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A New Documentary Tells the Story of Ethical Elephant Tourism in Dak Lak

While some documentaries come together after years of planning and storyboarding, others happen almost by chance.

Trương Hoàng Nhân came to make Tháo Bành Cho Voi (Bring Down The Howdahs) through the latter route. "It was a lucky encounter," he told Saigoneer in an email. "One day I was randomly messaged by a friend of a friend who is a member of Tô Đậm." Nhân is a Saigon-based filmmaker and a member of the indie collective Phim của Quạ.

He met the founder of Tô Đậm, who was working on painting a school in Buon Don, Dak Lak Province, and also had connections to Animals Asia, a wildlife NGO working to protect the province's remaining population of Asian elephants. "They said there were some pretty cool stories about elephants, and not knowing much of anything, I said ok," Nhân shared.

He worked with Nguyễn Quang Huy, his second shooter and editor, over four days and two nights on two trips in November 2019, gathering six hours of total footage. Due to other work, the editing process took well over a year, with the final version coming together during Saigon's ongoing lockdown.

An elephant in Yok Don. Photo by Nguyễn Quang Huy.

"When we went to Buon Don, we did not have any more knowledge on elephants than any regular tourist, but upon my first interview with Dionne [the Animal Welfare Manager at Animals Asia], I realized that in order for any change to be made, a drastic shift in tourist behavior must happen," he said. "But at the time [late 2019], barely any articles were talking about elephants in Dak Lak."

Tháo Bành Cho Voi (Bring Down The Howdahs) tells the story of how Animals Asia is working with officials in Dak Lak and local mahouts to end the exploitation of elephants for tourism; primarily the practice of letting visitors ride the majestic animals. A howdah is the seat placed on an elephant's back so that they can be ridden.

Instead of keeping elephants in confinement, under this program they are allowed to roam free in Yok Don National Park, while visitors can be taken into the forest in the hope of seeing the beasts in their natural environment.

Being around the elephants and their mahouts was a transformative experience for Nhân. "The elephants were very friendly with their mahouts around them, and they listened to orders, and one even developed an exquisite taste for only the purest spring water of Yok Don's forests and refuses to drink anywhere else," he said. "They are intelligent, they choose their mates as we choose our partners, they teach each other skills and care for them through hard times, and they stay with their mahouts, walking behind them even without chains tied to their legs."

The documentary portrays these close relationships tenderly, and highlights how much the mahouts — who are from the Ede and M'nong ethnic groups — care about their elephants. "The mahouts take good care of their elephants, more than people do with their dogs and cats, dare I say," Nhân explained. "In all the interactions I had, the mahouts were caring and hardworking. It's the way the travel industry monetizes elephants that is harming them."

Mahouts in the forest. Photo by Nguyễn Quang Huy.

In the end, the film is a heartfelt plea for people to reconsider the way they approach elephants, which are one of Vietnam's last examples of megafauna. Fewer than 200 wild elephants remain in the country.

"I hope that if any viewers go to Dak Lak, they will check out the tours both at Yok Don and the riding camps and make the decision for themself on which is the best way to enjoy and learn about what could possibly be the last generation of mahouts and their elephants," Nhân said. "Riding an elephant for five minutes for VND200,000 and possibly some Instagram photos, or tracing footsteps of an elephant for half of a day through the forest while hearing stories of how the biggest land animal in Asia came to be included in the traditions of the people of Dak Lak."

Watch Tháo Bành Cho Voi below.