PU TROM, Cambodia — The quiet life that Sambo leads today seems as distant from her past plight as the searing-hot streets she once trod as a tourist attraction in the far-off capital of Phnom Penh.
“Elephants are not meant to walk on concrete,” says Jemma Bullock, deputy director at the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment and the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) near the community of Pu Trom in eastern Cambodia.
Sambo is one of 12 elephants currently residing at the EVP site in a blanket of forest draped over a scuttle of hills and valleys in Mondulkiri province. All but one of them have followed similar trajectories to this place. Aging and in many ways made obsolete by the mechanized world, these elephants have found solace living out their days wandering around the forest.
Jack Highwood, a British archaeology student-turned-elephant mahout, and Chhaeul Plouk, a member of the local Bunong Indigenous community whose family had kept elephants for generations, started the project in 2006 and began taking in elephants in 2007. The project sits on titled land leased from families living in the nearby villages of Pu Trom.
Today, it not only provides both a home for the elephants, but also protects a bank of high-quality forest adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary. What’s more, it serves as a source of jobs, sustenance and services for local communities, Bullock says, which was the intention from the start.
By 2019, payments from visitors to the site covered the costs of veterinary care and food for the elephants, as well as the staff payroll. The EVP also invested in scholarships and health care for the Pu Trom villages, and it funded community patrols to help ward off poachers and illegal loggers from the adjacent Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.
But tourists stopped coming when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began and global travel halted in 2020. That left the project’s leaders struggling to keep operations going and led them to pare down what they could provide beyond meeting the elephants’ basic needs. At the same time, pressure on the forests and communities increased, as Cambodia’s city dwellers sought the freedom and lower cost of living in this part of the country.
Bullock and the management team have kept the EVP afloat in its streamlined state, and visitors have begun to return, replenishing the project’s coffers along with outright donations and grants like those from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cambodia program to help make up the shortfall.
Today, it employs 58 people, most of whom are Bunong, as cooks, cleaners, tour guides and mahouts. The project also compensates the owners of the elephants kept at the project, helping to ease both the transition from the benefits owners used to get from their elephants and the growing financial burden of having to feed and care for an elephant.
The initial thought was to provide a place for elephants to rest and heal for a few months. But the EVP soon expanded its mission.
“Some of the owners were like, ‘Hey, this is a pretty cool idea. Can we let our elephant stay there long term?’” Bullock says. About half of the elephants are still owned by individuals or communities who receive payments for keeping them there.
A byproduct of the EVP’s success as a destination for tourists who want to see elephants in their natural environment has been the protection of the more than 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of rainforest sitting just outside the wildlife-rich Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.
The EVP land lies along the eastern edge of the sanctuary and persists today as forest in large part because the landowners benefit materially from the elephants’ presence, even as increasing pressure for clearance has come from outside and within.
“The elephant also doesn’t just want to be in the village and in the grassland,” Chhaeul Plouk says. “They want to be in the forest as well.”
A forested refuge
In her 60 years, Sambo has seen her role change as markedly as the landscape that’s home to the dwindling numbers of her wild cousins in Southeast Asia. Sambo’s time on the streets of Phnom Penh left her with rotten teeth, thanks to the sugary bananas tourists would pay to feed her, as well as multiple abscesses where the pavement had driven her nails up into her feet. Those health problems piled on top of earlier hardships: At some point, an accident in a river left her fearful of water.
She was “a worst-case scenario” when she arrived in September 2014, Bullock says, the physical and psychological trauma having stripped away her essential elephant-ness.
When she first arrived, Sambo was like a “robot,” Bullock says. Today, though, things are different. “Now she gets to show all that behavior with other elephants and hanging out in the forest.”
Ethnic groups across Southeast Asia like the Bunong have long kept elephants as part of a cultural tradition. They pass down the skills of the mahouts from generation to generation, and the animals themselves become part of the family, the mahouts say. That heritage is something the EVP tries to preserve.
“We have these beautiful traditional relationships between elephants and a local Bunong community,” Bullock says. They also provide a treasured spiritual link with the forests for the Bunong.
Mahouts accompany each elephant throughout the day on their circuits through the forest to graze and socialize and cool off in the rivers, which even Sambo has come to love. Some, like mahout Chhaeul Thouk, who goes by Norm and whose brother Plouk co-founded the EVP, grew up learning to care for elephants.
“I love elephants as my brother and sister,” Norm says. Then, motioning to Gee Nowl, the elephant prodding him for a piece of watermelon, he adds, “I love this old elephant like my mother.”
Elsewhere, though, outside the EVP’s boundaries, that relationship is fraying as the forces of global change exert their pressure on the tenuous ties linking humans and pachyderms.
Keeping forests intact
Around the EVP, another persistent tension abounds — between the preservation and loss of forests. The Bunong have a unique and long history with the forests. Traditionally, they farmed rice and cassava, clearing plots in a rotation that allowed some patches to recover while others were in use. Far from Phnom Penh and other major cities, pressure on the core forest areas was low, leaving them to grow mostly unfettered and play host to a vibrant array of species here in the foothills of the Annamite Mountains.
But with the onset of Cambodia’s civil war in the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge government forced the Bunong, along with other ethnic minorities, from the forests as the country’s leaders moved to collectivize the country’s food production. Once the war was over, many were able to return, though the circumstances around them had changed. Cambodia’s new leaders were focused on developing the country, and that meant new roads, including a paved connector running all the way from Phnom Penh right along the edge of Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.
The EVP sits just beyond the border of the sanctuary, considered to be Cambodia’s most biodiverse protected area, with some 1,028 species of wildlife documented there as of mid-2023. But Keo Seima faces threats from loggers and poachers, in part because at nearly 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres), it’s difficult to police. Here, on the sanctuary’s northeastern flank, the threats are serious and ever-present, ranging from hunting of the sanctuary’s threatened wildlife to clearance for farms and plantations to illegal logging for high-value timber.
In the EVP site, the presence of the project’s elephants and their human minders in the forest helps keep things intact.
“That’s the idea of protecting this bit, creating another buffer zone to that protected area,” Bullock says.
As in many parts of Cambodia, development has increased land speculation and migration to rural areas. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people have sought refuge from Cambodia’s crowded cities and the rising costs of living there and bought up less expensive land in and around Bunong communities.
The Bunong have long managed land communally, with different areas allocated for farming, grazing, hunting and spirit forests. But as private, outside buyers have snapped up more land, less of that land has been available for the needs of the Bunong families themselves and for elephants to rest and graze. Today, the valleys surrounding the EVP are checkered with burnt-crimson swatches of freshly cleared earth. Elsewhere, natural forest has been replaced by rubber trees.
“Elephants can’t eat in rubber plantation monocultures,” and their prodigious appetites make them a burden for their owners, Bullock says. She points to an elephant munching on grass nearby named Ruby who had spent years hauling timber from the forests and suffered a broken tail in the process. Ruby came from a community where rows of rubber have been planted in the past decade. “She’s literally a refugee from that kind of thing,” Bullock adds.
At the same time, machines now do much of the work once shouldered by captive elephants, whether on the family farm or in industries like the logging that led to Ruby’s broken tail. Such changes have left parts of Cambodia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia with phalanxes of out-of-work elephants and their struggling owners.
“They don’t make an income from them anymore,” Bullock says, “[but] they still have to look after them.”
The Bunong would typically employ their elephants to haul heavy sacks of a family’s harvested rice for a few hours a day, or to carry a farmer on their necks to a farm plot in the forest. In between their time on the clock, the elephants would rest and graze in the forest.
But fewer options have led elephant owners and mahouts to turn to tourism or seek out the scant industrial-scale jobs that remain, as Sambo’s owner did, for their elephants to earn their keep, often working grueling hours in harsh environments.
“If you’ve moved the elephant into a tourism camp or into logging, they’re working 10 to 12 hours a day, and then you have serious issues,” Bullock says. The problems don’t arise simply because elephants are asked to work, she adds. “It’s when humans become greedy.”
A new home
Reports by animal rights groups like World Animal Protection have called many “sanctuaries” out for what they say are stressful lives for elephants in which their intelligence and charisma are bent toward an experience that’s entertaining for visitors and lucrative for the sites’ owners.
They might be forced to carry heavy wooden cabs on their backs where tourists can ride, leaving sores and scars along the bony arching ridge of their spine. They may be herded into a ring to paint pictures or perform balancing acts. Or paying visitors may be allowed to wash the elephants in small pools, where, some researchers say, the onslaught of touch and sound from unfamiliar people can be stressful. On the whole, Bullock says, elephants in these centers live harried and largely miserable lives.
The EVP’s elephants do none of these things. Instead, Bullock explains, small groups of day-tripping tourists are on the elephants’ terms. They must keep a distance of 6-10 meters (about 20-33 feet), and a mahout whom the elephant knows and trusts is always nearby. The main attraction is the literal and figurative magnitude of seeing an elephant in something resembling its natural environment. Few visitors seem to leave disappointed, and many sign on to volunteer with the project, doing construction work, trail and garden maintenance, or reforestation.
The presence of the elephants and their mahouts in the main valley of the project has provided protection so effective that, today, the place attracts visitors of a different kind. The verdant forests have now become an occasional refuge for wild elephants coming out of Keo Seima. Before, a river system served as an informal separation from the EVP site, with ample bamboo and other forage on the far side of the rivers keeping the wild herds separate. But now, as deforestation for farming and larger-scale crops like rubber have hemmed elephants into smaller areas and hampered their access to food, they’re crossing the rivers more frequently.
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with an estimated 40,000-50,000 remaining in the wild. Most live in India, Myanmar and Thailand. Cambodia’s wild population is 400-600, with perhaps 100-130 of those living in Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary (though the figures date from 2009 and a survey using DNA is currently underway). Bullock figures Cambodia has 73 elephants left in captivity.
On a large map in the project’s education center, she points out the green areas denoting forests that herds used to visit, and the overlap with the areas hit hard by clearance in the last decade, and especially in the past few years.
“What we’re seeing now is this is pretty much all gone. You have cutting here, cutting here,” she says. And then, sweeping her hand over the EVP land, she adds, “The only bit that we’ve got left is this little bit here.”
The influx of wild elephants has been frightening for the captive elephants and local community members, who see that the wild elephants are being squeezed into smaller spaces.
“It’s because of deforestation elsewhere,” says Om Sophorl, Sambo’s mahout. “We have to figure that out.”
With less forest, they follow the pungent scent of cashew orchards and banana plantations, while destroying even crops they don’t eat, like cassava, that stand in their way.
“As it comes towards more of the dry season, the elephants are coming out of the forest because there’s a lack of standing water, there’s less resources in the forest,” Cain Agger, the biodiversity monitoring technical adviser with the WCS Cambodia program, tells Mongabay. The incursion of elephants is challenging, and he and his colleagues can sympathize with both the elephants and the farmers. “It’s a situation where an immovable object meets an unstoppable force in the sense that you can’t take sides.”
For captive elephants, the clash with a wild herd presents a new set of problems. Many of the EVP’s residents are elderly, Bullock says, and so while they might still attract a wild bull in musth, they likely lack the strength to withstand his advances.
“They can’t get away,” Bullock says. It’s becoming a more persistent problem. The mahouts say they found a fresh footprint that an elephant made the night before on project land.
In 2021, a wild bull sought out Gee Pael, one of EVP’s younger females, in her 30s at the time and in estrous. The musthing bull yanked her heavy night chain from its anchor and chased Gee Pael, also known as Pearl, into the forest. (The night chains keep the project’s elephants from wandering onto the road or damaging farmers’ crops while still allowing them to graze.)
She kept trying to return to her herd at the project site. But the bull was relentless for about two weeks, and the staff thought they had lost her permanently. Eventually, though, she did make it back. Then, about a year later, she had a baby, Gee Pich. Gee Pich, who also goes by Diamond, is another mouth to feed, and Bullock worries about her future, which could extend over the next seven decades. Still, watching the little one grow since her birth in early 2022 has been an undeniable delight for the EVP’s staff and visitors alike.
The noose of deforestation is also tightening around the communities in the area, leaving them with fewer options to pay for the rising costs of everything from education to health care to housing, increasing the importance of the aid the EVP project provides to families, Bullock says. In the past decade and a half, the project would provide 30-40 scholarships a year for local youth to attend middle and high school. Two returned to their communities as educators after support from the project allowed them to attend a teachers’ college. The EVP has also helped out with health care costs and transport to nearby hospitals, community members tell Mongabay, especially before the paved road made travel easier.
Bullock says supporting access to health care does more than just provide a benefit to people because they are associated with the project. It also reduces the need for a family member to cut down more forest to plant crops or take part in the illegal logging trade when unexpected medical expenses arise. Bullock says the effects of these emergencies ripple through a family’s economic calculations.
“Maybe there’s someone who breaks their leg and they have to go to the hospital to receive that care. That costs money. So their dad comes out, and he’s like, ‘Well, where am I going to get that cash?’” she says. “It puts pressure on members of the community to go out logging, to cut these luxury timbers, or to sell the bit of land up here that that guy from Phnom Penh has been hassling you to buy.”
Cambodia has some of the world’s highest household debt levels, something many experts blame for exacerbating deforestation rates. The nearby town of Sen Monorom is chock-full of banks and microfinance institutions that lend out money at high — some might say predatory — rates.
Today, Bullock says, they’ve had to scale back on some of these support programs because numbers of paying tourists have yet to rebound to pre-COVID levels (though employees say she’s pretty much always willing to take people to the hospital in one of the project’s vehicles if necessary). Now, all the money they make from tourists goes to veterinary care, food and compensation for the owners of the EVP land.
They’ve suspended the scholarship program for the time being, Bullock says, and they’re no longer able to provide an estimated 20-30% of their tourism revenues to support community patrols in and around the wildlife sanctuary.
“What we have realized through COVID is we might have to diversify that a little bit,” Bullock says.
The EVP isn’t alone in the challenges it’s faced since the onset of the pandemic. Boycen Kumira Mudzengi, a lecturer in geography and environmental science at Great Zimbabwe University and the lead author of a study on the effects of the pandemic on ecotourism, says he’s found that communities in Zimbabwe prioritize habitat and wildlife preservation — when it’s working the way it’s supposed to.
“You find that if people are benefiting from the resources, they now develop a sense of stewardship,” Mudzengi says. “They know that if we conserve resources … we’re going to get benefits.”
The other side of that coin is what happens when that money stops flowing. For the communities Mudzengi studied, that’s meant more hunting.
“Once the benefits decline, more people move into poaching,” he says. “We need to develop the resilience maybe to anticipate those shocks before they even happen.”
The challenges that tourism-dependent communities have faced as a result of the pandemic highlight the need for a broader base of funding that could continue to encourage conservation in the way ecotourism has, Mudzengi said.
Mudzengi suggests REDD+ financing could benefit these communities and help them weather the vagaries of tourism income. Short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, REDD+ essentially pays communities to keep their forests standing.
In Cambodia, Bullock says REDD+ money could help the EVP and families involved, perhaps stemming from the role that the presence of the elephants plays in keeping the carbon-sequestering forests intact. A portion of Keo Seima is covered by a REDD+ project, but at this point, it’s unclear how that funding would work for the EVP in practice.
In the drive from the edge of the project site toward base camp, Bullock points out a man on a motorcycle with a massive beam strapped behind him.
“This is some of that illegal logging,” she says. The patrols that the EVP once supported kept watch over this area of the forest near the entrance to the wildlife sanctuary. But now, the few staff the sanctuary employs in the area aren’t always present at the entrance station down the road, and illegal loggers and transporters stay in touch by radio about the ways they can pass through with their contraband undetected.
Still, to Bullock, the healthy forest that remains on site is proof of concept that the project’s benefits extend beyond the elephants or even the communities for which it has become an economic lifeline. Even as the surging conversion of forest to farmland has swarmed around them, their forest remains relatively intact, providing an important refuge for other species. Recently, endangered southern yellow-cheeked crested gibbons (Nomascus gabriellae) were spotted in the forest below the project’s base camp, a first in recent memory and an indicator of the health of the forest since these apes prefer dense canopy. Staff have also reported seeing giant squirrels (Ratufa bicolor) for the first time in years.
Some of the communities involved with the EVP also receive money separately through the Keo Seima REDD+ program, called cash for communities, which provides funds contingent on them meeting certain conservation metrics such as protecting a specified area of forest. Many are choosing to invest in education and health care services so that the services once supported by the EVP can continue.
In her conversations with people in the area, Bullock says, it’s clear people realize the ramifications of the forest loss going on around them. The rivers don’t flow the way they once did, and they complain of higher local temperatures, she says — part of the reason they continue to support the EVP’s work.
Similarly, the staff remain committed, despite having their wages delayed by about six months. The project has been working toward making up for the slowdown as the number of tourists has continued to grow.
“If this community didn’t support this project the way they did, they wouldn’t work [being] five months behind in wages,” Bullock says. They have pride in the work they do, she says, adding, “It’s their project as much as it’s the elephant project.”
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Bluesky: @john-cannon.bsky.social
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Sambo had broken her tail while working in logging. In fact, Ruby, not Sambo, broke her tail during her years working in the logging industry.
Mudzengi, B. K., Gandiwa, E., Muboko, N., & Mutanga, C. N. (2022). Innovative community ecotourism coping and recovery strategies to COVID-19 pandemic shocks: The case of Mahenye. Development Southern Africa, 39(1), 68-83. doi:10.1080/0376835X.2021.1980375
Palkopoulou, E., Lipson, M., Mallick, S., Nielsen, S., Rohland, N., Baleka, S., … Reich, D. (2018). A comprehensive genomic history of extinct and living elephants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(11), E2566-E2574. doi:10.1073/pnas.1720554115
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This article by John Cannon was first published by Mongabay.com on 31 August 2023. Lead Image: Leaders of the Elephant Valley Project say the sustained presence of the elephants has helped protect the site’s forests. Image by John Cannon/Mongabay.