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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Elephants take jumbo dip in the Gulf

Elephants take jumbo dip in the Gulf

IN a bid to find a better life, an independently-minded Asian elephant and her calf

have packed their trunks and headed out to sea, taking up residence on an island

off the coast of Koh Kong province.

The elephant, nicknamed 'Floaty' by the Wildlife Protection Office (WPO), left her

home at Botum Sakor National Park on February 7 with her female calf. They swam for

at least seven kilometers to the island of Koh Manoa, setting a possible pachyderm

world record.

But they didn't stop there. After turning their noses up at the small island, the

pair promptly took to the waters and headed to the next island in the archipelago,

Koh Rung.

And it seems Floaty has started a trend - reports coming in late on February 13 indicated

that two more elephants had made a break from the national park and swum to another

small island off the coast.

The reason behind these unexpected migrations has conservationists stumped. Joe Heffernan,

Flora and Fauna International (FFI) coordinator for the Indochina elephant program,

said the most likely explanation for Floaty's dip in the Gulf of Thailand was the

recent influx of people moving into national park areas and threatening her habitat.

"[The elephants] appear to be heading south but we're not quite sure why,"

he said. "I suspect it is competition with people for land and space. This is

why the elephants have reacted this way."

Chheang Dany, head of the conservation unit at WPO, said he had never seen anything

like it.

"We have never heard of an elephant swimming across the sea like that, I think

it is the first time," said an amazed Dany. "A baby elephant swam in Sihanoukville

recently, but it did not get very far. Nobody really knows why they are doing this."

Floaty and her calf were spotted off the coast of Koh Manoa on the evening of February

7. The two exhausted pachyderms were then taken to dry land by local police commander

Long Chhim, who promptly got in touch with the government and environmental groups.

FFI rushed out to do a comprehensive habitat study of Koh Manoa, and deduced that

it was an unsuitable habitat for Floaty and her daughter. There aren't enough salt

licks, said Heffernan, and there is a high risk of human-elephant conflict.

But it seemed the elephants knew that already. On the morning of February 10, they

sneaked past the sleeping conservationists and paddled to the larger island of Koh

Rung.

It appears that there are now three options available for feisty Floaty and her calf.

First, see if they adapt to the natural environment. Not a credible option, said

Dany, as the elephants will probably start eating the residents' crops.

The most expensive and difficult operation, he said, would be finding the pair immediately

and airlifting them to the mainland. That would cost at least $50,000.

"It is very difficult to find an elephant on a big island," explained Dany.

"We would have to mobilize a lot of people. We would need a helicopter. In the

forest, who can carry an elephant?"

The third option is waiting until Floaty and calf head to the beach, and chasing

them into the sea. Once they are afloat, he said, they can be pushed back to the

mainland by boat.

But however they do it, getting the pair permanently back on dry land is a top priority

for Dany.

"I am worried the elephants will die," he said. "They drank a lot

of salt water and they have diarrhea."

And with only about 400 elephants left in Cambodia, Floaty's lack of male companionship

is another concern. Human activity such as land encroachment, habitat loss and road

construction all threaten the country's elephants with extinction.

"There is a limited gene pool," said FFI's Heffernan. "It would be

a priority to keep elephants together."

But all the effort to return Floaty and her calf to the mainland could prove futile

if the stubborn pair just try to swim back to Koh Rung.

"That is a problem," said Dany. "We cannot assume that the elephants

will not just swim across the sea again."

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