After a rampage that destroyed homes and terrified villagers, a rogue elephant was shot by police in Mondulkiri early on Friday morning, with one local mahout saying the unfortunate killing was an outgrowth of a changing way of life that has seen elephants’ traditional work in the forests gradually slip away.
Despite wildlife rescue experts being on their way to Mondulkiri province to attempt to tranquilise the animal, police decided they had to act to kill the rampaging elephant, firing three shots from an AK-47 – one each in the head, chest and left leg – after it attacked a police truck.
“We did not want to kill it, but we had no choice. It troubled the villagers at night and was not afraid of our warning shots,” said Pech Sotheary, chief of police in Mondulkiri’s Romnea commune.
Late on Thursday evening, the 60-year-old elephant, named Atork, and female elephant Me Krapum emerged on a hilltop in Romnea commune. The pair had spent two nights in the forest after Atork killed his owner, Choeung Team, after he removed the animal’s shackles to allow tourists to take photographs.
Atork chased villagers, destroyed six homes and damaged a police truck, leading locals and the authorities to believe they couldn’t wait for the wild life experts to arrive from the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. Atork was shot just after midnight, dying a couple of hours later.
Police had attempted to scare away the elephant with fireworks, a water cannon and sirens but to no avail. Atork continued attacking everything in sight.
Provincial Governor Svay Sam Eang, who gave the order to kill, said the immediate safety of the villagers took precedence over waiting for the conservationists: “What if it killed a villager? Then who would take responsibility for that?”
Most villagers interviewed agreed it was unfortunate the elephant had to be killed but also blamed local authorities for the delay in getting experts to the province.
Nheum Thy, a wildlife conservationist at Phnom Tamao about six hours’ drive away, said that upon reaching the provincial capital on Friday morning he was informed that Atork had already been shot. He said the group had to wait until Friday because of all the bureaucratic tangles they had to navigate to get permission.
“If there is no permission, how can we arrange the technical equipment, and who is going to take the responsibility when something wrong happens?” he queried.
While acknowledging that the experts needed to get permission, Saro Ratana, acting director of Mondulkiri’s Forestry Administration, said Phnom Tamao’s administration was also to blame for not getting the permission faster.
Thing Saom, female elephant Me Krapum’s mahout, said local authorities should be equipped with tranquilisers and sedatives themselves, rather than having to wait for experts every time. He said he feared Me Krapum could also get aggressive having witnessed Atork’s killing.
“She stood near Atork when he was killed and tears kept falling down,” he said. “Me and my relatives decided to take her home since we are afraid she might become fierce, like Atork,” he confirmed.
Tri Yi, widow of the mahout Team, said her family had allowed local authorities to kill the animal if it returned from the forest to attack the village. This was done, she said, to prevent any more deaths and to ensure there was no destruction of property. The family was allowed to cut out and keep Atork’s tusks.
However, the family will now have to pay for all the damage wreaked by the elephant, which was their primary source of income, serving as a tourist attraction and helping with harvesting forest products.
“We also need to pay for rituals to chase away the bad luck for each house owner [in the village],” she said. “At least one pig and two chickens, including three jars of wine, will have to be given as offerings.”
Having played a central role in Cambodian society – from helping build Angkor Wat to farming remote parts of the country – elephants are seeing their ranks decimated, with only 400 to 600 remaining in the wild as of 2015 – their numbers constantly threatened by habitat loss and poaching.Numbers of domesticated elephants are thought to have fallen too, with a 2009 survey finding only 98 – a nearly 60 percent decline from the last previous count.
The Phnong community and elephants, meanwhile, have had a long-standing relationship. Along with mountain and forest spirits, elephant spirits are an integral part of the group’s culture. Though the elephants are used as working animals, mahouts have a relationship with their elephants that borders on familial, with offerings often made to them during village festivities.
On Saturday, Atork was laid to rest near his mahout. Following the burial, Team’s family – other villagers refused to attend for fear of bad luck – lit incense sticks and prayed to the spirits asking them to forgive Atork and allow him to return in human form, or to at least respect his mahout in the next life.
Tuon Vanny, a local tour guide and Phnong villager, lamented Atork’s death, saying in a way it was emblematic of the community’s diminishing ties with elephants.
While tourism had helped mahouts earn additional income, it was taking up most of the elephant’s time and causing them to be exhausted, Vanny said. Also, the old Phnong way of life, where an elephant helped villagers with transportation and harvesting crops, was slowly dying out, he added.
“We need to change the activity of the elephant [to protect] their lives and our culture,” he added.