A Silent Crisis: Vietnam's Elephants on the Verge of Extinction

As the slaughter of the remaining elephants in Africa continues without interruption, elephants in Vietnam -- without media attention and a pack of NGOs calling for their protection -- are quietly disappearing.

Victim of an intensely and increasingly fragmented habitat, weak environmental laws, human-elephant conflicts, logging, and poaching, elephants in Vietnam are teetering on extinction.

According to some reports, there were approximately 1,500 to 2,000 elephants in 1980. Today they may number as few as 70.

"The situation is extremely grim," says Barney Long, Director of the Species Program at World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "They're right on the edge. And it will take a lot for them to recover. Not only a huge conservation shift but a huge cultural shift as well."

Long spent a number of years working for WWF in Vietnam and says that in general the country "hasn't demonstrated a real commitment to conservation. It has made some very bold statements, and it has done a good job of setting up some protected areas. But those protected areas in terms of elephants are way too small and the management of them is very ineffective."

According to Cao Thi Ly, head of the Department of Forest Resource and Environment Management (FREM) at Tay Nguyen University in Vietnam, elephants live in eight or nine patches of forest around the country, including on the borders of Laos and Cambodia.

According to a 2012 report by Ly, Vietnam's remaining elephants are extremely isolated.

In some provinces, such as Nghe An, six to ten elephants roam on one piece of land.

In other provinces, Son La or Lam Dong, for instance, there are even fewer: only one or two individuals. Their habitat is highly fragmented, and few, if any, corridors connect these patches.

Biologically, the elephant herds are made up almost entirely of related females, Long explains. "So even if Vietnam could get the landscape scale and population plan sorted out, they would still have a problem of genetics. Apart from the populations that mix with the Laos and Cambodia herds, the remnant and isolated herds are exactly that. In the long term, their genetic viability is to be questioned."

Long says that currently no international NGOs are working specifically to save wild elephants in Vietnam.

Meenakshi Nagendran is a wildlife biologist and Program Officer with the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). When asked if 70 elephants is a viable population, she said it could be: "If Vietnam has 70 elephants, and the country were to actually to protect habitat and create corridors, the number could bounce back."

How Many Elephants Are There?

Nagendran is quick to point out that she's not sure if the number 70 is accurate. "We do not know if they really even have 70 wild elephants. There are lots of unknowns."

When it comes to getting exact data, she said, Vietnam is something of a "gray hole. Not a black hole but a gray hole. This information is not confirmed by many--a lot of NGOs say there are only 10 to 15 wild elephants left in Vietnam."

Ly said that collecting information is challenging and that "insufficient data are given."

The elephant is now listed as "critically endangered" in the Red Data Book of Vietnam. The country is a signatory of CITES, which means that "all exporting and importing of elephants and products for commercial purposes are prohibited."

However, CITES in March 2013 also identified Vietnam as one of the eight primary source, transit, or consumer countries in the current illegal ivory trade.

In October, two massive ivory seizures occurred in Vietnam. In one, 2.4 tons of tusks were hidden inside bags of seashells, and in both cases, the ivory was imported from Malaysia.

A Positive Step?

Officials in Dong Nai province recently announced a 3.5-million-dollar emergency fund to help protect elephants and strengthen law enforcement in the area.

"This is a fantastic statement," Long says. "It could be a great example and must be applauded."

According to Long, nine elephants have been killed in the province over the last few years. "There's deforestation in this area. There are coffee plantations and cashew plantations, and there's a lot of human-elephant conflict."

For the Dong Nai program to succeed, Long believes it would need to be integrated into the province's governmental departments, including the police.

"This," he says, "is the area where the very last Javan rhino in Vietnam was shot and killed--and there were no arrests made. So when they talk about strengthening law enforcement, they actually don't have a track record."

Cruelty in Captivity

According to Ly's report, Vietnam has 81 captive elephants, exploited almost entirely for entertainment, including circuses, zoos, and tourist camps.

These animals are very often overworked and underfed.

According to one news article, elephants -- after working all day and then being tied to a chain at night -- "get just a few sticks of sugarcane or a banana tree" for food.

Ly's study says the animals often "lack veterinary care and health services."

Conditions for the captive animals reflect a laissez-faire attitude about elephants. "There's not a real conservation ethic," Long says. "Having elephants in the forest is not something that instills pride or a sense of responsibility."

Earlier this year, a 63-year-old female elephant dropped dead from overwork after being "forced to ferry tourists around on its back for years."

Reportedly in 2011 a 38-year old male elephant at a tourist camp was found dead, tied to a tree with his tendons slashed.

News reports later said that the owner of the elephant and the animal's keeper were detained for the killing. Selling the ivory appears to have been a motivating factor.

Why Asian Elephants Are in Trouble

A 2008 USFWS report cited a number of causes for the crisis facing elephants not only in Vietnam but elsewhere in Asia, too: a lack of understanding of elephant biology; lack of targeted and appropriate conservation efforts; weak government policies and laws; poor enforcement of existing legislation; and a "lack of political will for elephant conservation at all levels of government."

The report also noted that "the oft-repeated global population 'estimate' of about 30,000 to 40,000 or 50,000 Asian Elephants is in reality no more than a crude guess, which has been accepted more or less unchanged for a quarter of a century despite major loss of elephant habitat over this period."

As Meenakshi Nagendran of USFWS bluntly puts it, we humans are to blame: "It's amazing we still have tigers, rhinos and elephants [in Asia]. But nobody is addressing the human population issue. That is the biggest proverbial elephant in the room."

Poaching on the Rise Again

Whereas both male and female African elephants have tusks, only male Asian elephants do.

"During the poaching crisis 20 to 30 years ago," Barney Long says, "you lost most of the big tuskers in Asia. Now you see the new generation growing up with tusks, and you are generally seeing an uptick of poaching.

"People don't talk about it as much as they do the poaching in Africa, but it has possibly more of an impact in Asia because the more males you take out, the less the genetic viability."

According to Long, Vietnam's elephants are experiencing "a silent crisis."

His prognosis is bleak: "Vietnam will probably be the first country in Asia to lose its wild elephant."

This article was published with permission from National Geographic, where it originally appeared in "A Voice For Elephants."