For many years, one of the pleasures of Phnom Penh’s riverside has been observing the daily commute of Sambo, the iconic elephant, who has been giving rides and entertaining city residents and tourists at Wat Phnom since the early 1990s. However, recently Sambo’s health has become a matter of controversy which has brought her owner into negotiations with the Forestry Administration of Cambodia and wildlife NGO Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (EARS) to find a solution to the suffering elephant’s medical problems.
EARS Asia founder Louise Rogerson said they sent a letter to the Phnom Penh City Hall addressed to Phnom Penh’s Governor Kep Chutema and the director of the Forestry Administration Ty Sokhun to get them to coordinate negotiations with Sambo’s owner, Sin Sorn.
Sin Sorn, 55, has continued to work the elephant entertaining visitors at Wat Phnom for more than a year despite having an infected abscess on her foot.
“We are requesting for Sambo to be taken to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre which has superb medical facilities to care for sick elephants,” Rogerson said.
Dan Koelh, an elephant trainer with more than 30 years experience, said Sambo, 51, desperately needed to be treated.
“If Sambo is not treated she will get permanent damage in her joints and feet. It appears Sin Sorn does not take professional consideration of his animal. He has neglected her health and wellbeing,” Koelh said.
“Even if you’re not an elephant expert you can see the damage in Sambo’s feet. She can’t even stand properly. Most of the time, she puts one leg in the air because it is too painful for her to stand on her sick foot.
“She should be taken to Phnom Tamao Zoo. Not only does she need to retire but she should also be hospitalized as a patient.”
Sin Sorn said he would have face-to-face negotiations with EARS Asia to get Sambo treated early this month.
“I look forward to meeting them again for the agreement and I am happy to get my elephant proper treatment,” Sin Sorn said.
He has responded to the mounting pressure to treat his elephant by Sambo’s supporters by reducing her work hours. Instead of working every day, she now works only four days a week from 7.30am to 4pm.
“As she suffers from walking on hard surfaces, we’ve stopped making her walk for a while until her feet get better treatment,” Sin Sorn said.
However, Rogerson said Sambo needed to retire completely from her work so she can recuperate and recover from her foot problems.
“EARS Asia will fund the entire medical treatment if this elephant is retired. We are unable to treat her while she still walks on hard ground as advised by the vet,” she said.
According to the EARS Asia website, veterinarian Dr Paolo Martelli from Hong Kong flew to Phnom Penh to issue a full medical report on Sambo. In his conclusion, he said Sambo was in a painfully lame condition as a result of pododermatitis, osteitis, ostoelysis, deep sepsis and other lesions.
He said if the condition did not improve drastically it would lead to degeneration of all her joints in her limbs. This would result in an incapacitated animal.
The main cause of the lesions was said to be because Sambo had been continually walking on hard surfaces with damaged feet.
According to Sim Sorn, Sambo was found by his father Prum Song, a farmer and elephant hunter in Kampong Speu province. Sambo, who was eight at the time, had been trapped with four other elephants in Trapaing village, Soroung Toung commune, Kampong Speu province.
During the Pol Pot regime, Sambo and Sim Sorn’s family were evacuated and brought to Orm Laing commune, Tpong district, Kampong Speu province. In 1977 Sambo was once again taken from Kampong Speu to Battambang and, after being separated from her family, brought to Kravan mountain in Pursat province.
“After the Pol Pot regime collapsed, my family and I decided to go back to our homeland to search for Sambo. Then one day a traveller told me my elephant was alive on Kravan mountain,” Sin Sorn said.
“I could clearly identify my own elephant because Sambo’s ear was cut. My father cut it as a mark of ownership when they first found her. Moreover, she had a black point on the neck,” he said.
Because Sin Sorn’s family struggled to make a living they decided to take Sambo to Phnom Penh in 1982. After Wat Phnom was renovated in 1993, Sambo started her career in giving rides and has since become a popular attraction.