Provided by Mike Benge
The Slaughter of Elephants in Vietnam is Nearly Complete

By MARK MCDONALD

September 6, 2012, 12:04 am

http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/the-slaughter-of-elephants-in-vietnam-is-nearly-complete/

HONG KONG - The plight of elephants in Africa is being explained, in graphic and saddening detail, in a new series of stories by my colleague Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times. "An epic elephant slaughter," he calls it, with poachers wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year for their ivory.

The killing has now reached a kind of frenzy, and even military units in central Africa are involved, gunning down elephants from their helicopters. Ivory tusks, most of them bound for China, have become the new blood diamonds.

The poachers have already done their worst in Vietnam. Along with developers, loggers, villagers and negligent bureaucrats, they have conspired to reduce the wild elephant population to just a few dozen.

Elephants are under critical threat all across Asia, especially in India and Thailand, but the situation is so exceedingly bleak in Vietnam that wildlife conservation groups have essentially thrown in the towel there.

A minuscule and poorly funded Elephant Conservation Center is located in a national park in Dak Lak Province, in south-central Vietnam, and it has been sheltering a herd of 29 elephants. But two weeks ago, a pair of elephants from that group were found slaughtered in a forest, including the herd's only remaining male, whose head, trunk and tusks were severed.

Without an adult male, Vietnamese forestry officials said, the herd is no longer "sustainable." The park's interim director said elephant poaching has now become "rampant," with six males from the herd having been killed this year.
Experts also expect that a herd of 15 elephants in southern Vietnam will soon be wiped out. In February, venturing out of a "protected" forest in Dong Nai Province, the hungry elephants tore through cornfields, sweet potato patches and sugar cane fields. Farmers ran in terror.

Marauding elephants not only tear up farms, they also trample people and attack rural homes, mostly in their search for salt and the bamboo ash from cooking fires. In turn, villagers dig deep trenches to trap and kill the elephants, and they use homemade shotguns and flame-throwers to scare the animals off.

Protection efforts in Vietnam have been nothing short of disastrous. In 1993, a herd of 13 elephants in southern Vietnam was being relocated away from its natural habitat, an area that was slated to be turned into industrial farms. Twelve of the 13 elephants died, and the lone survivor was packed off to the Saigon Zoo.

Frank Momberg, the Vietnam program manager with the British conservation group Fauna and Flora International, told me in 1999 that "local authorities are making decisions about development without any environmental concern."
"The elephants are facing extinction in Vietnam," he said, although at the time he was still hoping for some government intervention. "It's a matter of national pride. The Vietnamese don't want to be exposed internationally for letting the elephants go extinct.''

A so-called "urgent action plan" for elephant protection was adopted by the government in 2006, but it has yet to be funded and no protected land has been set aside.

Just a generation ago there were thousands of elephants roaming the upland forests and jungles. I spoke to a former Viet Cong guerrilla who once, on a pitch-black night, while evading an American patrol, unknowingly belly-crawled between the legs of a massive elephant that was straddling a jungle path.

As postwar Vietnam slowly began to open its economy, land was increasingly cleared for rice farms and coffee and rubber plantations. Factories sprang up. New dams and roads were built, and cities sprawled. Illegal loggers, too, were busy at their work, clear-cutting ancient stands of mahogany, teak and ironwood for overseas markets. The population skyrocketed, and with a population of 92 million, Vietnam today is larger than Germany. It's nearly twice the size of Spain.

In the process, the elephants have died.

Even domesticated elephants aren't safe. In April 2011, local authorities charged the owner of an elephant named Beckham with conspiring to kill the animal for its tusks, reportedly worth $24,000. The owner used Beckham to give rides to tourists at an "eco-park" in Binh Duong Province.

"The elephant was found dead in a forest in Da Lat on April 24 with its tusks and tail intact," said the Tuoi Tre newspaper. "It was tied to a tree and the ligaments in its hind legs had been cut off."

The authorities said the owner, her brother and another man had sawn off the 57-pound tusks before cremating Beckham.

Jeffrey's harrowing reporting says most of the ivory poached in Africa - as much as 70 percent - ends up in China, where the country's economic boom has created a whole new class of consumers now able to afford ivory knicknacks, chospticks and combs. A pound of ivory on the streets of Beijing, he says, now goes for $1,000.

"China is the epicenter of demand," said Robert Hormats, a senior U.S. State Department official. "Without the demand from China, this would all but dry up."