This week we finalised the layout of Vietnam's Elephant Conservation Centre based just outside Yok Don National Park in Dak Lak province. This has been two years in the making and has involved working alongside the Elephant Conservation Centre, Animals Asia Foundation, Wild Welfare and local architects; IDIC.
As well as supporting the conservation of the country's remaining wild elephants, the centre's unique design has been formulated to provide a home for Vietnam's last tourist elephants and any injured or orphaned wild elephants that cannot be returned to the wild.
Based on my own research into the needs and welfare of elephants in captivity, as well as fifteen years managing them and designing their habitats, the unique layout of the facility has been configured to deal with the full spectrum of challenges the centre might face. This ranges from establishing social groups with previously un-socialised tourist elephants to providing intensive medical care to injured or orphaned wild elephants.
The interconnected dual radiating hub design has been designed to facilitate socialisation and allows individual and groups of elephants to be transitioned across a dynamic management spectrum reflecting the needs of the elephants; from management prioritising medical attention for injured or disabled elephants in need of intensive care, through to more extensive management prioritising the psychological needs of elephants in the expansive forested elements of the facility.
The aim of the facility is to transition all elephants towards extensive management and where possible, back to the wild, whilst still retaining the capacity to address legacy psychological and physical challenges remaining resident elephants may have.
Tourists will be able to visit the centre and learn about Vietnam's elephants and the challenges they face in way that no longer exploits them, but actually supports their care and conservation. The opportunity to see herds of previously intensively managed tourist elephants behaving as they would in the adjacent protected areas is hoped to provide a viable economic alternative to tourism currently based on the exploitation of elephants.
In the course of the last two years our work expanded far beyond assistance in design but also supporting ECC in formulating management practices, guidance towards developing a national conservation strategy and assisting in the rescue and rehabilitation of two young elephants. Just this week, as well as the completion of the layout for the 350 plus acre facility we also helped devise a birthing plan for one of the first tourist elephants to become pregnant in Vietnam for around three decades as well as providing support to ECC staff in the socialisation of the centre’s elephants.
This innovative facility will hopefully provide a beacon demonstrating a more compassionate alternative future for the region’s 15,000-20,000 captive Asian elephants where their psychological needs will be prioritised, and the economic realities of their protection secured by providing an ethical non-exploitative tourism alternative to the riding of elephants.