ban don––I was in Saigon in December when a story appeared in the Viet Nam News, the country’s English-language daily, about some rampaging elephants that had killed a number of people in the Central Highlands. The herd was incensed, the article suggested, by human encroachment on its territory. I was astounded, first to realize that Vietnam had wild elephants – I had thought they were found only in Africa and India – and second by the fact that the attacks were a group effort. Most elephant attacks are the work of rogues cut off from their herd and driven mad by loneliness or pain. There are very few recorded incidents where the animals conspired to kill humans.
In the paper’s archives, I discovered reports of other deadly attacks in several provinces going back a number of years, but mostly in the Central Highlands, near the Laotian and Cambodian borders. The stories had a common theme: jungles are the natural habitat of elephants; as the jungles are depleted and the animals have less space to forage and reproduce, they become enraged and strike back.
At first, the attacks had occurred when the elephants came upon a human in the course of their wandering. Most recently, though, it seemed as though the animals had gone looking. The government tried all sorts of schemes, such as relocating them or bringing in Malaysian mahouts – expert elephant handlers – to consult. Nothing worked.
The rogue herd had already been moved to the country’s largest national park, Yok Don, in Dak Lak province, but no sooner had they snapped out of their tranquilized stupor than they went on a foray beyond the park, trampling anyone they came upon and making for the village of Ban Don, where they destroyed several housesbefore returning to the jungle. It seemed very much like a warning.
That’s what intrigued me: the elephants were clearly thinking and planning. I’m aware that we love to anthropomorphize these great beasts, writing cutesy-poo songs about the way the babies walk, rendering them cuddly in cartoons, claiming to see pink ones when we’re drunk. But I could find no other explanation for what they had done here, for their method. They had a purpose and were communicating with each other.
We’ve always feared the predator beast – the man-eating lions, tigers, jaguars, crocodiles. But if one of them kills you, it’s probably because it wants to eat you. What other animal kills you and walks away? The bear? Perhaps, but the biggest grizzly is a tenth the weight of an Asian elephant, and it doesn’t come looking.
I had to go to Yok Don Park to see these animals for myself. From Saigon I flew to the beach town of Nha Trang, then took a small bus to Buon Ma Thuot, the largest city in the Central Highlands.
I sat in the back on rice bags, the only Westerner on board, as the bus climbed up serpentine roads for five hours from the coast, through green hills covered with banana trees and into the highlands, where the plateaus looked as though they’d been covered with a camel-hair coat. The next day, I rode the remaining fifty-five kilometres to the village of Ban Don on the back of a motorbike.
The people in Ban Don belong to the Ede and Mnong tribes. There are no more than twenty houses in the village and most of the men are elephant handlers, their main work being the domestication of the wild animals that have been relocated in the park – at least the ones deemed tameable. Walking around the village you can hardly help bumping, literally, into elephants that, just months before, had roamed free. I saw Vietnamese tourists climbing up on a work elephant to have their photos taken.
The ranger in charge of the herd of killer elephants was a tall, lean, fierce-looking man who spat when I mentioned the tourists. When I asked him to lead me to the wild elephants, he told me, through the translator, that he thought I was a crazy old guy, but he eventually agreed.
That night, I lay on the floor of a wooden shack on stilts over the backwash of the river, mulling over the ranger’s dig and trying to console myself with the thought that “old” in this country comes around sooner than back home.
Next day the ranger begged off, claiming he had to stay in bed to nurse a cold, so I set out for the jungle alone. Two fishermen took me across the Ea Krong river in a dugout canoe, and then I started walking. My directions were cursory: follow the trail until it narrows and branches off, then keep to the one on the right.
The farther I walked, the denser the jungle became, but despite the presence of wildlife, there was not the humid, insect-laden oppressiveness of the Amazon. The trees were not as tall, the understory not as dense. I could see the sky at all times, blue as a baby’s blanket.
About eight kilometres in I came across a clearing where the ranger had set up a tent and stored his gear. He’d fashioned an enclosure of bamboo stakes plaited with hardwood saplings. Beyond the enclosure, several metres away, stood a young elephant, a male about two-and-a-half metres tall at the head.
A thick iron cuff encompassed one ankle, and a chain linked the cuff to an auger in the ground. Its eyes were slivers of orbs. When I moved to my right, the animal’s left eye moved to follow me. Otherwise, it was motionless, taking me in. I thought of the eyes of the tamed animals back in the village – eyes that were unclear, as if covered by some veil of defeat. I thought of the beasts at the Saigon zoo, swaying their trunks back and forth in despair, back and forth. I stepped back from the enclosure and was turning away when the animal let out a bellow that shook the trees.
After walking another four kilometres, I came to a second clearing and was about to start back when I saw a full-grown elephant about a quarter of a mile away in a patch of second-growth forest that had probably been defoliated by the Americans during the war. I knew this had to be one of the killers, otherwise it wouldn’t be here. I stood still, watching him, remembering what a mahout in the village had told me: We don’t want to share our terrain with that which we fear, with something other than ourselves that can “think” and is dangerous.
I watched the elephant until the picture of him in his wild state, the picture of him the way he is supposed to be, was burned into my brain to stay. Then I went back.