Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Siem Reap's elephant man



Siem Reap's elephant man

Siem Reap's elephant man

090312_07.jpg
090312_07.jpg

Siem Reap

Far from the tourist centres, Compagnie des Elephants d'Angkor's Gavin

Bourchier stands as guardian of Angkor's dwindling population of

pachyderms.

Photo by:
KYLE SHERER

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.

Aging problems

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Typhoon Noru brings flash floods – 16 dead

    An official warned that that the 16th typhoon of the season, Noru, had brought heavy rains to areas the Mekong River and flooded thousands of homes in the provinces bordering Thailand. As of September 27, the death toll from the flooding had risen to 16. National Committee

  • Siem Reap drain canal now ‘mangrove’ promenade

    A more than half a kilometre long stretch of canal in Siem Reap has been covered and turned into a promenade to attract visitors, said Ly Rasmey, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, on September 16. The new pedestrianised

  • Angkor wildlife, aquarium park still to open October

    The Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium complex about 30km southeast of Siem Reap town with initial total investment of more than $70 million is reportedly still on track for an end-October opening. The park is located on a 100ha plot along National Road 6 in Kbon village, Khchas

  • Defence minister reaffirms Kingdom’s staunch support for One-China policy

    Minister of National Defence General Tea Banh has reaffirmed Cambodia’s unwavering support for the One-China policy. Tea Banh was speaking at the September 20 ceremonial handover of 117 vehicles and other military equipment donated by China’s defence ministry, held at Phnom Chumreay International Military Training

  • Deaths due to ‘lifestyle’ diseases rise in Kingdom

    The Ministry of Health has called on people to pay closer attention to their health to protect themselves from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which it said have caused high rates of deaths in the country. Ministry secretary of state York Sambath made the call at a

  • Textile industry minimum wage now $200

    The official minimum wage for workers in textile-related sectors including garment, footwear, and travel goods for 2023 was pegged at $198, with Prime Minister Hun Sen stepping in to add $2 to the total, making it $200 per month. The Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training made the announcement