Kulen Elephant Forest, Siem Reap, Cambodia
When the elephant rides stopped at Angkor, the animals came to the forest. The sanctuary at Kulen may be ‘retirement’ for them, but it seems they can never be free.
Chi Tem looks at me as she walks past. She seems a little suspicious, maybe even a little impatient that she’d just had to stop and wait for me to take a photo. But she doesn’t look nervous or upset.
I certainly hope she’s not – it’s the whole reason she’s out here in this forest. For decades Chi Tem gave tourists rides around Angkor in Cambodia but this is now her retirement.
Chi Tem is, of course, an elephant. She’s one of 14 that were being used for rides at Angkor when the practice was stopped, and was brought here to the Kulen Elephant Forest.
The sanctuary is a large protected park, about 210 hectares, in the foothills of the Phnom Kulen National Park.
It’s about 40 kilometres from Siem Reap, which is equivalent to about nine hours at elephant walking speed – something we know because that’s how the animals got here.
Thankfully I don’t need to walk and I’m driven to the Kulen Elephant Forest on one of the regular tours they run here.
The elephants may have escaped their riding life, but they’re not free of tourists completely. At least this is supposed to be about humans coming into the natural habitat of the elephants, rather than the other way around.
The first thing I see when I arrive is three elephants walking down a path between the trees about a hundred metres away. A few minutes later, another two go past.
They’re heading to what I’ll soon find out is the feeding area. With each of the elephants is a ‘mahout’, the word used to describe an elephant keeper.
The elephants have not decided to walk to the feeding area at this exact moment – they are being guided there by their mahouts.
Not with ropes or hooks, mind you. The mahouts lead the elephants by walking in that direction and calling them.
It’s the first fundamental paradox of this elephant sanctuary that I’m forced to consider. In order for the elephants to be free, they need to be constantly told what to do by their mahouts.
They can’t just be released into the wild because they wouldn’t know how to fend for themselves. And, even here in the sanctuary, they need to be controlled so they don’t destroy parts of the forest or wander into neighbouring farmland.
I head down to the feeding area with the rest of the tourists who I’ve come from Siem Reap with this morning. Our guide, Kae, is carrying several baskets of food – mainly bananas and sugar cane – that we’re going to feed to the elephants who’ve gathered here.
They obviously know the procedure. They stand behind a wooden bar and most reach out their trunks to grab the bits of food we hold out in our hands.
Kae explains which elephants prefer not to eat with their trunks, so we can put the sugar cane and bananas straight into their mouths. He also points out which ones don’t like to be touched and which ones don’t mind if you put your hand on them.
The wooden bar made me feel a little uncomfortable at first, until I realised it’s mainly for the elephants’ protection (as well as ours, of course) so that they can back away if they feel someone is getting too close.
And although the whole activity of feeding the elephants may feel like a touristy experience, it’s what they are used to after decades of captivity. Also, remember, the animals can walk away at any point they want.
Beginning a visit to the Kulen Elephant Sanctuary with the feeding serves another important purpose – it helps us visitors build a rapport with the animals and show them we’re not a threat.
Because, for about two hours, we’re going to be hanging out with them in their home, as they wander through the forest.
The fruit we’ve just given them is really just a snack. An elephant eats about 12 per cent of its body weight every day – that means 200 to 300 kilograms a day- so they’re going to spend much of their time grabbing food from trees. And we’re coming along for the ride, so to speak.
For the most part, the elephants move at their own pace as they wander through the sanctuary, stopping at a clump of trees to pull off leaves, or throwing dirt onto their backs with dusty flourishes.
Now that the feeding is over, they are not all staying together. A few of the elephants have gone off on their own into denser parts of the forest, while some are sticking together in small groups of two or three.
One pair seem very close and Kae explains that they are best friends. The two female elephants (all the ones we’re seeing are female, for the record) even twist their trunks together at one point, as though they are holding hands.
It’s a sweet moment for the visitors here, myself included. It’s really heartwarming to see the elephants here without chains, without seats on their backs, without stress.
But there’s a broader context that needs to be remembered, and there are still things that I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable about.
I get the opportunity to have a chat about these issues with David-Jaya Piot, the co-founder of the Kulen Elephant Forest. Half Cambodian, half French, he is just 23 years old and a good representation of the new generation trying to reshape Cambodian culture and business.
What’s important to understand is that it was David’s family who has always owned the elephants and run the rides at Angkor. They also own several hotels and other businesses around Siem Reap.
His father had tried years ago to set up an elephant sanctuary but it had failed financially, so the animals had kept giving rides at the temples. But, more recently, David thought it was worth giving it another go – which is why we’re here today.
This time it’s likely to work financially because the attitudes of tourists has clearly shifted in the 15 years since it was first tried. The writing was probably on the wall for the animal riding business anyway.
David is keen to stress, though, that this was his family’s decision. It was not a government ‘ban’ as has been previously misreported.
While he acknowledges that life is obviously better here for the elephants, he won’t concede that life was bad for them previously. He says the animals were always well-treated by his family and he now tries to focus on welfare, not debates about animal rights.
“You can get lost in the politics and so I try not to think of that,” David tells me.
“I think of it objectively with the experts and consultants we have.”
As we chat, I can see a few of the mahouts sitting in the shade under a tree, watching their elephants use their trunks to grab small branches from a tree and put them in their mouths.
I asked David about them, why there are still humans here controlling the animals. It’s partly about making sure they stay in safe areas, he says, but also about them needing to trust humans so they can be looked after and treated for health problems.
“Whenever you’ve got an abscess that you have to cut, for example, they have to respond properly to humans or it’s impossible. That’s why it’s about the healthcare,” he says.
“In captivity, an elephant can live up to 80 years old, up from 50 in the wild because of the healthcare – and I think it would be a shame to deny them their healthcare. And they’re not less happy because they are with their guys.”
What about the tourists? This is one of the things I have wondered about ever since I first came to the forest. If it really is supposed to be such a sanctuary for them, should we still be able to come here? And should we be able to touch them, for example?
“It’s more of an ethical question rather than an objective welfare question,” David replies when I ask him about that.
“The elephant is just as happy whether you touch it or not. It’s about yourself – do you feel ok with that and personally I feel ok with that.”
Of course, this is not a perfect world and there is no ideal situation for these elephants. They can’t be released into the wild – and, to be honest, there probably is no ‘wild’ for them to be safely released into anyway.
In at least one way, tourists actually help the animals by coming here because all the profit from the cost of the tours is reinvested back into the sanctuary.
At the moment, the elephants are chained at night when they sleep, for instance, so they don’t wander off. David says one of the priorities is to use new funding to build better enclosures to keep the animals safe at night instead.
And it certainly doesn’t feel like tourists are doing particular harm (especially compared to how things were). For the last part of my visit to the Kulen Elephant Forest, my group walks through a narrow jungle path with about half a dozen animals.
They plod along at their own pace, stopping to eat when they want, and I wait patiently behind them.
And I plod along at my own pace, stopping to take a photograph when I want, and they wait patiently behind me.
If this is what retirement looks like for an elephant, it’s pretty good. Although the attitude towards animal riding in the tourism industry generally has changed, I’ve felt like Southeast Asia has lagged behind, but this shows great progress.
Perhaps the Kulen Elephant Forest isn’t a perfect solution in a perfect world – but I’m not sure what would be… or could be. The fact it’s happened at all is something to be applauded and I believe it’s been done with the best intentions at heart.
The size of the groups that can visit is limited and there are only a couple of tours a day, so the majority of tourists who come to Siem Reap will now never see these majestic animals.
But just knowing they’re here and they’re (presumably) happy should be uplifting. And if you get to come and give Chi Tem – or one of the 13 others – some bananas or sugar cane, I’m sure she would be very appreciative!
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.