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Elephants in Asia

Updated on July 20, 2019
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Mary has lived in Cambodia for a few months each year, working on education projects.

An Asian Elephant with His Mahout

Asian Elephant
Asian Elephant | Source

An Asian Elephant Called Sambo

Weeks ago, an Asian elephant called Sambo with a history of commendable behaviour, finally took one swat too many from his foul tempered Mahout and utterly lost it.

He instantly shifted from being a decent villager into a nightmare that gave Mon Village in Kampong Speu a real scare for a few weeks. First, Sambo, stomped the mahout (owner and driver) into a Persian carpet and enjoying his new found freedom, fled to the nearby jungle for the bamboo and banana smorgasbord.

From his hiding place, he'd peep out once in a while and trash local farms destroying crops and laughing insanely at the terrorized villagers in a level of anarchy last seen in the French revolution. He didn't hurt anyone else but his victorious trumpeting and flagrant social errors, left on the main village paths, finally attracted the attention of the local 'phunt" experts.

How long would this go on? Was Sambo nuts or having a mid life crisis? There were talks about putting Sambo down until the Forestry Administration intervened and placed him under its care. In a Bob Newhart like management approach, they gave advice and directions to the villagers by phone but soon arrived in the place to take Sambo out.

Sambo has almost human-like senses but was stressed and frustrated

Asian Elephant
Asian Elephant | Source

Sambo, our rampaging Asian elephant

According to the Forestry Administration, Sambo, our rampaging Asian elephant, will be sent to Phnom Tamao Zoo for re-education and some serious discussions. First, he was tranqed to give the villagers a break.

The Forestry Administration expert said that Sambo seemed to have "almost human-like senses". After 800 years of elephant behaviour observation and endless books, our local experts finally figure this out! Sambo went bananas because his owner tortured him and the village people constantly disturbed him.

According to experts, Sambo suffered mistreatment and was terribly under stress. He lived his life in chains, with little exercise and had no partner. This was a seriously frustrated 'phunt' who finally just lost it. No surprise.

Sambo will be introduced to Srey Pao, a 45 year old Asian female elephant

Asian Elephant
Asian Elephant | Source

A New Home for Sambo

So, now, 50 year old Sambo will have a new home in Phnom Tamao Zoo and the director will situate his living quarters near that of 45 year old Srey Pao, a female elephant.

As they have not met before and Srey Pao also had a history of being aggressive, they will not put them together immediately in one enclosure. They will first make sure that they like each other before they do this. Close, but not close enough, until the authorities see that they really want to be together. Their hope is that Srey Pao will calm Sambo down.

The director hopes "that after Sambo stays with Srey Pao he will be happy, his stress will be sorted out, and his mental condition will improve in the future, and finally, he can be a nice elephant again." (Phnom Penh Post, December 17, 2010).

The January Phnom Penh Post reported how happy Sambo is in his new home. He is now even tempered and enjoys being with other elephants. Other than Srey Pao, he has met Lucky, Chamrouen, and Narann all enjoying his loving attention.

As for the stomped Mahout, several of life's great lessons have been displayed and various regional politicians might well see the metaphor of prodding and poking passive monsters once too often!

The Curtain Falls on Sambo

Valentine's Day

The lonely bull elephant Sambo passed on and chose just the appropriate day, February 14. After he was sedated so they could readjust the chains around his legs, Sambo just passed out. Those who have helped him since his rampage were grieved by the news. For them, this is huge loss as there are now only 121 elephants in Cambodia and one is lost every few months.

Asian elephants have incredible memories - They laugh, play and cry


Rituals among elephants

Elephants are fantastic. They have greeting rituals and they all caress their young when they cry in discomfort. They grieve when one of their close relatives die. This is usually true of female elephants who often live in groups and take care of each other.

Elephant mothers upon the birth of their babies choose co-mothers to help them care for the little guys as they nurse them. The males are often more independent and spend their time showing each other their masculine prowess. Trees take a beating as do irresponsible Mahouts.

The Other Sambo, the Wat Phnom Asian Elephant on Duty

Sambo of Wat Phnom.
Sambo of Wat Phnom. | Source

Sambo, the beloved elephant in Wat Phnom

While Kampong Speu had the rampaging Sambo now, it used to have Sambo, the now beloved elephant of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city. Sambo was born in Kampong Speu but was taken out of there during the Khmer Rouge time.

Sambo is a well loved elephant that Phnom Penh has given a special place to call home close to the River. There he lived with his long time friend and mahout, Sin Son, and together, they go to work in Wat Phnom, one of the oldest temples in Phnom Penh. It is not unusual for tourists to see him walk in the street going to work and coming home each day but also in Wat Phnom where many tourists feed and ride him. Sin Son has his wife and four kids to feed as well so Sambo and he work very hard.

Sambo Giving Rides to Kids

Sambo at Work in Wat Phnom.
Sambo at Work in Wat Phnom. | Source

Wat Phnom Sambo's Mahout and Old Time Friend, Sin Son

As an example of their extraordinary memory, Wat Phnom Sambo was born to the family of his current mahout, Sin Son. Sin son was only 5 then so they grew up together as children. Sin son was about 5 years old when Sambo was born. Then they were separated during Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia as were a great many families. Sin Son's parents were killed and Sambo's as well. Sambo took the fancy of an important military officer so he was saved.

One day, he and Sin Son ran into each other each other peeking from behind trees and stealing bananas, and Sambo remembered his long lost family. Now, you can see them in Wat Phnom promoting their tourist service and hustling bananas on a professional basis. These lifetime relationships are built on trust and conversation and you really smile when you see the two "animals" together.

Ya gotta love a great elephant story!

Asian elephants at work in Angkor Wat - They work hard to feed themselves

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The elephants and their mahouts waiting for customersThe elephant giving the tourists their roundMore tourists taking an elephant rideElephants work hardElephants giving tourists a ride to the temple
The elephants and their mahouts waiting for customers
The elephants and their mahouts waiting for customers
The elephant giving the tourists their round
The elephant giving the tourists their round
More tourists taking an elephant ride
More tourists taking an elephant ride
Elephants work hard
Elephants work hard
Elephants giving tourists a ride to the temple
Elephants giving tourists a ride to the temple

Asian Elephants' Royal Past

Oudong, Cambodia

About 150 years ago, when the French traveller, Henri Mohout, attributed for the first written account on Cambodia visited Oudong, the old royal capital, he narrated that the then king gave him elephants for his journey towards Kampot, the nearest port.

He found that only the King and the wealthy could feed the elephants and they were valued at that time. Owners have the duty to donate their elephants to the King's army in times of war. There was a special legal code for elephants and owners pay special tax. They even have an owner's association. That was how much elephants were valued at that time.

Asian Elephants Work

Asian Elephant at Work
Asian Elephant at Work | Source

Asian Elephants Work

Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos have many elephants and many of them have to do tourism work to eat. So, in Mondulkiri, we met three of them: Chiban, Chibay and Pok To. They carry tourists on treks to the jungles of Mondulkiri and they live with their Phnong mahouts. Chibay is very old, maybe between 70-80 years old so he is very calm and just gets about his business.

Chiban is only about 50 years old but he is just as laid back as his mahout, Pukda. Pok To, on the other hand, shows he won't take any heffer-dust from anyone. His mahout is kind to him and sings him songs all the time as they trek the jungles so he does not want any nonsense from any other mahout. He never lets clumps of bamboo go by without having a taste of it and as the trail is narrow, this creates major traffic jams of pachyderms butt to nose. Berry bushes get hammered, streams snorted and explosive digestive events terrify birds and other wild life.

Watch Asian elephants work for their food - Elephant trek

Asian elephants live up to 80 or more

They are not very forgiving and they never forget

Elephants reach puberty at around 13 to 14 years and have children till they are 50. Most of them live up to 80 or more. They have become the symbol of wisdom as the largest living animals in the planet. While elephants have always been iconic symbols of good behaviour in many children's fiction, elephants can be very dangerous as seen in Sambo from Kampong Speu. They can go into rage often seen as vindictive acts. They have destroyed villages and killed many villagers. Remember, Water for Elephants. Elephants are not very forgiving so beware.

Asian elephants in Mondulkiri - They are happy bathing in the river

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Elephant crossing a riverElephants going for their bathsMahouts washing their elephantsElephants after their bathElephants getting a good wash
Elephant crossing a river
Elephant crossing a river | Source
Elephants going for their baths
Elephants going for their baths | Source
Mahouts washing their elephants
Mahouts washing their elephants | Source
Elephants after their bath
Elephants after their bath | Source
Elephants getting a good wash
Elephants getting a good wash | Source

Elephant Valley Project

On International Women's Day, one of Cambodia's largest women, Ning Wan, was welcomed in her new home, the Elephant Valley Project sanctuary in Mondulkiri, where she will reunite with her former colleagues, Happy Lucky and Buffy. They used to be together in O'Raing District and on March 8, the 16 villagers who owned Ning Wan decided she now needs to enjoy a more relaxed life.

© 2010 Mary Norton


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