Baby Asian Elephant Confiscated From Mondolkiri Village

Standing on small, wrinkled gray legs, a 4-month-old Asian elephant calf named Seima is in the unfortunate position of being the first elephant this year to be confiscated by the Wildlife Pro­tec­tion Office.

Seima, who resides in a private enclosure hidden from the public at the Phnom Tamao Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Rescue Center, will likely remain in captivity for the rest of her life. Her removal from the wild is seen as a tragic blow to the elephant community in Cam­bo­dia by wildlife conservationists.

Asian elephants are a globally endangered species, and it is forbidden to trap or trade them, ac­cording to a joint declaration signed in 1996 by the Minister of the Environment and the Min­is­ter of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Any wild animal kept il­legally can be confiscated by the WPO. Four Asian elephants were confiscated last year.

How Seima ended up in a Mon­dolkiri village, roped to a concrete post with nylon cord, re­mains un­clear.

According to Men Phymean, di­rector of the Wildlife Pro­tec­tion Office, a tiger conservation rang­er in Keo Seima district heard that a baby elephant was for sale in Sneng village. The WPO was in­formed on Feb 23 and, together with police and the Forestry and Wildlife Inspection Unit, confiscated the elephant and moved her to the Bio­di­ver­si­ty Con­ser­va­tion Unit in Mon­dol­ki­ri.

Seima had gashes in her skin caused by a rope. She was taken to Phnom Tamao on Feb 26.

“Seima would have died if we had not taken her,” Men Phy­mean said. “The people didn’t know how to care for her. She was frightened and depressed be­cause she had lost her mother.”

The WPO estimated the villagers could not have had Seima for more than a day or two, or she would have died from de­hy­dra­tion. Seima does not yet know how to use her trunk to drink water.

“Many stories were told by the villagers who were keeping her,” said Joe Walston, chief technical adviser for the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Society, a US group. “They even made up a story where the mother be­came in­terested in another male in the herd and the rest of the elephants pushed her and her calf out of the herd.”

Walston said that after giving birth a female elephant will not mate for another four or five years, and she is disinterested in males while she raises her calf with the other females of the herd.

Female elephants are known to be fiercely protective of their young and become separated from them only under the most exceptional circumstances.

Wildlife experts believe Sei­ma’s mother was killed, although how it happened will probably re­main a mystery.

“It is unlikely the people are going to lead us to the spot where the mother was shot, if she was, and it is impossible to get an aerial view of a large tract of forest to try to find the body ourselves,” Walston said.

Men Phymean said he believes the sto­ry the villagers told him: They were walking in the forest and scared a herd of elephants, who ran away, leaving Seima behind. The villagers said they took pity on the animal and brought it home with them.

Walston doesn’t believe the sto­ry. “This animal was captured,  not saved,” he said. “We have re­ports that they were trying to sell the elephant to a Vietnamese trad­er.”

Men Thymean said he thinks the villagers decided to sell Seima when they realized they could not afford to feed her.

He said if the villagers had originally intended to sell Seima, they would have kept her hidden in the woods.

Chheang Dany, team lead­er of the Cambodian Asian Ele­phant Conservation Project in the Depart­ment of Forestry, said people living on the eastern plains have traditionally used elephants for farming and transportation. An adult elephant can be traded for between 10 to 15 water buffalo, while an elephant calf is worth three. He said many people are just beginning to understand that it is illegal to trap a wild elephant.

Chheang Dany estimated that there are now only about 100 Asian elephants living on the east­ern plains. “They are endangered,” he said. “Their habitat is shrinking and [so is] the genetic pool. All the herds living there are now very closely related.”


Elephant populations in Cam­bo­dia, Laos and Vietnam declined more than 80 percent between 1988 and 2000. Walston said removing a calf and a potentially breeding female will have devastating effects on  reestablishing the population. Elephants give birth only once every four to five years.

Seima is busy at Phnom Tamao learning how to use her short and rather unwieldy trunk. She takes twice-daily walks with fellow Asian elephant Lucky, a social exercise which her keepers hope will boost her confidence.

Twenty-year-old Prom Tham is one of Seima’s two round-the-clock keepers. “She is a good animal,” he said. “She is a happy animal, but sometimes when we leave her alone she gets scared of other animals and wails.”

A recent visit found Seima following Prom Tham wherever he walked in her enclosure, her little, bristly body brushing against his legs and her wobbly trunk curling around his arm. Prom Tham laughed gleefully when a visitor discovered that Seima’s round feet are ticklish.

It is to Prom Tham that Seima turns when she wants to guzzle some of the nearly 22 liters of milk formula she downs each day from a distilled drinking water bottle affixed with a big rubber teat. She weans every one to two hours and as yet has no teeth.

Men Phymean pointed out that it is this very bonding with humans that will make it impossible for Seima to be released into the wild.

Seima appears to have gained weight, although no one can say how much. “We think she is about 110 kilos,” said Matt Hunt, a 26-year-old volunteer for Free the Bears who works at the zoo. “But she has never been weighed because we need to buy scales. We found some at the Russian Market that go up to 500 kilos, so we just need the money to buy them.”

“The baby elephant is the most difficult to raise in captivity,” said Dr Pin Ly Vun, executive director of Phnom Tamao. “We are not sure if the elephant will survive or if we can afford to keep feeding her.” Seima’s formula, which consists of Dumex or Cowshead milk with corn oil and calcium supplements, costs $15 daily. Care for the Wild, a British NGO, is currently helping the WPO with some of Seima’s expenses.

Chheang Dany said there is a Cambodian expression for a big problem: “We call it an elephant, because it is something that you cannot cover up with lies or with a sheet.”

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