Vietnam ― A one-year-old elephant named Gold, whose tufts of jet black hair sprout in a Mohican from his wrinkly head, frolics around a grassy enclosure has come a long way from the day conservationists discovered him trapped in a well.
Gold and his new playmate, Jun, another rescue, living at the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center, are only a handful of young Asian elephants in Vietnam, living a life free from the slavery that most of their brethren endure throughout Southeast Asia.
In Vietnam, where low birth rates combined with increased poaching and the animal cruelty elephants suffer have seen the Vietnamese elephant population dwindle to the point where within a generation there will most likely be no more elephants anywhere in the country.
Conservationists are hoping to nurse the youngsters back to health and set up a full-scale breeding center modeled after the successful programs created in Thailand and Myanmar.
“As the number gets smaller and smaller, it's going to be harder and harder for the elephants to hang on.” Said Tuan Bendixsen, director of Animals Asia in Vietnam, which helps to care for the elephants.
Elephants in Vietnam used to roam freely in the area, mingling with potential mates, but human settlements have cut off once-popular breeding trails. Now there are fewer than 100 elephants left in the wild.
Captive elephants rarely get a chance to meet a partner since these poor creatures live a life as slaves to their mahouts owners. Spending most of the day chained up when they are not ferrying uninformed and uncaring tourist who will never understand the damage and animal abuse they are causing these elephants.
Making matters worse, many of these elephants are malnourished, overworked and receive limited medical services, making it difficult for females to get pregnant.
Experts say the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center could be the last hope for Vietnam's disappearing pachyderms.
The first goal is to create a small herd, said volunteer vet Dutchman Willem Schaftenaar.
“The elephants that are here should be kept under the best conditions... not keeping them for rides,” he added.
But convincing local mahouts to hand over elephants to breed or be pulled from work while pregnant won't be easy. They earn about $13 a day ferrying tourists around, more than double the average salary in the country.
For many it means losing their sole source of income and the status that comes with owning an elephant.
For an animal treated so poorly and subjected to living a life of hellish slavery it's ironic that Elephants are considered a symbol of prestige in a country where they were historically paraded in royal courts and ridden by fighters heading to battle.
“The elephant here is a big asset, but more important, it's a spiritual animal for us,” said elephant owner Y Vinh who is from the M'nong ethnic minority.
Daklak Elephant Conservation Center in Vietnam Facebook