The international welfare group Animals Asia signed a landmark agreement with Vietnamese authorities in terms of the Memorandum Of Understanding to spend $2.2 million for a ban on all elephant riding services by 2026 and raise awareness of elephant rights in Dak Lak province, home to most of the domesticated elephants in Vietnam.
The popular Buon Don Suspension Bridge tourist center in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, also known as Cau Treo, widely advertised by tour operators for its unforgettable elephant ridings served by a herd of 5 animals, is the first unit that put up the shutters for life.
The Hong-Kong-based charity brokered the Memorandum in December 2021 that could set a precedent for other Asian nations as people are becoming more aware of the outdated practice on the continent.
The historic deal prohibits also racing and football games at all festivals in the province, including elephant swimming, or reenacting scenes of hunting and taming elephants.
“The tourism model involving elephants is changing across the whole of South East Asia as tourists are becoming increasingly aware of the harm elephant riding is doing to the welfare of elephants. Now is the time to embrace the new tourism model and to be a part of the change that is creating positive waves across the country, improving the welfare of the elephants, and providing a more enjoyable and inclusive experience for tourists,” Dave Neale, Animals Asia’s Director of Animal Welfare, told Zenger News.
The provincial government of Dak Lak approved the financial aid granted by the Animals Asia Foundation in November 2022, and centers were legally notified to start complying with the new rules and stop all their entertainment with elephant activities.
Tourists still can take pictures with elephants as well as observe them in sanctuaries such as Yok Don National Park, as agreed by the deal.
According to the association, besides the herd at Cau Treo camp that has been liberated, 16 more elephants are still trapped in the ridings at different tourist farms in the Dak Lak province of a total of 35 domesticated elephants in the region, waiting to be free from work.
“There are another seven elephants used for riding and photos at Preen Waterfalls Zoo in Lam Dong Province, and we do not have any agreement with the provincial government, but we are in talks with the owner of these elephants about the possibility of contracting some of them to be moved to Yok Don National Park in the future,” said Neale.
But for the owners, the ban dramatically reduces their income and strips them of the special status that comes with owning an elephant—a symbol of prestige in Vietnam. They are not easily persuaded as an elephant can earn between $13 to $20 a day ferrying tourists on his back, paying at least $1.69 for a ticket, which is more than the average salary in the country, $296 a month.
“The compensation payments provide owners with an income to offset the loss of income from ending the riding tourism. We subsequently employ the mahouts within our Animals Asia team to continue to care for the elephants in the Yok [Don National Park] as part of the new tourism model,” said Animals Asia’s Director.
“The compensation was essential to convince the government and the owners to support the implementation of the MOU [Memorandum Of Understanding]. The income of the local community has to be protected as much as possible for this to be successful,” said Dave Neale.
The groundbreaking deal in Vietnam came after a decade-long battle of the group to care for the animals and save the species from extinction as were many reports that the pachyderms are also malnourished and overworked. “Breeding elephants in captivity is notoriously difficult and requires very high standards of welfare. In Vietnam, no elephant has successfully been born in captivity for 40 years,” warn the welfare association on its page.
Vietnam’s wild population has also suffered and has been decimated over the last three decades as a consequence of poaching and loss of habitat. As per statistics, at present, Vietnam has about 120 wild elephants meaning 95% less than in the 1990s.
Dr. Evan Antin, a veterinarian at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Thousand Oaks, California told Zenger News that “Elephants aren’t designed to carry benches or passengers on their backs, but the much bigger concern is what it takes to force an elephant to cooperate in the elephant riding tourism industry.”
The vast majority of domesticated elephants providing rides for tourists in Asia were poached from the wild and went through a violent practice in order to become submissive to their handlers.
“Phajaan is one of the most cruel practices I’ve ever seen regarding the “domestication” of an animal. Young and baby elephants are taken from the wild and completely tied up and restrained to posts or pushed into tiny cages in the jungle,” said Dr. Antin.
“These babies are forced to watch the torture or killing of their mothers. They are then tortured with unbelievable physical and emotional abuse, whipped and poked with sticks and spears, and constantly yelled at by several humans to obey commands. If a baby elephant behaves in any way against the poacher’s wishes they are punished severely. This typically goes on for more than two weeks. Many survivors of Phajaan have permanent physical injuries and all have permanent emotional scars.”
A wild elephant is abused through the process of Phajaan in the town of Surin, east-central Thailand. Video-Courtesy of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand
“The goal of this process is to break them. Phajaan actually translates to breaking the spirit, and that’s exactly what these people do before forcing elephants into the tourism or illegal logging industries. When you personally meet an elephant that has endured this trauma you can see it in their eyes, it’s almost like they are robots because any sense of emotion has been literally beaten out of them,” said Dr. Antin.
Dr. Evan Antin works with wildlife, posts about cruelty to animals, and treats them for free at the vet in California. He joined Animal Planet in 2019 with Evan Goes Wild series raising awareness about animals around the world.
“Any time you’re in South East Asia and you see an elephant being ridden, painting a picture for a tourist, or doing any kind of act or trick, you’re seeing an elephant that has lived through Phajaan. It’s so sad that the tourists paying for these “elephant experiences” probably love elephants and have no idea they are actually funding a major reason Phajaan takes place,” Dr. Antin told Zenger News.
Le Duc Huy, director of Simexco Daklak Ltd., the parent company of Buon Don Suspension Bridge, didn’t respond to a request to comment but in a previous statement in March he said that “The best thing here has always been to ride an elephant and bring home a nice photo as proof. Should this continue, however, the elephants will crack.”
“This has to change.”