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On a wild trek to meet tame elephants

It was a chilly afternoon and there was a sense of quiet excitement and anticipation as we set out on our first foray into Yok Đôn National Park in the Central Highlands province of Đắk Lắk.

Accompanied by a group of forest wardens we were going to trek through a Dipterocarp forest covering thousands of hectares in the national park.

We were excited because we’d heard that the forest “hides many elephant mysteries”. 

Crossing a bridge over the Sêrêpốk River, we arrived at the edge of the forest as the sun was going down behind the mountains and the trees were gradually cloaking themselves in the mysterious darkness of the night.

Above us, rows of birds flew around, calling each other to come back home.

Trần Đức Phương, vice director of the Centre of Environmental Education and Services in Yok Đôn National Park, said it was a perfect moment of the year for us to contemplate the flowers blooming in the forest before every tree shed its leaves in the struggle against harsh conditions of the dry season.

After months battling thirst, as soon as the first rains of a new season arrived, the forest revives, putting on a new green coat on the Dipterocarp trees. Yok Đôn National Park is the only place in Việt Nam that possesses such a unique forest, he said.

As we took our last photos before the dark set in, some strange sounds startled us. “Just wild boar. Don’t worry,” came the assurance.

Huy, one of the forest wardens, said: “When we patrol the forest, we get to see many wild animals like deer, pheasants, peacocks or phoenixes. The elephant herds are appearing more often these days, but wild buffaloes and cows are a rarer sight.

“We have never seen wild oxen, tigers or rhinos, though specialists haven’t ruled out the possibility of their existence in the park.

Catch of the night: A visitor goes fishing to prepare for dinner in the Yok Đôn National Park.

Catch of the night: A visitor goes fishing to prepare for dinner in the Yok Đôn National Park.

“The wild animals can sense human beings from afar, so it is very hard to take photos of them.”

During the day, visitors can contemplate the forest’s diverse wild flora, but for seeing the wild animals, they have stay overnight in the deep forest and wait until midnight, he added.

After trekking through the forest for nearly 10 kilometres, we were all exhausted and hungry. We stopped by Đắk Lau Stream to prepare dinner. Each of us took over a task: some went fishing while others collected the wood to grill cơm lam (bamboo-cooked rice).

An hour later, our simple but fulfilling meal was ready. Seven of us gathered around the dancing flames and used leaves as plates and bamboo strips as chopsticks.

Night in the deep forest was particularly tranquil. There was no phone call. The sound that dominated the night was that of insects, and the only light came from the moon, high above. It was impossible not to feel the close bond between nature and humans at this point.

Nguyễn Văn Long, director of the Centre of Environmental Education and Services, said opening eco-tours in Yok Đôn National Park aimed to spread the message of forest protection.

“The centre is not concerned much about the income from the tours. We consider them as a long-term plan to further our aim of protecting the forest.”

Now, visitors to this park can go fishing, observe wild animals in their national setting, learn about local plants, contemplate beautiful waterfalls and bathe in cool water.

They can also learn about the traditions and customs of ethnic minority communities in the area, like the Ê Đê. There are other tours where one can join gong dances and drink wine through long bamboo stems, but doing this in the midst of a thick forest is something else.

We kept talking until the black clouds arrived and covered all the stars above. Hastily, we moved to the centre’s office to escape the coming rain and get some sleep.

Broad back: Riding on an elephant is a unique experience that visitors to Yok Đôn National Park can enjoy.

Broad back: Riding on an elephant is a unique experience that visitors to Yok Đôn National Park can enjoy.

Becoming a mahout

At the crack of dawn, with the raindrops still on the leaves, we went elephant "hunting". This meant following a 50-year-old mahout called Y Mức Byă, who has dedicated half his life to the profession, into the forest for about five kilometres, searching for an elderly female elephant called Y Tul.

Our journey was a bit challenging because the rain of the previous night had erased all the elephant tracks.

After patiently walking for an hour through the forest, Y Mức discovered some footprints, which became clearer as we followed them.

Many branches had been struck down on the way, and all their leaves were gone. The footprints of the elephant were deep now, and filled with water.

She was eating, but on seeing strangers, Y Tul stood still to assess the situation. As soon as she recognised the familiar voice of Y Mức, she waved her big ears and tail in response. Y Mức signalled Y Tul to come back home. Understanding her keeper, Y Tul obediently followed him, grabbing some leaves as she walked back.

An elephant, on average, needs about 150 kilograms of food, mainly grass and fresh leaves. During the dry season, when the leaves are rare, they have to eat even tree barks.

“Y Tul is sometimes naughty, and does not listen to me. I get annoyed but have never hit her,” said Y Mức. “I have known her since 1990, when she was small so, I have have always loved and treated her like my family member.

“She is normally obedient, except when she is in season. At that time I have to comfort her by letting her stay in the forest for a month to freely seek a partner, but there has been no ‘good news’ yet.”

As he ordering Y Tul to move faster, the mahout also checked the elephant dung.

He said he could easily tell the age and health condition of an elephant by looking at its dung. If the dung is thick and smooth, the elephant must be young and healthy. If the dung contains much grass and leaves, the elephant must be old and weak. If the dung smells sour, the elephant needs special treatment, he said.

The life expectancy of an elephant is about 50-70 years. A grown up elephant weighs 3 to 5 tonnes and is 2 to 4 metres tall. When one is found dead, it is buried according to the customs of the local ethnic people.

Y Mức also revealed that there is a kind of tree in the forest that looks similar to tamarind trees but has a white bark. Elephants are very afraid of these trees, and can go crazy if they are tied to them. Therefore, the mahout has to lead the pachyderms away from these trees.

As soon as we arrived at the Sêrêpốk River, Y Tul hastily rushed into the cool transparent water to take a bath. That was the end of our lesson in becoming a mahout. Everyone was happy with the encounter with the gentle giant.VNS

 Yok Đôn National Park has a total area of 115,545sq.m spanning Đắk Lắk and Đắk Nông provinces. It is managed by the Vietnam Forestry Administration. It is home to 858 species of flora, 120 of which are precious trees and 64 are herbal plants. The fauna is diverse, too, with 89 mammal species, 305 bird species, 48 reptile species, 16 amphibian species, 50 kinds of fish and over 437 kinds of insects, many of which are on the national and international lists of endangered species.

Gentle giant: A female elephant, named Y Tul, leisurely munches on leaves at the Yok Đôn National Park.