tourists must be aware that almost all elephant “sanctuaries” that claim to offer “ethical” elephant rides, bathing experiences, and photoshoots are a sham. Even if elephants look healthy and are not permanently chained up, these places still exploit the animals.
The most notorious places offering tourists elephant rides in Vietnam are Lak Lake and Buon Don in Dak Lak province. As much as you want a cool selfie with an elephant for Instagram, do not visit these places!
The only certified ethical elephant tourism experience in Vietnam is the one in Yok Don National Park. The more tourists who support this new ethical model of elephant tourism, the faster the abuse and exploitation of elephants will end!