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Wild elephants

500 ~ 1,000

Charles Santiapillai

Domesticated elephants

300 ~ 600

Richard Lair

People 9,968,000

FAO (Anon., 1995d)

Cambodia abounds with the ironies of war, even in regard to elephants. In the hot season innumerable bombs craters, according to Sun Hean {1995}, have become an important source of water to wild elephants; unfortunately, these accidental watering holes also attract hunters who wait in hiding by to shoot wild game, including elephants. Military rifles are so widely available that Phnong tribesmen no longer want to keep tuskers for fear they will be shot for their ivory.

After graphically describing some of the horrors which war visits upon elephants, Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) also state the counter case: “The elephant might also have benefited from the [war’s] almost total halt in development projects.” And, indeed, a very cutting question is simply to ask, “Which has brought more destruction to elephants, both wild and domesticated: twenty years of war in Cambodia or twenty years of peaceful development in Thailand?”

Bangkok newspapers regularly run stories on Cambodia’s great desire to modernize or ‘to develop’. A Reuters dispatch of September 1995, for example, reports the provincial governor of Mondulkiri, a prime area for both wild and domesticated elephants, as wanting to set aside as much as 200,000 hectares of land for rubber and coffee, saying, “I want to invite investors and businessmen to work in the province because we have some large areas of land and it is very rich, very good for agriculture.” A Reuters wire story of October 19, 1995, stated that the government had awarded a 1.5 million hectare logging concession in Ratanakiri province to Indonesia’s Panin group and that, “Ratanakiri, which survived intensive US bombing raids from 1969-73 and the excesses of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, is set to be virtually completely logged over in the next half century.” Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces, both rich in domesticated elephants, could be deforested within the decade if certain scenarios are allowed to be played out. Anon. (1996) writes:

The Royal Government of Cambodia [RGC] is working on the assumption that 56% of the land is forested. However, current forest cover is closer to 30-35% of total land area - with total allocations [to logging companies], if approved, of 35.6%. The RGC is therefore in danger of selling Cambodia’s entire forest area to foreign companies.

Wild elephants

Santiapillai and Jackson (1990) gave the figure 2,000 as both the maximum and minimum number of wild elephants in Cambodia. Santiapillai (Pers. comm., 1996) says that there are probably between 500 and 1,000 wild elephants and that there is considerable poaching for ivory.

Distribution of domesticated elephants

Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces, the eastern highlands, probably have the highest number of domesticated elephants but elephants are found all over the country. Officials at theDepartment of Animal Health and Production {Chreav and Suon, 1995} say there are also domesticated elephants in at least the provinces of Kompong Thom, Pursat, Siemriap, Kompong Speu, Preah Vihear, Koh Kong, and Battambang.

Numbers of domesticated elephants

After questioning officials at all relevant agencies, it is clear that government records for earlier eras were completely destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, who ransacked libraries and documents wherever they found them. A search of colonial records sent to France might elicit useful figures from the recent past.

McNeely (1975) gave a figure of 582 domesticated elephants in Cambodia; and Olivier (1978b) accepted that figure. Kemf and Jackson (1995), without citing a source, say, “There are still over 500 domestic elephants in Cambodia....” Currently, the only credible on-the-ground number available is for Mondulkiri province where the Provincial Chief Officer of Agriculture, purely on his own initiative, required all village headmen to report the number of domesticated elephants under their control; the number was 104 animals (Vuthy et al., 1995). The Chief Officer’s number of 104 elephants is acceptable as a reliable minimum, since there is no plausible motive to over-report; to the contrary, many villagers and ethnic minorities will instinctively try to avoid reporting in an attempt to evade scrutiny. Most informal censuses thus end up under-reporting.

One observer with considerable field experience {Hean, 1995} feels that Ratanakiri province, which adjoins Mondulkiri and where conditions are very similar, should hold a comparable number. Officials of the Department of Animal Health and Production, from their experience of elephants in or near municipalities, say there are 50 elephants in Kompong Thom, Pursat, and Siemriap as well as other western provinces.

Probably there are at least 300 domesticated elephants in Cambodia and possibly considerably more; the author would not be surprised if numbers equalled or even exceeded those given by McNeely, particularly since most elephants are kept by tribal peoples in very remote areas. (Mondulkiri is so remote from Phnom Penh that it is easier to reach by first flying to Vietnam than by going overland on National Road 76.) There are probably between 300-600 domesticated elephants in Cambodia.

Legal status and registration

There is no law whatsoever regarding domesticated elephants in Cambodia.

Given the reasonably stable conditions which presently exist over much of Cambodia, it should be possible to quickly conduct a preliminary survey or informal registration using primarily provincial-level officers of the Department of Animal Health and Production and, possibly, enlisting the considerable powers of provincial governors. Support agencies could include the Wildlife Protection Office of the Forestry Department and international NGOs. Any survey should attempt to elicit not just numbers but also basic biodata such as gender, age, calvings, etc. Determining the means of acquisition, especially whether the younger elephants were wild-caught or captive-born, is especially important for two reasons. First, it is important to know the level of captive breeding among the various tribal peoples, particularly in light of at least one tribe’s prohibitions against breeding. Second, it is essential to know the rate of capture and the age of the captives so as to assess the impact which a preference for young elephants might have wreaked on wild populations already disturbed by war.

Institutions involved

Any practical management efforts would necessarily involve the Department of Animal Health and Production with the active support of the Wildlife Protection Office. Cambodia also hosts a wide variety of international organizations which could help, particularly in regard to cultural and social matters.

Veterinary care and health

War decimated the numbers of veterinarians in Cambodia, leaving few survivors. The country is now rebuilding, and the Department of Animal Health and Production presently employs 200 veterinarians. Universities graduate 30 or 40 veterinarians a year.

No formal program exists for providing veterinary care to domesticated elephants.


Some capture is conducted in Cambodia, at least in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces where there is still a healthy demand for elephants for use in transport, logging, village work, and as khoonkies (elephants used to capture and train wild elephants). In January of 1995, a Phnong man helped by four companions and three khoonkies used mela-shikar to capture a male calf about five years old which evidently could not run as quickly as about 20 older animals {Hean, 1993}. (This calf died of unknown causes within weeks of capture.) The same Phnong man, who hunted every year, had captured three young elephants in 1994. Such elephant-catching stories cannot help but provoke speculation about local ‘over-harvesting’, particularly because the Phnong are said to not allow their cows to become pregnant, believing that this will cause the owner to die. The few calves born in captivity have nearly always been sired by wild bulls but even this is discouraged, so most recruits come from the wild.

As for capture technique, the base end of the noose is tied around the khoonkie’s neck, which is probably possible only because the elephants captured are relatively young. (The Kui of Thailand would normally let the rope go free immediately upon noosing a foot, with men on foot subsequently grabbing the loose end and tying it to a tree.)

The Phnong evidently do not like to keep tuskers, partly because nowadays they are likely to get shot for their ivory, but also possibly because - as would seem likely for the Karen of Thailand and Myanmar - they simply prefer cows. Hean {1995} says that about 80% of the Phnong’s elephants are cows, and if this bias is by choice, it is a cultural preference.

· See “Cultural Dimensions,” page 48.

Prices and the market

One Cambodian official said that many elephants captured in Cambodia were subsequently sold into Surin and Buriram provinces of Thailand. The author feels that this is unlikely because he has questioned many Kui mahouts, natives of those provinces, who are quite familiar with the buying and selling of elephants all over Thailand; the mahouts are quite willing to talk about elephants smuggled from Myanmar or the Lao PDR, but they all say no animals have come from Cambodia. The Surin-Buriram stretch of the border, controlled by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian side, is physically dangerous with trigger-happy soldiers and many mine fields. Indeed, it was evidently the deaths of several mahouts and elephants in a mine field over twenty years ago that caused the Thai government to ban the Kui of Surin and Buriram from making their annual capture expeditions into Cambodia. Any illegal trade is probably now insignificant, though should genuine peace come one could expect a brisk trade in classes of elephants highly valued in Thailand. If there is any surreptitious trade to Thailand, the elephants are most likely first transited through the Lao PDR, from where smuggling them into Thailand is much easier and safer.


Roads are so poor in Cambodia that in many provinces elephants are still a primary means to transport both people and goods, particularly in the rainy season when all other forms of transport, even four-wheel drive vehicles, are impossible. So great is the demand that elephants must be booked well ahead of time {Hean, 1995}. Elephants are still uniquely useful in jungle warfare as beasts of burden. Until recently, at least two or three times a year Bangkok’s English-language newspapers featured photographs of elephants in Cambodia carrying highly-armed but smiling soldiers, usually Khmer Rouge, looking not unlike photographs of soldiers riding a tank off to the front lines.


All elephants in Cambodia are privately-owned. Most elephants presently are owned by tribal peoples ranging from the ‘primitive’ Phnong to the relatively sophisticated Kui, who have for many centuries lived comfortably amidst dominant cultures such as the Khmer and the Thai. Only a relatively few domesticated elephants are now owned by ethnic Khmers, but before the Khmer Rouge there must have been many knowledgeable, aristocratic elephant-keeping families of long lineage, just as everywhere else in South and Southeast Asia.


As with all countries which have experienced relatively little development, standards of mahoutship are probably little different from the past, apart from the loss of the palace tradition and probably some dominant-culture keepers.

Cultural dimensions

The population of Cambodia is comprised of 90-95% ethnic Khmers, making the country the most ethnically homogeneous in Southeast Asia. Robinson and Wheeler (1992) say that ethnic minorities in Cambodia “have been mistreated by the ethnic Khmers for centuries, although they were spared the worst excesses of the Khmer Rouge.”

A list of ethnic groups compiled by Dereth (1995) includes several tribes known to keep elephants. One observer {Hean, 1995} said that keepers of elephants besides the Phnong include the Kuoy (Kui), Stieng (Stiang), Tumpoun, Krieng, and the Roder. (‘Roder’ is probably cognate with the Rhade or Rade in Vietnam, but there they seem to hunt elephants only for meat). The Kui of the northwest keep elephants exactly like their kin in neighboring Thailand. In Pursat province around Leah, there is said to be one small group of ethnic Khmer mahouts, with about ten elephants, who train using classical techniques.

The Phnong are said to number 19,000 and are found in Mondulkiri province in the northeast near the border with Vietnam. From hearsay, their society would seem to be an intact elephant-keeping culture, little changed by central government, timber firms, or other outside influences. The Phnong believe that if a cow elephant gets pregnant then its owner will die, a belief which obviously stifles breeding. When riding on the back of an elephant, powerful taboos prohibit carrying any ivory, even the smallest trinket, or a python, whether dead or alive. Wild elephants must be noosed on the right hind foot.

The Phnong, as the Khmer call them (they undoubtedly have their own name for themselves), are an actual tribe in Cambodia, but the Khmer word phnong also has a more general, perjorative meaning. Explaining the words which dominant lowland cultures use to describe the “people of the hills,” Osborne (1985) says, “Uplanders were moi to the Vietnamese, phnong to the Cambodians, and kha to the Laotians. The words can all be translated as ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’....”


Just as in the Lao PDR and Vietnam, the only realistic conclusion about Cambodia is that it is imperative to gather more information so as to accurately assess the situation. Only then can management begin.

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