03 March 2013

Elephas maximus: lord of the jungle


Elephants can be seen everywhere here: large stone ones guard the entrances to pagodas, armour-wearing ones carry men to battle in the temple carvings and there is even an Elephant Terrace amongst the ruins of Angkor Thom. Elephants feature in Cambodian myths, they frequently appear in the designs woven in textiles, their statues adorn many public buildings, and live ones give rides to tourists.

However, I’m not sure that riding elephants is an ethically or morally correct activity for tourists here, as the poor beasts are often not well treated, according to Jack Highwood who runs the Elephant Valley Project. The project, in the northeastern province of Mondulkiri, is home to 12 elephants that Jack has rescued from locals, though, in this case, the mahouts often accompany their elephants to the sanctuary – being paid to care for their elephants at the sanctuary provides an alternative income for these local people.

The Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom

The indigenous people of northeastern Cambodia still actively work with elephants, using them to haul logs from the jungle, periodically harvesting their ivory for sale to the Vietnamese, and, latterly, using these majestic beasts to carry tourists on treks to local tourist attractions.

Sadly, these elephants are frequently mistreated. The methods used to render them safe around tourists are nothing short of torture, designed to crush their spirits, and they are often overworked and undernourished – elephants need to eat for 15 to 20 hours each day just to maintain their body weight, impossible if they’re out trekking with tourists all day.

According to 2006 statistics, there are just over 200 elephants living in captivity in Cambodia and between 200 and 300 wild elephants. The Cambodian jungle does, in fact, provide an ideal habitat for the elephants and large areas of dense and seemingly remote forest still remain here. However, even in these remote areas, the elephant population has been decimated by ivory hunters and by the prevalence of landmines.

Elephants as temple decorations
My organisaton, Globalteer, provides volunteers and financial support to the Elephant Valley Project, which I hope to visit in the coming months. If you care about elephants, don’t be tempted to ride them. Instead, spend a week or two helping to care for them – bathing them, feeding them and helping to conserve their forest environment. I’m sure that would be a much more satisfying experience.

A temple guard at the ruins at Koh Ker