The forests along the Viet Nam-Laos border were once home to many wild elephants. But today, barely 100 remain.

A new plan recently signed by Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai aims to help the decimated population recover.

Under the 278 billion VND (13.3 million USD) plan, three conservation areas for wild elephants will be set up in Pu Mat, Cat Tien and Yok Don national parks and those who illegally hunt, transport or sell elephant meat or tusks will see stricter punishments.

The plan will also fund research on the animal's reproductive cycle in an attempt to increase the population.

Although exact numbers are unknown, the Vietnam Administration of Forestry estimates that between 75 and 130 elephants remain in the country, scattered in the provinces of Dong Nai, Ha Tinh, Nghe An, Quang Nam and Thanh Hoa as well as throughout the Central Highlands.

Professor Dang Huy Huynh, chairman of the Vietnam Zoological Society, praised the plan but emphasised the importance of involving local people.

"It is imperative to issue policies to encourage ethnic minorities, including Ede , Gia Rai and M'nong, who live in the Central Highlands region – a major home of elephants – to join hands to protect elephants," he said.

Because these people may know more about elephants than anyone does, he explained, their knowledge could help the plan succeed.

Huynh also pointed out that since elephants' habitats are about 20-30 kilometres wide, much bigger than those of other wild species, conservation areas needed to be built on a large scale with plenty of food and suitable ecosystems.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development will co-operate with relevant agencies to implement the plan, which will be funded by the State budget as well as international organisations and individuals.-VNA