Far from the tourist centres, Compagnie des Elephants d'Angkor's Gavin
Bourchier stands as guardian of Angkor's dwindling population of
Gavin Bourchier, elephant manager, with Chitoeun, one of the elephants at at Compagnie des Elephants d'Angkor.
SIEM Reap is home to only 17 elephants, but that small number comprises almost a fifth of Cambodia's total number of domestic pachyderms, the second-largest provincial population after Mondulkiri.
Unlike Phnom Penh's legendary elephant Sambo, who every day meanders down the Riverside strip entertaining tourists, Siem Reap's elephants' stomping ground does not include its bustling tourist centre; and Gavin Bourchier, elephant manager at Compagnie des Elephants d'Angkor, wants to keep it that way.
"I've had phone calls," Bourchier told the Post. "‘Can we borrow a baby elephant and put a comical hat on it and make it do tricks?' I have a low opinion of the human race anyway, but I think people who like harmonica playing, hula hoop-spinning elephants ... well, it says a lot about the person."
Bourchier oversees all of Siem Reap's remaining elephants, and under his regime the only interaction they have with tourists is giving rides near the temples, a "necessary evil" that provides funding.
He acknowledges that Sambo "seems to have a fair deal", but doesn't want to do the same thing in Siem Reap because he's worried about escalation.
"You start having elephants walk the street, you're one step away from the problems in Bangkok. It's best not to encourage it."
Elephant exploitation for a quick tourist buck is just one of Bourchier's worries. Cambodian pachyderms are threatened by habitat loss, an aging population, poaching and, he said, the elephant in the room: a lack of trust and coordination between various NGOs and the Cambodian government.
Unless that hurdle is cleared soon, Bourchier said, domestic elephants could vanish from the country altogether.
"In 10 or 20 years, the number of domestic elephants will absolutely crash. Not decline, but plummet," he said.
His view is shared by Matt Maltby, project adviser at Fauna and Flora International who has recently put together a Cambodian domestic elephant census - the first nationwide survey conducted by one body.
The results show that there are 102 domestic elephants left in the Kingdom, down from 160 five years ago. "Following current trends and an aging domestic population, there are likely to be none remaining in 10 or 15 years," he said.
The reason for the decline is demographics. "There are 17 elephants in Siem Reap," Gavin said. "And their general condition is ‘aging'. Most elephants are getting old. If everything goes well, an elephant can live to around 70. ... The average age of an elephant in Cambodia is 46 to 48."
Further, Bourchier said, "Reaching mid- to late-30s for females really knocks them on the head as far as breeding goes".
Even when elephants become pregnant, there are still the formidable challenges in bringing them to birth and helping them raise offspring.
Maternal behaviour in elephants is learned, not instinctive, and many domestic elephants do not have the experience to rear their young.
Bourchier said one course of action that could rehabilitate the withering pachyderm population is by making a stud book compiling the age, gender and location of all domestic elephants in Cambodia, so that a comprehensive breeding program can be started.
But he claims that his first attempt at compiling the list ended in failure. "It didn't come to fruition. That was four years ago."
While the low domestic population of elephants makes the stud book a simple task on paper, the scattered populations of elephants, and the logistical difficulty involved in banding together disparate owners and NGOs, makes doing so highly intimidating.
"It does require a great deal of cooperation to turn things around," Bourchier said. "But sorting out a stud book is realistic, as long as the cooperation is there."
Maltby maintains the decline of domestic elephants isn't a death sentence for the species in Cambodia. But Bourchier believes the futures of both domestic and wild elephants are linked, and NGOs need to join forces to make a stud book before the domestic elephant disappears.