Elephant residents of the Yon Don National Park in Dak Lak Province will no longer be exploited for tourism purposes. They can roam free in their natural habitat.
In 2018, the park’s management signed an agreement with Hong Kong-based animal welfare organization Animals Asia to halt elephant rides, following which it became the first locality in Vietnam to decide not to use elephants for tourism purposes.
Yon Don, which spans around 115,500 hectares from Dak Lak to Dak Nong in the Central Highlands, used to attract tourists for elephant rides, a practice decried as animal abuse by activists and international organizations.
In 2014, the park launched a service where visitors could experience being a mahout, gradually replacing elephant rides. In 2018, the park officially stopped the rides and other services, releasing all the captive elephants into the wild.
Visitors to Dak Lak Province can now take a tour with a limited number of people to trek through the forest and see elephants, learn about their history and why they live in Yok Don National Park. Tour guides will also inform visitors of the long-standing tradition of training and taking care of elephants among the residents in the Central Highlands, particularly ethnic minorities.
While trekking, tourists would also have the opportunity to explore the flora and other fauna of Yok Don and learn about medicinal plants commonly used by locals, and enjoy a picnic-style lunch.
Vu Duc Gioi, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Education and Services of the Yok Don National Park, his change of heart about elephant rides happened after several tourists refused them, saying they love animals and don’t want the elephants to be abused.
Elephants living in the protected forest of the national park are now free to move around without human constraints.
“In the past, the elephants used to be chained and some of them living in tourist areas carried passengers all day, and they were not allowed to eat much,” Gioi said.
He added elephants that can move around freely as they do now will be healthy and have an increased lifespan. Yok Don is home to eight free elephants and they can lead the sociable lives that they usually do. “They live happy lives now.”
Many conservationists and international organizations have called on the Vietnamese government to stop elephant rides, saying the animals should not be forced to work long hours under the sun.
However, Gioi said the elephant rides are still offered in Dak Lak because it has been the main source of income for families and mahouts for generations.
Last December, provincial authorities signed an agreement with Animals Asia to phase out the elephant rides as well as other activities that adversely affect the welfare of domestic elephants.
However, experts have said that to remove tourism activities related to elephants, a serious start has to be made with long-term policies and financial support for affected families.
In 1990, the Central Highlands province had more than 500 elephants, but now only 140 are left, mainly in Buon Don and Lak districts.
Dak Lak has had exploited elephants for tourism for years, offering rides, and other activities like elephant swimming, elephant football and elephant parades, typically held during traditional festivals.
In 2015, five elephants died of exhaustion after being overworked, shocking the nation. Animal rights activists then demanded that the exploitation of these animals for commercial purposes be stopped.
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