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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 June, 2003, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Vietnam's famed elephant tamer

By Nga Pham
BBC Vietnamese Service

Ama Kong is not an ordinary 88-year-old man. He might be a great-grandfather, but he is still as strong as a bull.

He can often be spotted walking around the Yok Don National Park in Vietnam's Daklak province, where he is not only a guide but also one of the park's main attractions.

Wearing a red and black M'nong ethnic shirt and traditional crotch cover, he certainly seems to attract a lot of attention.

Ama Kong
Ama Kong, in his traditional dress, has become a tourist atrraction
So do his stories, mainly about his time working as Vietnam's most famous elephant tamer.

In a period of 40 years, he has captured and domesticated nearly 300 elephants - 298 to be precise.

Descended from a Laotian tribal leader, who was believed to be the founder of the craft of elephant taming, Ama Kong reckons he has now captured and tamed more elephants than the Elephant King himself.

"The first elephant I caught single-handed was in 1937, when I was 13," he said.

"It was a young elephant, perhaps two or three years old. He had been lost in the jungle for a few days, so when I saw him, the baby was tired and weary. It was an easy catch."

Since then, Ama Kong has dealt with much more difficult elephants, judging by the numerous scars he has received.

"This scar on my right leg I got while trying to curb an old elephant. He had only one tusk and was one of the most vicious bulls I've ever encountered," he said.

He broke loose twice in three days, and it took a few men to seize him again."

His most memorable catch was a beautiful albino female elephant.

"She was entirely white, not even a black spot! I was very sad when we had to sell her," he said.

"They later transferred her to Thailand as an offering to the Thai King. She was the only white elephant in my life."

Traditional methods

While their foreign colleagues commonly use arrows laced with sedatives, Vietnam's traditional elephant catchers rely on rattan ropes as their only weapons.

It takes months to domesticate an elephant, and lots of patience.

"Without loving them, it's impossible to train elephants," said Y Mat, a Yok Don mahout.

"Ama Kong loves the elephants - for him, they come before anything else, even his family."

Taming elephants was once the most highly respected profession in Vietnam's Central Highlands.

And it was lucrative too, as an elephant could be exchanged for four water buffaloes or even a small house.

Elephant tamers usually have big houses, and equally large families.

Ama Kong himself has four wives and 22 children, the youngest of whom was born five years ago.

Ama Kong with his beloved elephants
Ama Kong is said to love his elephants more than his family
His fourth wife, who is 36 this year, is also three months pregnant.

Although polygamy is not officially allowed in communist Vietnam, Ama Kong's personal life has become a sort of legend, something tourists love to talk about.

"They always quiz him about how to maintain such good health and prowess, what to eat and what to drink," said an employee at the park.

"So Ama Kong began selling them the roots and herbs he picks from the jungle. Tourists are really buying into it!"

Endangered species

Elephants are now listed in Vietnam's red book of endangered species, so catching them is no longer an option.

There are now believed to be less than 100 elephants left in the wild in Daklak.

Last year, the most experienced mahouts in Yok Don were mobilised in a controversial project to relocate wild elephants from the southern province of Binh Thuan.

As their habitat shrank from deforestation and illegal logging, the elephants had been wreaking havoc on the area, and imposing a grave threat to human life.

Despite conservationists' fear, the six elephants transferred to Yok Don from Binh Thuan have survived the climate change.

Two of them are currently in line to become permanent residents.

So every morning, Ama Kong now wakes up to the joy of playing with the new elephants.

At his call, they rush in like obedient puppies.

Once the elephants get used to the new environment, they will be released back to the wild.

"I will be alone again," he says.

"I understand why this job cannot continue. There are no more elephants. But I'm sad that one day (people) will only read about them in a textbook," he said.


SEE ALSO:
Deaths halt elephant mercy mission
15 Nov 01  |  Asia-Pacific
Mission to save Vietnam's elephants
30 Sep 01  |  Asia-Pacific
Asian elephants 'cling to survival'
12 Dec 00  |  Science/Nature


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