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Wild elephants

300 ~ 600

Charles Santiapillai

Domesticated elephants


Shanthini Dawson



FAO (Anon., 1995d)

Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, was passionately fond of capturing wild elephants and he also possessed two white elephants. (It is not recorded what happened to them after his downfall.) Domesticated elephants played an important role during the successive conflicts in Vietnam, particularly for transporting soldiers, supplies, and ammunition for North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. Elephants were considered fair game by the enemy. One town, Nhan Hoa of Gia Lai province, evidently suffered more than 28 of its elephants killed from the air, and in Dak Lak many owners fled with their elephants to Cambodia to avoid being strafed and bombed. In one particularly chilling incident wild elephants (though they could well have been domesticated) were killed by rockets from an American helicopter gunship after its machine guns had failed; the aircrew was ordered to “Go down and get the tusks,” which were ultimately delivered back to headquarters where they provoked great popular outrage (Mason, 1984).

Beyond the violence delivered to individual elephants, much of the national population, both wild and domesticated, faced a more widespread and insidious threat, the damage from which will never be known. An IUCN Press Service release of 1985, states that between 1961 and 1971 about 72 million liters of herbicides, mainly Agent Orange (which contains dioxin), were sprayed over forests as part of Operation Ranch Hand. Beyond those elephants that were directly poisoned or starved out, such defoliant chemicals must have brought years of birth defects and other ills to elephants.

An Agence France Press dispatch of June 1995 states that “veteran elephants” were recently honored during celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of the war’s end.

Little has been published in English about domesticated elephants in Vietnam. Baze (1955) includes some titillating but mainly superficial material on the past, especially capturing elephants, but very little has been written recently. Many highly plausible press reports have appeared on domesticated elephants in regional newspapers; and many such reports have been used below (although cited only where there is a byline).

Wild elephants

War, destruction of habitat, and poaching have caused the number of wild elephants in Vietnam to plummet over the last decade. Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) estimated that there were 1,500-2,000 wild elephants, accepting the figures of Khoi (1988). Santiapillai (Pers. comm., 1996) estimates only 300-600 surviving wild elephants presently, citing Dr. Shanthini Dawson and Pham Mong Giao. Dawson (1996) estimates that there are 300-400 wild elephants remaining “with not a single contiguous population having more than 100 individuals.” Domesticated elephants might have recently passed their wild cousins in numbers, a change unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future. If only by default, domesticated elephants are constantly increasing in importance.

· See “Domesticated-to-wild elephant ratio,” page 26.

Hunting, including by military personnel, is rife according to Templer (1995); in early 1995 four Vietnamese men were given 20-year prison sentences for a three year killing spree which “slaughtered dozens of animals, even domesticated elephants....” Some shootings are the result of villagers responding to crop raiding elephants.

Poaching is not limited to wild elephants. Killing domesticated elephants for their tusks is quite common according to one observer {Giao, 1996}. An October 1996 press report says that a Vietnamese man was fined and jailed for twenty years for killing a domesticated elephant for its tusks in Dak Lak. A single tusk will go for US$1,000 (Chalmers, 1996).

Distribution and numbers of domesticated elephants

In the late 1980s Khoi (1988) said there were about 600 domesticated elephants in Vietnam, 502 of them distributed throughout Dak Lak province. Numbers seemed to have remained constant because Dawson (1996) wrote, “Vietnam today has nearly 600 domestic elephants, mainly situated in the southern parts of the country.” Unfortunately, later in the same year Dawson {1996} said that an informal survey showed only 225 domesticated elephants.

Legal status, registration, and institutions involved.

CITES was signed by Vietnam in April, 1994, but has not yet been ratified. Vietnam evidently has no law pertaining to domesticated elephants and no registration procedure, but registration would be easy considering that most domesticated elephants seem to live in relatively circumscribed areas. The Forest Protection Department has done some preliminary work, but there seems to be no involvement by other institutions.

Veterinary care and health

Veterinary care is not of the best, if only because there are probably very so few veterinarians and even fewer with any significant experience with elephants. Given that all keepers are tribal, herbal medicine is probably quite elaborate, as would be ceremonies designed to ensure the animals’ ritual well-being.


Until the 1960s a quota established the number of wild elephants which could be captured annually. A ban has been in place since 1990, although according to Dawson et al. (1993) some elephants were captured in 1993. Templer (1995) says, “Very few elephants are hunted for domestication nowadays. The first baby caught in three years was captured this month.”

A group of about five Bana villages in Ban Don, Dak Lak province, is said to be the center of the only remaining wild elephant capturing operations, involving about 40 men and 30 khoonkie elephants (Khoi, 1988). Wild elephants are caught by mela-shikar, the noose being held on a long pole. Evidently the Bana between 1925 and 1975 captured some 1,950 wild elephants, while as late as the 1980s some 12 to 15 elephants were still captured annually, from where they were sold to other areas of Vietnam. One especially interesting aspect of the Bana’s capture technique is that evidently the khoonkies used must be bulls over the age of 35; between four and fifteen khoonkies are used in any one hunt. The age range of 36 elephants captured in recent years was between six months (dangerously young) and nine years, indicating a marked preference for very young elephants, a predilection shared by the Phnong in nearby Mondulkiri province of Cambodia.

Prices and the market

Before the Indochina War, the Central Highlands was famous as “the biggest elephant market in the whole of Southeast Asia, where domesticated elephants were sold to neighboring countries and to zoos and circuses abroad,” according to Pfeiffer (1984) as quoted by Santiapillai and Jackson (1990).

An elephant is presently said to cost the cash value of ten cows, an enormous sum to tribal peoples accustomed to a barter economy. It would seem that with the demise of its export market most sales of elephants in Vietnam today are tribal-to-tribal, since these are the only people who can work the elephants. Prices are probably low in hard currency terms, no matter how expensive they might seem to the tribals buying them. Especially if prices are low (but even if they are not), a looming problem could be the disruption of traditional ownership patterns with elephants being sold to affluent Vietnamese owners of hotels and tourist venues, as well as ‘hobbyist’ or prestige-seeking owners, as has frequently happened in Thailand, Sri Lanka and south India.

A further influence which probably keeps prices of wild-caught elephants low, if Khoi’s (1988) sample of 36 captives (all nine years or under) represents the norm, is that even the very oldest calf would need to be kept ten years before it could or should do hard work.


Some elephants work at skidding logs in timber operations, but many others are undoubtedly employed at transportation, general village work (including building houses), and, increasingly, tourism. In the central highlands in 1964, Petersen (1994) used elephants hired from Montagnards to build a dirt airstrip; two “big, unpredictable and sometimes exasperatingly stubborn” elephants were harnessed to a huge log they pulled in tandem to grade the surface. In some places elephants are still used to pull a plow (Khoi, 1988).


It would seem that all domesticated elephants are held by private owners - all tribals. Just as in Cambodia and the Lao PDR, recent war and civil conflict has probably extinguished aristocrats and landed gentry who traditionally kept elephants. Most domesticated elephants are owned within families, one to three per family being the norm, although in some cases a single elephant might be owned by as many as a dozen families.


As in any undeveloped country, standards of mahoutship are probably much the same as in the past, although falling numbers could bring a deterioration of complex systems. Given that numerous tribes or minorities keep elephants, there are undoubtedly numerous traditions, all of which would be badly in need of study. Most important would be to ascertain what techniques and rituals are shared with neighbors in Cambodia and the Lao PDR and which are absolutely indigenous.

Cultural dimensions

“There has been a long tradition, especially among the hill tribes in the Central Highlands, of capturing and taming wild elephants for local use and export,” wrote Santiapillai and Jackson (1990). The pre-eminent group to capture elephants in Vietnam are a tribe called the Bana (Khoi, 1988). The Stieng, found in Cambodia, are also found in Vietnam {Santiapillai, 1996}. A newspaper story talks of an elephant-capturing “ethnic minority” called the Ede in the village of Ban Don near Yok Don National Park (Chalmers, 1996). Templer (1995) interviewed an elephant-capturing 76-year old “ethnic Lao,” by which is surely meant an “ethnic” person from Laos, also in Yok Don. (Yok Don National Park is nearly 200 kilometers south of the Lao border near the Cambodian border.) Another 1995 press report refers briefly to three elephant-keeping “ethnic minorities” in Gia Long province called the Ede, the Jarai, and the Mnong; the story implies but does not explicitly state that the Jarai and the Mnong also capture elephants. It would appear that in Vietnam the elephant-catching tribes include the Bana and the Ede, and possibly the Jarai and the Mnong. (Perhaps some of these names are for the same or a closely related people.)

Such stories illustrate the risk or difficulties of taking newspaper reports at face value but they also indicate the value of the popular press - domesticated elephants are rarely written about anywhere else. The confusion of elephant-keeping tribes is clarified nowhere in the ‘elephant literature’ and apparently not systematically in the anthropological literature. The question of who keeps and who catches elephants in Vietnam could probably be set straight by an anthropologist, preferably fluent in French, after a few months in the field and in libraries with colonial-era documents - but determining tribes would probably raise still deeper questions, possibly even a grand and unexplored mystery. Writing of the elephant catchers of the Khorat Plateau in Thailand, Giles (1930a) stated: “The casual observer looking on at the silent and methodical actions of the men engaged in the operation of hunting would be quite unaware of the extraordinary rites and ceremonies... and of the complexity of their nature.” The rites and ceremonies of the tribal elephant catchers of the countries of Indochina are equally complex - indeed, some of them are likely of common origin.

The forest spirit language culture

A pattern implying but not proving a great cultural sharing emerges from the vague press reports out of Vietnam. Templer’s (1995) tribal man in Yok Don National Park had to speak “a special language” during the hunt and could noose only the right hind foot. Chalmers’s (1996) 78-year old Ede man, “brandishing a buffalo-hide hoop [noose]” and professing to have captured 300 wild elephants, talks of about various taboos associated with the hunt, including a prohibition on noosing a left foot. (This Ede man had an “ivory hunting horn”; for the Kui in Thailand, that horn would be a buffalo horn and for several reasons the author would speculate that Chalmers might well have been wrong about “ivory.”) Other press reports convey similar practices and prohibitions.

“Many of the Indo-Chinese tribes have maintained an intelligent interest in the study and capture of elephants and are as keen and as expert as their ancestors must have been,” according to Baze (1950). Unfortunately, Baze tells the reader more about his camping equipment and rifles than he does about the customs and techniques of elephant-catching tribes. Baze mentions “the Moi” as elephant catchers several times, but moi is simply a derogatory catch-all word for ‘highlander’; he also mentions “the Banhas” (surely the Bana) and “the Pnomh natives” of Darlac Province. (Could this be the Phnong, a tribe in nearby Cambodia, or phnong, a disdainful Cambodian word equivalent to moi?) Baze says that the Master of Ceremonies of the imperial capture team was a “monosyllabic Laoan,” probably a tribal from Laos. No particular customs or taboos are attached to tribes throughout the book, an infuriating lapse considering the depth and duration of Baze’s experiences in the field.

Most popular accounts of capture share some typical details with a pan-ethnic elephant-capturing culture which was best documented 65 years ago for tribes and regions in Thailand. Giles (1930a; 1930b) has done the only extensive writing on the ‘forest spirit language’ (to be described shortly). Although sometimes vague, Giles’s revelations are quite extraordinary.

Persuasive but inconclusive evidence suggests that a complex of cultural elements are combined in a ‘forest spirit language culture’ spread across ethnic lines and over great distances in Southeast Asia. The forest spirit language culture seems to possess four prime attributes: mela-shikar capture, many rituals, many taboos, and the mandatory use of a special language while capturing elephants.

Mela-shikar capture across Southeast Asia typically involves noosing wild elephants, usually perferring young animals, around the foot (not the neck as in Assam) with a buffalo-hide rope. Some tribals in Vietnam must noose on the right hind leg only, as must the Phnong in Mondulkiri province of northeast Cambodia. (This taboo initially sounds absurd, as if giving away three out of four opportunities, but it might be a way to discourage bad technique.1)

The rituals are too poorly documented to draw easy correspondances across the region. (The first question researchers should ask of Vietnam’s mela-shikar catchers is whether they, like catchers all over northern Thailand, ritually sacrifice a chicken to ‘read’ its throat, mouth, and jaw-bones to augur the outcome of a forthcoming hunt.)

Taboos apply not only to the hunter but also to his family back home, particularly his wife. Many taboos seem aimed at maintaining a state of purity, with the hunters and the women at home being as one, each, in Giles’s words, “with clean and pure hearts.” (Writing of the Kui in Thailand, Sotesiri [1972] said, “Any hunter who has committed a sin or misdemeanour is not allowed to join the expedition unless he has first confessed his sin and obtained absolution from the khruba yai [leader] in the assembly of the hunters.”) Some taboos are very similar if not exactly the same in Vietnam and Thailand: no strangers may be received in the house while the hunters are gone, an unfaithful wife brings death or injury to her husband in the forest, the wife must not wash her hair, etc.

“The most peculiar part of this operation is the use of the spirit language,” wrote Giles (1930a), “What is this language, where does it come from?”

Giles, not the most precise of writers, discusses but never carefully defines or analyzes two languages, “the fake or taboo language” and “the forest spirit language” (phasaa phii paa in Thai, sometimes also translated as ‘The Ghost Language’.). Giles strongly implies that the forest spirit language involves a union with the spirits: “... the hunters have separated themselves from the material world and are in the spirit world. They are in daily commune with the spirit, they speak the language of the spirit, they have become identified with the elephant world.” Giles suggests that the hunters enter a ‘spirit world’ where they confront spirits of bewildering variety: ‘guardian spirit’, ‘forest spirit’, ‘the spirit of the Mother Earth’, ‘spirits of the big trees’, ‘the lasso-spirit’, ‘evil spirit’, etc. Sotesiri (1972) gives a very similar view specifically for the Kui.

According to Giles, “The fake or taboo language is much used by all jungle people when faced by the darkness and terrors of the great forests, mountains, and torrents. The people will not use everyday words, but prefer to invent expressions in the belief that the spirits listening will not know that they are being spoken of and will therefore not visit their vengeance on the speakers.” The intent of the “fake or taboo language” is to avoid the scrutiny of the forest spirits, whereas Giles would have it that the seeming purpose of the forest spirit language is to enter into harmony or communion with the spirits.

The two special languages are nonetheless too similar to draw a strict line between them as Giles did. Perhaps the culture surrounding the forest spirit language evolved from a more ancient tradition, the fake or taboo language. For the Kui, Sotesiri (1972) makes it clear that while Buddhism plays a powerful role in the pre-hunt rituals and the larger ethos of elephant hunting, Buddhism took second place in the forest; some senior hunters were required to wear amulets to “ward off evil spirits, but were not allowed to bring with them images of Buddha, which were symbols of kindness to all creatures and would drive the animals away.”

The evocatively-titled ‘forest spirit language’ seems to promise ancient roots and tongues spoken long before Thai, Khmer, and other late-coming languages, but a cursory examination of vocabulary shows that the words are modern, or at least not ancient. The vocabulary of local forest spirit languages is always very sparse and basic, and vocabularies vary widely with particular peoples or tribes. Giles says that the forest spirit language varies locally and notes that, “The most skilled elephant hunters in the Korat Plateau region are found amongst the Sue [Suay, or Kui], a people divided into many septs, each using slightly different dialectic variations of the original [forest spirit] language.”

The actual words are very makeshift, often another object in the home language or a borrowing from a neighboring language, and only occaisionally a totally invented word. A little thought shows that this is a workaday language built for function, not for any magic intrinsic to particular words or sounds. All of the words in the numerous but sparse samplings in Thailand are for everyday actions and objects (‘tree’, ‘water’, ‘rice’, ‘sleep’, etc.). Forest spirit language vocabularies are everywhere very basic, especially considering that in Thailand at least pre-hunt rituals employ many Pali and Sanskrit words, showing that the hunters have access to powerful sacerdotal language. The practical and mundane vocabulary of the forest spirit language suggests, much like Giles’s “fake or taboo language,” avoiding everyday language so as to prevent eavesdropping by the ‘forest spirits’, the elephants’ protector. If the various forest spirit languages have magical powers, it is only because prohibiting the hunters’ everyday language isolates them from home and the familiar, even chatting with nearby friends, and powerfully concentrates their minds on capturing elephants in a perilous parallel world.

Geographically, the forest spirit language culture (the word ‘cult’ might prove to be justified) is shared by ethnolinguistic groups across a vast swathe of Southeast Asia. Giles proves the tradition existed into the 1930s from northern Thailand at least up to today’s borders with Myanmar, into Laos, and down across all of the Khorat plateau to Cambodia, a span of over 1,000 kilometers. In the Lao PDR the forest spirit language culture might well be found in today’s mela-shikar catchers of Attapeu and Champassak, where in the early 18th century a group of Kui lived and captured elephants, according to both Sotesiri (1972) and Salmela (1980). The Kui language is said to be related to that of the elephant-catching Stieng in Cambodia and the Jarai in Vietnam, suggesting the likelihood of further cultural correspondences (Salmela, 1980). In Cambodia, where little is known, the Phnong have at least some aspects of the forest spirit language culture, as might other tribes. In Vietnam, the Bana and the Ede capture elephants, as possibly do the Jarai and the Mnong; some taboos are shared with Thailand and some elephant catchers speak a “special language.” Extending the forest spirit language culture to Vietnam would mean an uninterrupted span of 1,300 or 1,400 kilometers.

To the northwest the forest spirit language culture stops in Myanmar where there is a large bloc where only kheddah is now practised, but mela-shikar reappears in northwest Myanmar and adjoining northeast India. Salmela [1980] makes the intriguing but somewhat suspect - according to a linguist - observation that, “There is a close tie between the Mon-Khmer language, to which the Kui belong and the Munda language of the north and eastern India. In addition, the Kui and Munda ‘Ghost’ or secret elephant command languages bear striking resemblances.”) The presence of a Tai-speaking people in Assam, the Ahom, is intriguing, for they have elephant-catching ‘relatives’ all the way to Vietnam. An examination of the mela-shikar catching tribes of adjoining northwest Myanmar and northeast India might - or might not - show beliefs shared with the forest spirit language culture.

The origin or source of such a pervasive and charismatic trans-tribal culture is fascinating and perplexing to equal degrees. The forest spirit language culture would seem to be of indigenous or ‘tribal’ origin in that there is not the slightest evidence that it was ever imposed by a higher authority, such as a palace culture; but given that tribes are by nature usually quite conservative it would probably take a truly electrifying set of beliefs to be passed along between so many tribes of such great diversity over such great distances. Could the forest spirit language culture be the lingering echo of some sort of cultural Big Bang? The remnants of a great dissemination of elephant-keeping lore from India? Or could the forest spirit language culture be a totally indigenous invention embodying the sort of evangelical power that propels some cults or religions to transcend language and tribe to spread like wildfire? Could the ritual and spiritual components have been easy to accept because the practical aspects were such an effective means to capture wild elephants? (This ‘system’ has probably captured many hundreds of thousands of elephants over all time.)

Giles (1930a) implies a sort of evolution: “These attentions [paid to “spirits” that govern the forest] take the form of supplicatory prayers, the reciting of ‘mantras’ and stanzas, sacrifices - the offering of food and drink, the worship of Agni, the Lord of Fire, and the use of the ... language of the spirits of the forests. In all of these forms of worship are found traces of animism, demonism, Brahminism and Buddhism, showing very clearly the development of the religious life of the people, how they have passed from belief to belief, retaining a bit here and discarding a bit there....” Evolution makes some sense, but if the tradition is as ancient as Giles implies it is hard to accept so many close similarities over such great distances not having diverged further. If the tradition is far more recent, it could be explained by a cult with an evangelical nature, at least in terms of elephant-catching technique.

Some scholar-thinker should try to unravel this tangled skein while it remains possible to interview the few people who still use the forest spirit language tradition to capture elephants or, as with Kui elders, at least still remember practising it. Research and analysis will require work in the realms of anthropology, history, linguistics, and religion. An anthropologist with a general understanding of the region and some grasp of languages might be able to fairly quickly clarify some of the myriad questions about the forest spirit language culture - including the extent of its influence in Cambodia and Vietnam - but a true understanding will require much study and thought by many people.

· See “Kui,” page 214.

· See “Cultural dimensions,” page 48, for the Phnong people in Cambodia.


“At the current rate of decline, the elephants will be gone in a few years and an animal once addressed with one of the highest honorifics in the Vietnamese language will have been shown the ultimate disrespect,” wrote Templer (1995) of wild elephants, although the thought applies equally to domesticated elephants. Another journalist, Chalmers (1996), wrote of an Ede guide, “Eban also takes tourists to the spire-topped stone mausoleum of Ma Krong, the ‘Elephant King’ who was awarded a Legion d’Honneur from Vietnam’s former French colonial masters for his tracking skills before he died in the 1940s. Other celebrated hunters of a bygone era are buried nearby in tombs that, local people say, are littered with elephant bones and buffalo skulls.” This vague but tantalizing description of the Ede indicates that Vietnam still has much traditional knowledge that must be unveiled before it inevitably vanishes. As with neighboring Cambodia and the Lao PDR, the only realistic conclusion about Vietnam is that an extensive, multidisciplinary survey is badly needed.

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