Travel Report: Kulen Elephant Forest, Cambodia.
Kulen Elephant Forest, Cambodia.
One of the great privileges of my life as a nomad has been the opportunity to spend time with wild animals. Bumping into a family of mischievous macaques on Gibraltar rock. Swimming with tropical fish off Malaysia’s Tioman Island. Coming face to face with the Siberian tigers of northeast China. They were all experiences I’ll never forget. However, for me nothing compares to the joyous feeling of hanging out with elephants.
Prior to my arrival in Cambodia at the beginning of 2020, I’d been fortunate enough to enjoy two memorable elephant experiences. Way back in April 2004, I got to bathe an elephant at Kodanad Elephant Sanctuary in India. Later, in June 2015, I set off on a jungle hike with a herd of elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand.
When I heard about Kulen Elephant Forest in Siem Reap, I felt excited by the prospect of adding a third centre to my archives. Especially as this sanctuary houses 14 of Cambodia’s 75 captive elephants in a 1100 acre protected park. Sladja meanwhile had never seen an elephant in this kind of setting, hence it felt like a no-brainer to pay a visit to KEF.
Unfortunately, by the time we were looking to visit, Coronavirus had shut down Cambodia’s tourism industry. Thus the sanctuary had already closed its doors to general admission. Still keen to make something happen, I fired off a speculative query through their Facebook page. A few days later I was pleasantly surprised when the sanctuary’s co-founder, David-Jaya Piot, invited us for a behind-closed-doors look at the forest and its endangered residents.
Kulen Elephant Forest.
At first glance David seems an unlikely elephant park owner. Indeed his backstory is anything but typical. Half Cambodian, half French, he is just twenty four years old and grew up locally in a well-to-do family. Moreover, the elephants at KEF have belonged to his family for decades.
Back in the day, these elephants gave rides to tourists around The Angkor Temples. Take even a cursory glance at Cambodia online forums and it’s clear there are plenty of people who are not crazy about that.
Nonetheless, David is clearly a key figure in the new wave of Khmer entrepreneurs looking to reshape the country’s business culture. Opened in December 2019, he created the park to provide the elephants with a retirement home where they can roam free, eat natural foods and receive healthcare.
“I have a love for nature and adventure that is deeply rooted in memories of growing up in Cambodia”.
David also wanted to recreate the spirit of the Siem Reap he was raised in. A place, he says, that’s become all but a distant memory. He talks of growing up around elephants, of fireflies in his back garden and troublesome monkeys invading his home. He also references Tin Tin, Indiana Jones and a rolling cast of passionate, temple-dwelling expats who lived in the city prior to the internet boom.
It was David who personally drove us to the sanctuary, located an hour’s drive from the city at the foothills of Phnom Kulen National Park. At the edge of the forest, he pulled up on a bumpy country road and the three of us jumped out. From there we continued on foot, following a dusty trail through a number of parched fields.
Passing herds of cows and several Authorised Personnel Only signs, we eventually made our way down a magnificent wooden bridge. At the other end stood a giant thatched hut, the sanctuary’s meeting point for tours of the forest.
It was in the hut that we met Leanne Wallace, the sanctuary’s general manager. With a background in UK zoos, Lianne joined the team with experience as a keeper, trainer, mahout and all-round elephant educator.
Before heading out to meet the elephants for breakfast, she explained that our itinerary that day would be an informal, stripped-back version of what tourists here usually get. Basically, we’d be feeding them breakfast, setting off on a forest hike and then watching them cool off in the pond. Sounded pretty good to me.
Kulen Elephant Sanctuary.
It’s hard to describe what a thoroughly heartwarming experience it is to feed an elephant. That morning, at the breakfast station, we met five of the park’s hungry beasts.
According to Leanne, the wooden bar set before them provides a sense of security for both the elephants and us humans. Should any of the animals feel wary of all the attention, they can back away. Furthermore, if it all gets too much, there’s nothing to stop an elephant from walking off altogether.
The menu is a simple one, with bananas and sugarcane piled up in a number of wooden baskets. All you have to do is reach inside, move toward the elephant and hold your hand out. It’s amazing how gentle and considered they are when they take food from you. They don’t snatch and they show remarkable patience with people who hesitate in handing the food over.
While breakfast unfolded, both David and Leanne were on hand to advise us. Some elephants, for example, are happy to take the food with their trunks. Others prefer you to move your hand directly toward their mouths.
In any case the breakfast scenario helps visitors build a bond with the elephants. They need to feel comfortable with you and vice versa. After all, everyone is about to head off into the forest together for a hike, so it’s better to break the ice early on.
A Walk in the Forest.
With all the sugarcane and banana gobbled up, we wasted no time in heading out into the forest for a relaxing afternoon stroll. Well, as relaxing as it can get in thirty degree heat. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to observe the elephants and how they interact with their environment.
As we progressed, there was much to learn about the sanctuary’s beautiful residents. Take 47 year old Savath, for example, recognisable for a large tear in her left ear. She was bitten by a snake and had to have part of her ear removed in order to prevent the poison from spreading.
While her early years remain a mystery, we do know that she probably had a child, is best friends with another elephant, Chi Chorb, and generally doesn’t like to be touched. She’s also a bona fide movie star, having appeared in the acclaimed documentary Last of the Elephant Men.
The hike was also an opportunity to learn about the regular tours here, which allows visitors to engage in a number of unique activities. The Afternoon Session, for instance, includes a snack-making class. This involves creating tennis ball sized concoctions of sticky rice, salt, sunflower seeds and bananas.
Typically an elephant consumes 10% of its body weight a day in food. However, only 40% of this is actually absorbed, the rest comes out in poop. Hence the snack helps digestion and gives more nutrition. The sticky rice has loads of protein, salt is an essential mineral and sunflower seeds act as an added fat.
An Elephant Never Forgets.
Another activity sees tour members hiding fruit inside rubber tires, before tying a rope around the tire. The elephants are then encouraged to figure out how to get the fruit. Using their trunks and feet, they are able to solve the puzzle. This stimulates them mentally and educates visitors on how smart elephants are. Everyone’s a winner.
Fun and games aside, there are some serious questions Sladja and I felt we had to put to David. In these politically sensitive times, when animal welfare is never far from the news, the business of elephant keeping is one that elicits strong emotions.
Indeed there are plenty of people who object to the very idea of an elephant sanctuary. So what does he say to those who insist wild animals should be left free in the wild, independent of humans?
“Returning elephants to the wild is a very complicated process”.
David reckons these elephants are far better off in his care. Firstly, he says, they’ve been around humans for most of their lives and are simply not equipped to survive in the wild. There’s also a whole host of sub issues to consider, such as poaching and habitat destruction. Cambodia, for example, has one of the highest rates of logging in the world.
We had also read angry accusations of chained elephants at KEF. David admits that at night this is indeed the case, with the animals kept under a large tree on a five meter chain. They are supervised by a mahout, who feeds them and ensures they remain comfortable.
Somewhat wearily, David concedes that for the moment this is the most practical way to keep them safe. He understands the negative symbolism chains have, but says they remain very practical in elephant management.
He points out that chains don’t change shape or size in heat or with moisture. This is important because elephants urinate a lot and weather conditions can make the ground wet and muddy. Chains are also easy to clean and maintain, plus they allow vets to safely treat the animals.
David and his team have considered alternative solutions, such as an elephant-proof fence. But not all of his elephants get along and he fears that fighting could lead to disastrous consequences. Other ideas, such as electrical enclosures, are beyond his means in terms of funding.
Kulen Elephant Forest.
Eventually, we reach the sanctuary pond, where the elephants can cool off. It is here, to the sound of splashing water, spraying mud and magnificent trumpeting, that I find myself pondering the subject of elephant breeding. The biggest challenge David, Leanne and co face is that Cambodia has a small, ageing elephant population.
The ideal breeding age for a female elephant is mid-teens to mid twenties. Like humans, the older they get the more difficult it is to conceive. The forest’s youngest elephant is in her mid-thirties and has never bred, making the task more difficult. So far, not one of the females at KEF has allowed the males to mate with them. And with the males in question being very aggressive, the situation is unlikely to change.
Artificial insemination is something they are looking into. The first step would be to conduct hormone testing to see if their females are viable. Should there be signs of hope, they would need to monitor their ovulations, attempt insemination and get through the 18-22 month gestation period.
After that, they’d be looking at a calf weening process of at least two years. All of which, of course, is costly and time consuming, with plenty of luck needed along the way. In trials carried out in Thailand, one in fifty five attempts at artificial insemination proved successful.
Kulen Elephant Sanctuary.
If there’s one thing I can take away from my visit to Kulen Elephant Forest, it’s that the issues surrounding elephant keeping are not black and white. They are incredibly complex and require a genuine love for the animals, along with an analytical mind. Not to mention time, patience and lots of money.
Sladja and I felt privileged to have been invited to tour the place. To have met these gorgeous animals and to have learned more about the plight of the Asian elephant. As such, I can only thank David for his hospitality that day. He was under no obligation to extend such an invitation, let alone personally drive us to the forest. And he certainly didn’t have to treat us to lunch afterwards, sweeping aside our protestations.
Like this? Check out my guide on What to See and Do in Siem Reap.
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