In 1999, Lucky, a tiny baby elephant calf of just six months was rescued from the forest. Then she has spent more than 20 years living at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
When she was discovered in Koh Kong, she needed lots of milk and close attention, or she would not have survived. At the time, Phnom Tamao was run solely by the Cambodian Forestry Administration, although it now works closely with Wildlife Alliance Cambodia.
Lucky is now the first Cambodian elephant artist to exhibit in the Kingdom, with her pieces going on sale to support the rescue centre’s operations.
The Wildlife Alliance has collaborated with the Rosewood Hotel to showcase her art in an exhibition titled Lucky goes to Rosewood. Her work will be on display in the hotel’s 35th floor gallery from October 4 to 29.
“My thanks to Adrian [Pons, director of hospitality at Rosewood Group], thank you so much Rosewood and thank you all for supporting our elephant artist Lucky and the Wildlife Alliance,” said Nick Marx, director of wildlife rescue and care programmes, at the opening of the exhibition.
Each painting that Lucky has created is named for something related to the elephant herself. For example, the first painting visitors will see as they visit the gallery contains several coloured stripes, which could almost be viewed as the word tribe. The piece is titled Lucky Tribe.
Another large piece features a solid sky blue background – prepared by a staff member – and a series of daubed white highlights by Lucky herself. The piece is called Flow.
“Normally we select the colour Lucky will paint with, but whatever she decides to put on the canvas is the final product – she paints entirely as she wants to,” said Casy Cox, Wildlife tour coordinator at Wildlife Alliance.
The organisation is confident that the exhibition will bring pleasure to all of people who see it. Each of Lucky’s unique pieces appears to capture the happy life and sense of community she enjoys at the rescue centre, added Cox.
Her eyes shine while she is painting, she said, and she is rewarded with watermelon, apples and bananas. During her art sessions, Lucky makes sounds which show her pleasure.
The gallery is showing several pieces, mostly the paintings of Lucky, in different styles and sizes. Her pieces range from 40x50cm up to 60x120 triptychs. Prices run from $550 to $2,000.
There are also exhibits related to Chhouk, an 11-year-old elephant from Phnom Tamao, who was rescued in 2007. He had lost a foot to a poacher’s snare, and was near death when he was found. There are books about his life, stuffed elephant toys, and one of his used prosthetic feet for sale, for $3,000. As Chhouk is still growing, he needs to replace his prosthetics as he outgrows them.
“The proceeds from the sale will go to Phnom Tamao, to buy food for the animals, provide salaries to the staff, and to buy medicine,” said Marx.
Cheng Hour works in the tourism industry and viewed the exhibition.
“I have visited Phnom Tamao and seen Lucky painting. Watching her is fascinating – you can see the intelligence of these magnificent animals on display as she decides on the form of her work. I think these paintings are brilliant,” Hour told The Post.
In defence of forests
Marx attracted widespread media coverage when he released a video clip calling on the government to protect the forests around the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park.
“Phnom Tamao forest contains many of the same animals as our facility, but I believe that hunting still goes on – in the past we have heard gunshots at night. Many of them fled when the clearing of the forest began,” Marx told The Post.
“We rescued a deer – which had fled to a local village – and settled him at our centre,” he added.
“The clearing land has been replanted, and is fenced in. The fencing is only a simple wire style, so I believe it is there to protect the trees as they grow – not to denote private property. I have faith in Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has said he wishes to protect the area.
“Seedlings have been planted across the whole of the area that was cleared. If the clearing had gone on for just a few more days, there would have been no forest remaining at all. In just seven days, 500ha was felled. I am eternally grateful to the prime minister and the people of Cambodia,” he continued.
He also shared a brief history of how the Wildlife Alliance got its beginnings in Cambodia.
He said Suwanna Gauntlett, now the organisation’s CEO, visited the Kingdom in 2000. She saw that wildlife was widely available in markets and restaurants and decided she should do something about it.
She worked closely with the Forestry Administration and Royal Gendarmerie and established a Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, who travelled the entire country investigating and prosecuting cases of illegally traded wildlife. At the time, many species were on the brink of extinction.
When animals could be released back into the wild, this was done. Those which could not be returned to their natural habitats were re-homed at Phnom Tamao.
Marx said that thanks to excellent cooperation between the Forestry Administration, who run Phnom Tamao, and the Wildlife Alliance, animals are well cared for at Phnom Tamao.
“We’ve implemented many captive breeding programmes, with lots of them for endangered Species. We’ve even released animals that have been born at Phnom Tamao, some into the Phnom Tamao Forest, but also in different areas, including the Angkor Archaeological Park,” he said.
“We’ve released gibbons at Angkor, as you probably know, and otters, muntjac, hornbills, lots of different kinds of animals. Most of them were born at Phnom Tamao,” he added.
The emergence of an artist
Back to Lucky, Marx detailed how she became an artist. He said in 2003, an American named Dave Ferris visited the kingdom.
He had implemented the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, and was travelling throughout Asia teaching elephants in camps how to paint, because the elephants weren’t always well cared for in these camps. He saw the paintings as a way for the caretakers of elephants to access new funding streams to improve the level of care they could provide.
“When he visited Phnom Tamao, we tried to teach all of our elephants to paint, but Lucky was the only one with real aptitude,” he said.
“As you can see she is the elephant version of Picasso. She’s done some pretty good stuff. I’d just like to explain, elephant painting can get some bad press, there’s talk that sometimes these elephants are badly treated. This never happens to Lucky,” he added.
Lucky actually will do pretty much anything people want her to do as long as she’s kindly treated and she gets a reward – usually fresh fruit – for what she does, he said.
“The technical term for this is positive reinforcement rewards-based training. Now, Lucky doesn’t know about these fancy terms, she just gets on with the painting and then as long as she’s fed with bananas, she’s quite happy,” said Marx.
“Please understand that we’d love you to buy all of these paintings and that every cent will go to the care of Lucky, our other elephants and all the wildlife at Phnom Tamao,” he added.
Try Sitheng, now head keeper, has been Lucky’s caretaker since she was six months old. He said one day after he fed her, she began following him wherever he went.
Sitheng asked his supervisor to be Lucky’s full-time carer and they have been together ever since.
“When she could not see me, she would trumpet loudly and appear panicked. She would only sleep peacefully if I hung my hammock close by. If I dived into the river, she would call out and act aggressively,” said Sitheng, adding that now that she has become older she does not follow him around as much.
When animals feel safe, they are often healthier – both physically and emotionally – and this is important. Phnom Tamao is their home and the animals have love for their human caretakers and feeders, he said.
“The purpose of this exhibition is to educate people about the work we do at Phnom Tamao, a wildlife sanctuary for rescued, and often endangered, animals. There, they are protected and lead happier lives than they did in their original habitats,” said Marx.