Dinh Quan (left) and Bien Dong were caught on a camera trap in Cat Tien National Park, part of Vietnam's Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve in April, 2023. [Human Society International]

Vietnam’s wild elephant ‘identity cards’ help save dwindling species

Dong Nai Province, Vietnam -Dinh Quan knows the perfect place to hang out on a hot day.

A fresh water pond with fresh grass and blooming bamboo nearby, preferably with hanging vines in an easily accessible and non-poisonous area.

Following behind Dinh Quan is his youngest child, Bien Dong, which means “South Sea” in Vietnamese. He’s learning the ropes of a jungler who lives in his prime for at least 15 years.

The two potential companions are wild Asian elephants living in the Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve, a conservation area in Vietnam that includes Cat Tien National Park, where a new project using “camera traps” is on the way to creating a unique “elephant” catalog. Identity cards” for the dwindling population of pachyderms.

Pruthu Fernando, chairman of the Sri Lanka-based Center for Conservation and Research, told Al Jazeera that unlike human society where age and experience give a degree of respect, among elephants size and body weight decide the hierarchy. their social.

Dinh Quan, left, and Bien Dong are photographed by a camera trap in Cat Tien National Park, part of Vietnam’s Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve, in April 2023. [Courtesy of Humane Society International]

Fernando, who is a consultant for the United States-based Humane Society International (HSI), said that when elephants reach puberty, around 10 years old, they leave the constant care of their mothers to join other male elephants. local groups.

This is why Bien Dong and Dinh Quan met and how the photo of the two of them rushing to the water hole was captured by motion sensor cameras in April. The cameras are part of an elephant conservation project led by HSI’s Vietnam chapter and local authorities in southern Dong Nai province.

“This is the only project in Vietnam when it comes to elephants, which provides elephant ID cards to individuals,” Nguyen Thi Mai, senior manager of the wildlife program at HSI Vietnam, told Al Jazeera.

“No one else has done this,” Mai said of the 60 “camera traps” operating at the Dong Nai conservation area, about two hours from Vietnam’s business capital Ho Chi Minh City.

The cameras, attached randomly to tree trunks along the tracks used by the animals to cross the forest, have sensors that activate when large mammals, such as Bien Dong and Dinh Quan, pass by.

The images from the cameras are combined to create a catalog of the park’s elephants using characteristics such as age, sex, physical characteristics and their general condition as a way to track their movements and eating habits, and monitor their health and recovery times if injured or ill.

One of the camera traps in Cat Tien National Park which, when activated by a moving sensor, takes a sequence of five photos. [Sen Nguyen/Al Jazeera]

HSI’s data compiled to create unique “elephant ID cards” consists of more than 16,000 images collected over 400 days of camera monitoring from June 2022 onwards.

The analysis of the photo data seems to show that there are at least 27 elephants in the reserve, a significant increase from the previous estimate of 14 pachyderms that are thought to make up the total population.

The data also shows that the herd of 27 is in good condition with an average health index higher than the elephants found in Sri Lanka, the country with the largest elephants and where they live 60 percent of the country’s total area.

Experts warn, however, that more information needs to be collected in addition to camera traps in Cat Tien to determine the exact size of the elephants.

That is not an easy task.

HSI senior program manager Mai has more than 15 years of experience working with wildlife in Vietnam, but has yet to see any of the rare Cat Tien elephants in the wild, despite working in the Dong Nai region for four years.

The images from the camera traps are the closest Mai has gotten to the animals in their natural habitat.

Nguyen Thi Mai shows forest officials photos taken from a camera trap in Cat Tien National Park. Security guards are trained in how to install and use the cameras [Sen Nguyen/Al Jazeera]

While camera traps are focused on closely identifying new elephants in Vietnam, they have been used in other countries around the world, such as Thailand, India and Tanzania, and elsewhere in Vietnam, but mainly to monitor wildlife in general.

The importance of generating identity profiles for Vietnam’s elephants is underscored by the situation nationally, where fewer than 130 elephants are still believed to be living in the wild, a dramatic decline from the estimated 2,000 animals thought to be roaming the countryside in the early 1980s.

That means that here in Dong Nai province, Dinh Quan and Bien Dong are among the second largest elephant herds in Vietnam, just behind Dak Lak province in the center of the country, which has the largest population.

Vietnam’s conservation efforts are limited by resources and expertise, so HSI’s camera traps help fill the information gap about elephants while also training local officials in their use, Tran Thi Hoa, national coordinator of Vietnam’s elephant conservation program, told a workshop on advocacy. – the coexistence of elephants.

High on the social and conservation agenda is the issue of protection, in terms of protecting elephants and the rural communities that share common habitats where elephants like to roam.

Elephants in Nghe Province and Dak Lak in the Central Highlands travel internationally across the remote borders of Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia. In contrast, the elephants in Dong Nai roam the interior of Vietnam.

‘Electric fence’, a sign in Vietnamese warns, in Cat Tien National Park [Sen Nguyen/Al Jazeera]

Another method used locally to prevent elephants from wandering outside the national park and reserve is electric fencing – an issue on which some Vietnamese and international experts were divided at a workshop last week.

Clashes between elephants and villagers living near Cat Tien protected forests have been reported by local media over the years, with humorous headlines such as, “The whole group lost food and sleep because Ong Bo knocked on the door.”

Ong Bo, which translates as Mr. Bo, is a respectful nickname used by local people to refer to the elephants that visit their villages in search of tasty crops and to cause mischief.

To prevent unwanted visits and keep people away from the elephants’ roaming grounds, a 75-kilometer-long solar-powered electric fence has surrounded part of the park.

Tran Dai Nang, a ranger working in the Dong Nai Forest Protection Department, said that there are hundreds of reported conflicts between local people and pachyderms in three communes alone in the province, according to research conducted in 2020 to mid-2023.

Tran Dai Nang, a forest ranger, inspects part of the electric fence used to keep elephants and people outside the Dong Nai Culture and Nature Reserve. [Sen Nguyen/Al Jazeera]

In almost half of the conflicts between humans and mammals, the people involved shouted at the prowling elephants, made loud noises to drive them away, and in some cases, used bright lights to scare the animals while others threw sharp objects, and others warned the forest. they don’t keep doing it.

The trick that was never used was to talk quietly to the elephants and beg them to leave.

Elephants need a certain amount of space and so do people to fulfill their daily life needs, said Nang, the forest ranger.

Residents should understand that when elephants “visit” fields and other places, they will not harm them, he said.

“They only come to play with us. But it will take a lot of time to achieve,” he added.

Young bamboo, a favorite food of elephants, grows in Cat Tien National Park [Sen Nguyen/Al Jazeera]

In addition to the reduced habitat due to the reduction and degradation of natural forests in Vietnam, human conflicts with elephants arise – as in many other countries – from other human-caused factors: the enforcement of forest habitats, the poor management of conflicts when they arise. between humans and mammals, and elephants that are not taken into account in land use planning.

Earlier this year, the Vietnamese government decided not to allow the construction of a highway through the Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve following opposition from the Dong Nai provincial government amid concerns about the impact on the region’s biodiversity.

There may be some signs of hope for reconciliation between the human and elephant worlds in Vietnam.

A research study published in 2022 found that people living near the Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve want to live with their elephant neighbors.

HSI program manager Mai said she hoped the photos produced by the camera traps would give the elephants characteristics, and that would provide a better understanding of their “needs and habits” and how they are affected by human behaviour.

Elephants want their voices to be heard, Mai said, adding, “They have the right to speak and express their opinion.”

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