From ancient carvings and statues in magnificent temples, to popular folk legends, elephants have long been a part of Cambodia’s culture and traditions.

But today, like many nations across the world, elephant numbers are dwindling in the Kingdom. Most elephants today have disappeared from central Cambodia, with small populations surviving in the north eastern highlands and some Khmer speaking areas in Thailand’s Surin province.

But there is an organisation working to preserve the animal that has shaped the Kingdom’s history.

Airavata Khmer Elephant Foundation was created four years ago to protect the very last surviving tame domestic elephant population in Ratanakkiri province, as well as the traditions of their mahouts (elephant trainers).

Chenda Clais, the foundation’s president, is aiming to ensure the welfare of the animals by preserving the elephants’ natural habitat. The 46-year-old also works to research, revive and protect all elephant related traditions.

“We aim to perpetuate those traditions as they are constituent to the country’s soul, all the more that the wild elephant population is threatened each day a little bit more by deforestation and poaching,” the mother of three says.

Chenda Clais. Supplied

A graduate in French Literature from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh born Chenda has combined her professional experience across NGOs, hotel and tourism management, and agriculture in her role as Airavata president.

Unlike most elephant conservation associations who discourage interaction between elephants and humans, Chenda has taken a radically different approach.

“When you look at what it means for elephants to be in the wild, especially in Cambodia with the poaching problem and the fast destruction of their habitat, you understand that responsible tourism might be the only sustainable way for them to exist,” she says.

Consequently, Airavata is a new generation elephant camp that is committed to a responsible and ethical alternative to mass tourism, providing natural conditions for travellers to meet the elephants which are cared for by indigenous mahouts.

The camp is located just a few kilometres from Banlung, a provincial town in Ratanakiri province.

Named after the white elephant ridden by the God Indra in Hindu mythology, the foundation offers eco-tourism activities such as elephant rides, which are carefully supervised and held in the animal’s natural habitat, the forest.

With 300ha of community forest in Katieng village, plus another 60ha of farmland, Airavata offers a natural refuge for a small herd of elephants.

“Those two large plots of land allow them to be able to forage for sufficient amounts of food in the jungle where they spend around 17 hours a day, the other seven hours are spent at the camp, during which the elephants are, when needed, provided with a diet of locally grown seasonal produce to supplement their jungle diet,” said Chenda, who won an Asean Outstanding Women Entrepreneurs award in 2018.

Chenda hopes to maintain a welfare standard that benefits the elephants in every possible way--drawing inspiration from the Kouy ethnic people who have been able to manage the Thai elephant population through captive breeding.

“We are always looking for ways to improve the quality of life of our four elephants in a careful mix of traditional Khmer elephant management and the latest scientific knowledge. Elephants need sizeable living space in the jungle in order to be able to forage for enough food and socialise with other elephants. If their living space is too small the natural vegetation will run out before it has the opportunity to grow back,” she says.

In addition to offering ecotourism activities in the forest with the elephants, they also provide the animals with regular health checks and small medical interventions, as well as look after Katieng forest by discouraging logging.

Importance of communication

Chenda is planning to organise voluntary work for people willing to help in mahout and staff training, forestry protection, the creation of forest firebreaks, and tree nurseries to help replant deforested areas.

She also stresses the importance of communication and networking, with her foundation liaising with other elephant preservation communities in Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos.

“Thanks to the help of the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, we have been able to set up very beneficial cooperation with the Elephant Hospital in Lampang in Thailand.”

Additionally, throughout June, a Swedish elephant expert is set to work with Airavata to improve their elephant care. According to Chenda, the expert will return for one week a month over the course of a year to provide knowledge and technical work to the foundation.

“We were able to secure the invaluable expertise of Dan Koehl, one of the world’s most competent elephant consultants and experts who is now an adviser to our foundation. If we do nothing, the 69 tame elephants still remaining in the country will simply vanish off the face of Cambodia,” she says.

Chenda recalls among her proudest achievements with the foundation – the simple rescue of one elephant named Bak Mai from certain death. The animal killed a man in Mondulkiri province and he was being starved to death in revenge.

“We stepped in, rescued and rehabilitated him through light work and human interaction. He is now one of our friendliest animals! We also try to change and promote the image of our mahouts,” she says.

“The mahouts are often misunderstood and tend to have a bad reputation because of the negative portrayal done by mainstream media as people who abuse and force elephants to do things they do not want to do. This of course is far from the truth because true mahouts consider their elephant companions as a member of the family.”

Chenda aims to inspire people to see that elephant tourism is not always the negative thing it is portrayed as by many media outlets and animal rights activists.

“Tame elephants belong to Cambodia’s heritage; we hope to give them a future with a close eye on reproduction. Because as you may know, the last captive elephant was born more than 25 years ago! We have another dream – reconnecting Cambodians with their elephants."

“A small sign of this revival is that Ratanakiri’s Bokator club will soon be able to perform their ancestral Khmer martial art alongside elephants. It is a very small thing indeed but it means a lot to us” she says.

Airavata receives a very generous contribution of $20,000 from Her Majesty the Queen Mother, and also enjoys the backing of the Culture and Fine Arts, Information, Environment, Agriculture, Fisheries, Education, Women’s Affairs, and Tourism ministries. Private companies, such as Jaguar and Land Rover, also support the foundation.

But as elephant care demands a lot of money, to keep the project sustainable the foundation organises a fundraiser once a year and creates other fundraising strategies.

“We have recently launched a new special programme – the Elephant Co-Adoption project. Everybody can join the programme and support the elephant of their choice by contributing $150 per year. Through this contribution they become members of the foundation and can enjoy one half-day activity with our elephants for free,” Chenda says.