Photo Credit: The San Francisco Chroncile

April 20, 2010–Normally, this blog focuses on Thailand’s elephants, but yesterday I read about the success one man, known in Cambodia as “Uncle Elephant”, has had teaching humans to co-exist with the dwindling elephant populations.

As Geoffrey Cain reports, “In Cambodia’s elephant zones, Sereivathana Tuy has stopped farmers from cutting the animal’s nationwide population – which stands at less than 400. For that, he is one of six recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize, to be awarded today [April 19, 2010] in San Francisco.”

According to Cain, the program’s success lies largely with its focus on education, not law enforcement:

The Cambodian program begins with teachers who educate children on how to co-exist with elephants in one of four schools across the country in isolated communities. The children then pass the new knowledge to their parents. Soon, “the whole village is talking about these techniques,” Tuy said.

The plan also encourages farmers to alternate rapidly growing crops such as cucumbers and white radishes, which can be harvested several times a year before elephants have the chance to eat them. Tuy also encourages farmers to stop planting crops that elephants love – watermelons, sugarcane and bananas – in favor of ones they detest, such as eggplant and chile peppers.

“This way, the villagers keep their harvest and we conserve the elephant population,” he said….

In Cambodia, the clash between elephants and humans peaked after the communist Khmer Rouge regime was ousted in 1979. Vast deforestation followed, forcing elephants to search for food and water on farmlands near their traditional forests… At the same time, wealthy Cambodians sought expensive elephant tails, tusks and the tips of their trunks – body parts they believe are symbols of power. This led to widespread poaching, Tuy says.

Before Tuy became director of his elephant project in 2005, conservationists would often report elephant killings to the police, who would then jail the perpetrators until a fine, sometimes as much as $2,400, could be negotiated.

Today, poaching has been reduced significantly. Irate farmers, however, are still known to kill elephants that threaten their crops. Tuy says law enforcement is just part of the solution. “Ultimately, you need education and improved livelihoods,” he said…

Tuy estimates that there have been between five and 10 elephant attacks on humans since 2003, and only one death since 2005 – a sign that farmers are using safer methods to drive elephants away.

He hopes that his program will double the elephant population to 1,000 elephants in 20 years. He concedes that would be a difficult feat, given the animal’s long gestation and maturation process. Asian elephants, which can live as long as 60 years, don’t reproduce until they are between 8 and 14 years of age – enough time to be killed by predators, poachers or disease.

For now, however, Tuy’s biggest hope in saving the elephants is changing Cambodian attitudes.

“When I was a poacher, I made a mistake,” said Sophal Shout, a 54-year-old community leader in Prey Proseth who teaches villagers about alternative ways of repelling elephant attacks. Tuy “helped me find the right path.”

To read more of Cain’s article, please visit:

Worldwide Elephant Numbers:

African: The largest populations, found in eastern and southern Africa, are threatened by the ivory trade. At the start of the 20th century, the African population was estimated at between 5 million and 10 million. By the end of the century, poaching and deforestation had reduced their numbers to about 500,000.

Asian: Experts say 40,000 to 50,000 wild Asian elephants live across Asia, 60 percent of them in India. In Cambodia, deforestation has caused the elephant population to dwindle from 2,000 in 1995 to fewer than 400 in 2010. In Vietnam, Laos, Bangladesh, China and Nepal, experts say only 300 or so are left in each country.

According to Soraida Salwala, founder of the world’s first Asian Elephant Hospital in Thailand and featured in The Eyes of Thailand documentary, Thailand has less than 4,000 wild and captive elephants.

-Windy Borman

Director/Producer, The Eyes of Thailand

Photo Credit: The San Francisco Chronicle