Mnong ethnic and elephant in Vietnam

By Réhahn

To the M’nông, elephants are the symbols of wealth, power and strong spirit. This is why elephants are always treated as human being in this minority. M’nông people are also well-known for the elephant training skills. Hunting elephant is not an easy job for its potential dangers. The hunters are required to have significant ability to overcome the challenges in jungles. From a wild animal, the elephant is caught and raised as a pet which plays a crucial transportation role in daily life of the M’nông.

In the past, elephants are symbols of war. The chief of the village usually tell stories about how elephants help their ancestor won enemy. To them, elephants are not only their partners but also supporters.


The Law of protecting elephants are created by the M’nông. According to the law, when elephants are not in a good health condition, villagers need to spend time on taking care of them.

People who abuse or eat elephants will be heavily punished. Those who kill elephants for business purposes will be strictly penalized. People who softly hurt elephants have to pay a fine by a bottle of wine or a pig. Those who excessively abuse elephants pay a fine by a cow or another elephant.

This law is used not only on human but also on elephants. Elephants that deliberately cause the death of human will be killed.

The chief of village will organize a judge about that elephant’s guilt in front of villagers and other elephant to ask whether the elephant deserves to be killed or not. If people agree, the elephants will beat their sprouts into lands, if they don’t agree, they will just stand.

The owner of the murder elephant pays a fine by an elephant or a pig and wine for worship. The M’nông consider elephants as the highest value which is similar to human being.

Gây chết người đền một voi (Indirectly kill 1 person, pay 1 elephant)
Chém chết người đền sáu dik.(Directly kill 1 person, pay 6 dik)

Dik is used to call slave. Those who don’t have elephant to pay for their punishment will become a slave of the victim’s family.

To explain these disciplines, the ethnical researcher Chu Thai informs that, the elephant’s owner considers this animal as a family member. When the elephants die, they never eat them. In the M’nông rules, no animal can pay for human’s crimes except elephants. There is no property can help people to avoid crimes but elephants.



The population of M’nông in 2009 is 102,741 (source: Wikipedia). They mainly live in the mountainous areas of Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Quang Nam or Lam Dong province. Besides, there is a small group of M’nông living in Cambodia.
Custom and habits

M’nông people live in “Bon” which is name after a village. Each Bon has tens of different families with close relationship. Depending on each Bon, houses are built as house on stilts or normal house without steps.

No matter what kind of house is, the roof is covered by dried grass and the frame is made from wood and bamboo. M’nông people often live in the areas near valleys, lakes or rivers.

M’nông ethnic has a close relationship with nature. From the early days, they have had a great sense of preserving jungles. To them, forests are houses protecting humans from bad creatures. The tradition of catching and training wild elephants into domestic elephants has become a tradition in M’nông.


The M’nông who lives in the mountainous areas lives by splashing bush and cultivation. Those who live in the riverside area, their main job is water rice farming. Corns, cassava, sweet potato are also the main foods of M’nông.

According to Mr. Ama Phong, from M’nông Riâm in Lắc district, Dak Lak:
“The ancient M’nông didn’t splash bush and burn cultivation, they catch fish and grow water rice instead. The traditional customs and habits of M’nông is also similar with the Ê đê minority, there is only difference in the language between M’nông and Ê đê ethnic group”.

The M’nông owns a diverse culture with a huge collection of ancient stories, slangs and idioms. The traditional instrument include different kinds of gong, flock,… Cần wine is the traditional wine of M’nông people. The M’nông prefers wearing many kinds of jewelry as necklace, bracelet, earings, and golden rings.

The M’nông follows the polytheism; however, some people follow Christianism or Protestant.


The M’nông love sour foods as young bamboo shoot (băng s’rat) and fish sauce, fermented fish, shrimp, buffalo meat, … Normally, foods are marinated for a long time and used for a whole season.


In Lien Son town, Dak Lak, a ritual praying for the elephants’ health is organized annually in the first month of Lunar new year. This tradition has been available for a thousand years. The time of the event depends on the health condition of elephants and their owners. Those who attend this event should bring wine or pig as a gift for the owner. The festival aims at showing the respect of villagers to the God, ancient generation and prays for health for the elephant and its owner.


According to the statistic in 2005, the number of domestic elephants has been dramatically fallen from 600 (1980) to 165 (2005) (Source:

It’s an alarming number showing the act to preserve the population of elephants must be implemented immediately.

Nowadays, the government of Dak Lak is determined in preserving the number of elephants and traditional customs of the M’nong. It’s to help the M’nong ethnic group conserve their relationship with elephants and their traditional costumes.


The photo symbolizes the respect between the human and elephants. Taken in 2014, this shot was published in more than 40 countries and several word famous magazines as Times magazine and National Geographic…

What makes the picture become special is the opposite between a huge natural creature as the elephant and the small girl – Kim Luan.

NOTE: The purpose of this photo was to make a strong image to remind respect that we should have toward elephants. Réhahn does not see it as documentary but as Fine Art Photography.