A 75-year-old Japanese photographer has taken nearly 20,000 photos of elephants inhabiting Vietnam’s Central Highlands, and has been active in conserving the jumbo mammals in the Southeast Asian country for more than a decade.
Niimura Yoko returned to Vietnam in early September after she learned in revulsion that poachers attempted to saw off a tusk of her favorite bull elephant, Thoong Ngan, in mid-July.
The wounded tusk of the 20-year-old elephant, which is kept at Yok Don National Park, located in Buon Don District in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, was amputated two days later in an attempt to save the animal from a possible dangerous infection, according to the park management.
This month’s trip is Yoko’s 30th visit or so to the Southeast Asian country’s Central Highlands since 2002, with all her visiting time devoted to photographing the elephants there.
As soon as she arrived, she went straight to Buon Don for a tearful reunion with Thoong Ngan.
There she kept patting the elephant’s head and stroking his remaining tusk stub while affectionately whispering “Orikosan! Orikosan! Orikosan!” (“Good boy! Good boy! Good boy!”) to the animal.
The elephant seemingly felt Yoko’s affection for him and kept twisting his trunk around the elderly woman’s hands. Tears welled up in the animal’s eyes.
Y Vi Xien – Thoong Ngan’s mahout – said the deeply moving spectacle was just like a reunion between a grandmother and her grandson who have not been with each other for such a long time.
“I was appalled learning Thoong Ngan had his tusk sawed by poachers. I’ve had so many fond memories with him,” Yoko said.
Destiny bound to Central Highlands elephants
Yoko recalled that in May 2002, while taking photos of a little girl living in a village in Buon Don, she spotted an elephant briskly rambling past a garden behind the girl.
“Astounded, I quickly took three snaps before the elephant disappeared. An ethnic minority woman standing nearby told me that the elephant was returning to the forest. I was impressed,” the lady added.
Yoko said she can only see elephants in zoos in Japan, where they are kept in enclosures.
“It’s great that the animals are allowed to wander from place to place and live in harmony with humans here. They seem to be really happy,” she remarked.
“So I told myself I would see the giants here again at any cost.”
From left: Thoong Kham, Thoong Ngan, and their adopted mother, Y Kung. Photo: Niimura Yoko
After the brief chance meeting with that elephant, local residents suggested Yoko visit Yok Don National Park, where she would see a lot of the jumbo animals.
There she met and fell head over heels in love with Thoong Ngan and Thoong Kham, which were then two calves brought over from the Suoi Khiet Forest in the south-central province of Binh Thuan to be tamed.
Impressed with these two young elephants, Yoko began following mahouts to capture the animals with her lens.
“I don’t remember exactly how many times I have visited Dak Lak. Perhaps I’ve been there for around 30 times,” she said.
“My daughter never ceases to be amazed at my avid, years-long interest in Vietnam and the elephants there.”
The “elephant lady” divulged she has so many sweet memories with the giants there, including the elephants’ jumbo-sized welcome that she has been showered with during her visits to Yok Don.
She knows an elephant named Y Kung, which is foster mother to Thoong Ngan and Thoong Kham.
As Y Kung cannot tolerate Thoong Kham’s playfulness, the pair is never seen together.
“However, at the sight of me, the mother and her two adopted kids always raise their trunks together in a hearty welcome, which makes me exultant,” Yoko said.
Y Mut, a 47-year-old mahout, shared his pride in that his caretaking of the two elephants, Thoong Ngan and Thoong Kham, has been depicted by Yoko’s camera lens right from the very first days in 2002.
“Yoko is a household name among most mahouts in Buon Don. Despite her decrepit age, she travels to Vietnam every year to be reunited with and photograph her beloved animals, even at night,” Y Mut observed.
Mahout Y Mut and Thoong Kham, an elephant known for his playfulness, are captured during their relaxed moments in one of Niimura Yoko’s photos.
A keen elephant conservationist
Yoko said she has taken over 20,000 photos of elephants in Asian countries, the majority of which depict the giant mammals in the Central Highlands.
She organized a photo exhibition, “Cohabiting with Elephants” in Tokyo in 2006.
Following the exhibit, many publishers contacted her for offers to publish her photos in pictorial books.
Once a primary school teacher, Yoko instantly thought of using her images of Vietnamese elephants to raise Japanese students’ awareness of safeguarding the intelligent breed.
Her photo book, “Zou to Ikiru” (Elephants in Vietnam’s Central Highlands) got into print with 15,000 copies that same year.
The book, which was later reprinted with another 7,000 copies, is available in the libraries of most primary schools throughout Japan, where it is currently used for reference.
In 2009, Yoko founded Yok Don Forest Trust and has initiated various activities to conserve the species.
The foundation, with the current membership of 80, offers financial and technical support and helps raise Vietnamese people’s awareness of protecting the oversized mammal.
Many of the foundation’s members have repeatedly visited the elephants kept at Yok Don and held conservation-themed exchanges with locals and primary students over the past several years.
Yoko said her foundation has stepped up their appeals for financial support from the Japanese government to help Vietnam establish an elephant reserve.
“Just like humans, elephants do need their own living space. Excessive human interference with forests, which serve as elephants’ habitats, has adversely impacted the animals,” she observed.
She also urged the Vietnamese government to take more drastic measures to drive away poachers and protect elephants, as well as promote people’s understanding of the species.
According to Vo Duc Gioi, deputy director of the Ecotourism and Environmental Education Center under the Yok Don National Park, after Yoko’s photo book was published in Vietnam in 2013, the photographer presented the center with 200 copies last year to help better enhance the awareness of protecting elephants among local kids.
“During exchanges, Yoko always makes a point of encouraging primary school students to draw and note down their feelings for the elephants that call Buon Don home.”
“She is a passionate lover of the elephants here indeed,” Gioi commented.