The Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center is situated in Buon Don District, a two-hour drive northwest of Buon Ma Thuot city. Buon Don is home to the M’Nong, J’rai, Ede, Lao, and Thai ethnic minority peoples. For more than 200 years it has been the hub of elephant hunting and taming. Amid a dipterocarp forest in the Yok Don National Park, elephants at the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Center depend on the staff here for their well-being. The center has 19 workers, including five dedicated to feeding the elephants, medical support for them and overall well-being. This is considered the biggest elephant hospital not just in the Central Highlands but also the country.
In addition to monitoring and attending to the physical status of 45 domesticated elephants in the province, the 200 hectare area of the center has also been used to raise two rescued elephant calves since 2015. One is Jun (7 years old) and the other is Gold (3).
The elephant nannies’ morning starts as early as 7am with various tasks, including checking the electrical fence, cleaning the cages, inspecting the excrement of the two elephants. The feces examination helps detect health issues, especially those with their digestive tract, according to the caregivers.
In this picture, Cao Xuan Ninh is giving Gold a bath before breakfast. He said: “Gold is very active and playful, like a kid. Two years ago, we pulled him out of a well in the middle of the forest. Gold was only about two months old, and still nursing. We had to mix formula, coconut water and rice water together to feed him.”
The daily diet of the two animals is more than 50 kg of grass. And that’s not enough and the nannies also have to buy more bananas, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers. Cao Dang Quang said because the elephants are not living in their natural habitat, they have to find ways to provide the nutrients they lack.
Treating Jun’s wounds is an important task for the doctors here. Jun suffered from severe injuries in his legs and hip after being caught in a trap. Thanks to the rescue team, he has been at the nursery since 2015. After undergoing two surgeries, the elephant has a thorough daily care routine that includes a pedicure, cleaning of the wounds and of course medicines. Quang said: “At first contact with Jun, I was scared because he was big and aggressive. After regular daily contact he became more tolerant of my presence and stands obediently while I fed and treated his wounds.”
Phan Phu, the leader of the caretakers team, uses a whistle to control the elephants. “Elephants are very intelligent, and can understand and react to simple commands,” he explained. Phu has been at the mission since it opened.
According to Phu, giving Jun a daily manicure prevents his legs from potential damage. With their huge weight elephants can hurt themselves if their nails are not filed.
Not only do they attend to the animals, the staff also train them. The elephants obey simple commands to lift their legs in the air, lie down, kneel, etc. The entire training process is recorded for review and data analysis. This helps them remedy the situation when an animal demonstrates any abnormal behavior.
It is important that the elephants are exposed to a wild habitat and learn survival skills. That is why every day, the staff also spend time “enriching” the elephants by playing with them, hiding food or hanging it on tall trees so the animals can practice looking for it. After every shift, the staff make a note of their findings and report to the board of directors about the overall well-being and behavior of the elephants.
The workers sit down and exchange ideas and experiences after a day at work. Nguyen Cong Chung, deputy director of the center, said a monthly training workshop is organized for the elephant caregivers. The center brings together the staff, elephant experts and officials from international animal protection organizations on a monthly basis. The ultimate goal is to improve the tending and training techniques.