One evening next week, after the sun goes down and the temperature cools, Cambodia’s most famous elephant will be quietly ushered into a modified shipping container.
A crane will then lift the container bearing the 3,600-kilogram pachyderm onto the back of a truck, and after 33 years in Phnom Penh, Sambo the elephant will travel north to Mondulkiri province to live out the rest of her days in the forests of an elephant sanctuary.
At a Buddhist ceremony yesterday to mark her imminent departure, the iconic animal – who spent years carrying tourists on her back as an attraction at Wat Phnom, to her physical detriment – was draped in a flower garland as monks chanted and her owner cried.
Tables were laid out bearing her favourite foods – bananas, rambutans, potatoes, apples, cucumbers – which were eventually lavished on the animal by the 40 or so guests.
“I do not want Sambo to stay here anymore even though I will miss her, because this place is small and she needs somewhere larger to live in a natural environment,” said owner Sin Sorn, 57, who has lived with the 54-year-old elephant since he was a boy.
“I consider her as my sister.”
Earlier this year, amid disagreements with the Hong Kong-based Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation that had organised Sambo’s departure from Wat Phnom in 2012 to this patch of land near Phnom Penh International Airport for rest and medical treatment, Sorn had expressed his intention to bring her back to the city to work, citing financial strain.
But after international outcry from the many supporters who had funded Sambo’s two-year sabbatical, and subsequent opposition from City Hall, Sorn relented and has agreed that she can retire at the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri’s Seima Protected Forest instead. In return, he will be hired as an adviser at the sanctuary, meaning regular visits and a salary.
“I will lose some income after Sambo leaves, but I am happy with that because my Sambo will be happy too with her new life.”
Jack Highwood, manager of the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), said it would cost $15,000 a year to support Sambo. She will join nine other elephants at the sanctuary and would “learn to be an elephant again”, he said. “It’s a long process. It’s not that you just put an elephant in a truck and go up and drop her down.”
According to Highwood, Sambo is expected to live for about another decade.
Years of walking on hard concrete and gravel in the city resulted in an abscess on Sambo’s foot, among other issues, causing her to limp.
An online crowdfunding campaign and support from the US-based Abraham Foundation has raised a significant amount of funds for her treatment and living costs, while USAID are paying for her transport to Mondulkiri.
Keo Omaliss, director of the Forestry Administration’s wildlife and biodiversity department, said yesterday that Sorn had made the right decision to send Sambo to the sanctuary.
“What Sin Sorn is doing is a good example for other people who have captive elephants and who should send them to live in the forest,” he said.
According to EVP, there are about 80 captive elephants in Cambodia. Omaliss said that there are more than 500 elephants in total.
While Sorn will visit Sambo periodically – “whenever I miss her” – In Sophal, the elephant’s mahout, will relocate permanently to EVP.
After living with the elephant for close to 10 years, the 36-year-old says he could not bear to stay in the capital without his best friend.
“If I could have a luxury car instead of Sambo I would not because we are very close friends. A luxury car cannot be compared to Sambo because she can play with me.”