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Sunday, 30 September, 2001, 22:12 GMT 23:12 UK
Mission to save Vietnam's elephants
Elephant with burning farmland Clair Arthurs
The elephants have lost out on the push to increase farmland
By Hanoi correspondent Clare Arthurs

A big bull elephant swings slowly down a forested path in Vietnam's southern coastal province of Binh Thuan.

His days, and those of his small herd, could be numbered, as their forest home shrinks slowly under the spread of maize plantations.

We have continuous loss of habitat which is the major problem

Conservationist Frank Momberg
Next month, the government of Vietnam, assisted by experts from Malaysia, will use massive trucks to move the small herd to the province of Dak Lak, on the Cambodian border.

The bull and his group will become the second herd in the area. It is currently supporting Vietnam's largest herd of Asian elephants, numbering less than 40.

Decades of war, poaching and now habitat loss have reduced Asian elephant numbers in Vietnam to the point that conservationists predict they could all be gone within 20 years.

Most live in small groups, some without a male and all are confined to increasingly small and unconnected fragments of forest.

"Elephants continue to be poached, they continue to be killed as revenge for human-elephant conflicts, and we have continuous loss of habitat which is the major problem," said the Indo-China programme manager of Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Frank Momberg.

"Now, we have about 80 left in the country and the trend is still downward. We haven't entirely given up hope but Vietnam has to take drastic measures or we can't do much about it," he said.

Last 'weakhold'

The Communist rulers of Vietnam are aware of the problem.

In mid-September, senior officials from the Agriculture and Rural Development department hosted a conference with regional conservationists and officials from Cambodia in Da Nang.

The meeting agreed that co-operation was a vital step towards preserving elephant numbers in the border region.

Damaged building Clair Arthurs
Elephant damage is common on human settlements
The elephants from Binh Thuan will be moved to Dak Lak, which FFI's Frank Momberg describes as the last stronghold - he calls it a "weakhold" - of Vietnam's elephants.

But managing the continuing spread of farms and the immigration which goes with the economic development of the region is still posing a problem.

FFI argues that Vietnam needs to plan for sustainable development, managing both its wildlife conservation and ensuring that the businesses that are established also have long-term sustainability.

Mr Momberg says reforms to the system of land title as well as management of the renovation of state forestry enterprises are just two of the areas which need to be looked at.

Push-pull effect

Then there is the competing needs of the elephants for sizeable ranges, and the need to lift local people from poverty.

Their activities create a push-pull effect on wildlife. The elephants are pushed out of the forests by encroaching and sometimes illegal farming, and pulled into villages by the sweet temptation of easy food supplies including sugar cane and young rice.

The clash with human settlements leads to damage and sometimes death on both sides. Conservationists argue that with proper planning, clashes between human settlements and wild elephants do not have to happen.

"There are a lot of different goals. To achieve anything for elephant conservation, [the government] needs to address all these needs and bring all stakeholders together in an integrated planning process," Mr Momberg said.

The agreement out of the conference with Cambodia has demonstrated that Vietnam is working on the problem. But the conservationists say the need for action is urgent. The survival of the elephant in Vietnam is at stake.

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