Frank Momberg, chief representative for the Hanoi office of Britain's Fauna and Flora International, said 98 wild elephants have been confirmed living in Vietnam's fragmented forests, mostly in the central and southern parts of the country.
Interviews with local villagers suggest the overall total of wild elephants could be 150, down considerably from an estimate of 1,500 to 2,000 in 1990, he said. An ivory trade boom has taken its toll, but the main culprit since 1992 has been loss of habitat.
FFI's study showed that between 1992 and 1998, half of the 100,000 acres of the elephant's native forests in the southern provinces of Dong Nai and Binh Thuan were converted to agricultural land by state farms, Momberg said. The remaining forests in the two provinces are fragmented, making it difficult to create an elephant sanctuary.
Momberg said most of the remaining elephant herds have no more than five individuals each, raising the problem of inbreeding.
Earlier this year, FFI and Vietnam's Forest Protection Department conducted a feasibility study on establishing a nature reserve for wild elephants in Dong Nai.
However, the study failed because the two latest surveys showed that there are only six elephants in the area, five of which had moved on to neighboring Binh Thuan province.
In 1993, the Vietnamese government hired a team of Thai and Singaporean elephant tamers to relocate a herd in Dong Nai province. All but one of the captured pachyderms died.
Around the same time, the remaining elephants, which local villagers had been able to approach, became very aggressive. Thirteen villagers in Dong Nai and Binh Thuan have been trampled to death since then, including five so far this year.
Momberg said creating a sanctuary in the two provinces is not feasible because it is extremely difficult and costly to relocate 30,000 people who live in the remaining forests and to build an electrified fence around the area.
He said FFI will begin a feasibility study on creating an elephant training center in the central Daklak province, where most of Vietnam's domestic elephants are located.