Thursday, 13th August 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Last Great Elephant Hunter Achieves Indochine Glory

Posted on 30. Jun, 2010 by in Curious Travel

He’s notched up 298 pachyderms, and a lucrative product endorsement contract


Stardom can be defined in many ways. For Ama Kong it is a number, 298, the sum of wild elephants he has captured.

Now 90, with failing eyesight but still with a healthy head of hair, Ama Kong is the Michael Jordan of elephant hunters. He is, by his accounts, the second most successful elephant hunter in the country (his late uncle, Ama Krong, holds the title, with 487 animals).  Ama Kong has hobnobbed with royalty and government dignitaries. He proudly shows a nasty groin scar from a tusking – a badge of honor. And Ama Kong has his own signature brand of medicinal wine, the Vietnamese equivalent of having a sneaker named after you.

The gold lettering on the wine’s striking red box reads “Good for strengthening a man’s back and kidneys,” an Asian euphemism indicating that this is a powerful sex tonic.

And Ama Kong is walking proof, having sired 21 children from four wives.  The tonic might also explain his fine memory, since he is able to remember the names and birthdays of his spouses and offspring, including the youngest, a curious girl of seven named H’Bup Eban, who can’t resist clambering on to dad’s lap.  But there are some things that even herbal tonics can’t fix — his upper teeth are bright, intact, and obviously false compared to the red rotting stumps of his lower teeth, destroyed by years of chewing betel.

Ama Kong is likely to be the last elephant hunter superstar, since the animals are protected by Vietnamese law, fewer young people learn the skills today, and most importantly, because there are far fewer elephants around to catch.

Vietnam’s elephant population has declined dramatically in recent years, falling from a maximum estimated population of 2,000 animals in 1980 to just 114 in 2000.

The domesticated elephant population has similarly declined.  In Dak Lak province, where Ama Kong lives, located in the Vietnamese Central Highlands near the Cambodian border, there were some 300 domesticated elephants in 1990; that number decreased to just 138 in 2000.

But how exactly do you capture a wild elephant?

Moving slowly (when you’re 90 arthritis seeps in, even with the help of medicinal wine) Ama Kong demonstrates the procedure.

First he blows on a trumpet made of buffalo horn to seek the support of the forest spirits.  He then explains how he would go into the forest with several domesticated elephants (always an odd number of animals – odd numbers indicate male power; even numbers female) and look for a herd of wild pachyderms.  The domestic elephants are Judas elephants, he explains, since they are able to mingle with the wild herd, even when mahouts sit atop their necks.  The group tries to isolate a baby or juvenile (“easier to train than an adult” and a whole lot easier to catch).  Using a kind of cowboy lasso technique, Ama Kong shows how he would catch the prey’s foot with a rattan loop attached to a long stick.  The lasso was attached to a hundred meters of handmade leather rope made from water buffalo skin, and as the baby elephant ran it would get hopelessly entangled in the trees.  The domesticated elephants would then take over and escort the kidnapped baby as far as possible from the wild herd. When the elephant hunters camped at night they lit fires and beat gongs to frighten away the wild animals which had come to rescue the crying infant.

Ama Kong has also captured eight rare white elephants, which he describes as being “like the French because they have yellow eyes and fair skin”.  Because of the scarcity of white elephants and their importance in Buddhist cosmology, which in turn consolidates the power of kings, these animals brought him into contact with royalty from Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

In 1996, at the age of 81, Ama Kong captured his last elephant. This was five years after his hunting ground was made into a national park and elephants were declared a protected species.

“It’s a shame the government won’t let us hunt anymore,” he says.  “I’m still strong enough to lead a group of hunters into the forest.”

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