Struck by the poor treatment and lack of medical treatment, a newly established NGO aims to provide veterinarian assistance and animal husbandry tactics the Phnong people of Mondolkiri province who rely on domesticated elephants for livelihood.
The domestic elephant population of Mondulkiri province is facing a broad array of
threats ranging from habitat destruction, physical abuses, and a widespread lack
of facilities providing proper medical supervision and treatment, a local environmental
NGO official has told the Post.
Englishman Jack Highwood, 25, hopes to remedy this through the establishment of a
local NGO called ELIE (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment).
The primary aim of the organization will be the improvement of the medical and welfare
conditions of the domestic elephant population of Mondulkiri by using local veterinary
"There is a critical need for a domestic elephant-based educational program
focusing on handling and husbandry," said Highwood, who arrived in the Mondolkiri
capital Sen Monorom in 2005.
The Phnong, which in their own language means "People of the Mountains"
constitute about 80 percent of Mondulkiri's 25,000 inhabitants. Phnong villages owning
elephants derive their income primarily from logging, crop cultivation, and small-scale
tourism based on elephant trekking.
According to the latest domestic elephant report done by Flora and Fauna International
in 2003, the poor condition of Cambodian roads creates a need for use of domestic
elephants. Up to 91 percent of elephant owners use their elephants to transport rice
at harvest time and between markets. The provinces of Mondulkiri and Rantanakiri
have the highest number of domesticated elephants.
But some wildlife experts are unconvinced that working elephants is of any benefit
to the elephants.
"Domestic elephants should be left to the forest," said Nick Marx, Animal
Husbandry Specialist for NGO WildAid. He estimated the number of domestic elephants
was around 100.
"They belong to wildlife, so they should return to the wild," he said.
Highwood said land concessions are changing traditional farming methods among the
Phnong. "Traditionally, the family divides its farmland into five plots, cultivated
cyclically over five years, although that's changing now," he said.
ELIE will be funded by donations and partly through the establishment of an eco-tourist-oriented
domestic elephant camp, with a secondary goal of making a village-based elephant
camp as a working example for local mahouts.
Critical to the operation is the provision of medical care to the Mondulkiri domestic
elephant population through veterinarian visits. Of the nine domestic elephants in
the Phnong village of Pam Butaang, about 10 km outisde Sen Monorom, three currently
suffer serious ailments. Extrapolated over an estimated domestic elephant population
of 100 across Mondulkiri, the potential benefit of having a locally based veterinarian
specializing in elephants becomes clear.
Highwood's organization, which in his words "deals solely with domestic elephants",
intends to work within the parameters of existing Phnong beliefs and methods. If
an elephant has a wound, a traditional treatment would involve boiling the wood of
a particular tree to make a water-based solution that would then be poured on the
Rather than disparage existing medical methods, Highwood prefers to complement them.
"At present I only have a little medicine for minor injuries, but in two years,
ideally, we'll have a trained veterinarian on-hand," Highwood said.
ELIE intends to focus solely on the domestic elephant population of Mondulkiri, their
habitats, and the people and communities who work with and around these animals.
An incident representative of the dangers facing Mondulkiri's domestic elephants
took place late one night in May in Pam Butaang. An unknown assailant attacked a
56-year-old elephant belonging to a local man named Sam-Mun.
Using a blade, presumably a machete, the assailant chopped off about a third of the
elephant's tail. The wound continues to fester. Highwood explained that the tail
of an elephant is a valuable prize. "They probably sold it in the market for
meat and profit."
The hairs of an elephant's tail are considered talismans of good luck among both
the Khmer and Phnong peoples, although the Khmer belief requires that the hair have
fallen off naturally. The Phnong hold no such conditions, which speaks to the particularly
brutal nature of the assault.
Nearly a month later the wound was still inflamed and pus-filled. The elephant was
displaying symptoms of an internal bacterial infection. Sam-Mun could no longer use
the elephant to take tourists jungle-trekking, which is a large chunk of his income.
A single day's trek brings in an average of $30, with the profit divided between
mahouts and trekking guides.
Beyond the immediate financial impact, however, the attack was also a personal affront.
"There is a strong emotional bond between a mahout and his elephant" Highwood
said. "The incident is tantamount to an attack on his immediate family."
Sam-Mum affirmed the gravity of the attack. "If I find whoever did this, I will
chop off his tail in return," he said.