PHNOM TAMAO, Takeo Province – “Lucky, please be gentle,” Gavin Bourchier warned a baby elephant as it swung its trunk against a startled tourist recently.
Bourchier has spent the last two months teaching Lucky and another young elephant, O’Raing, how to get along in human society. Along with their mahouts, or handlers, the 2-year-old tuskers are being retaught the ages-old traditions of domestication in a program at Phnom Tamao Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Rescue Center.
For thousands of years Cambodians have kept elephants. They figure large in the bas reliefs and sculptures at Angkor Wat, both as mounts for kings in battle and as the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha.
But the tradition of training elephants has all but died out as older mahouts fail to pass on their knowledge to a new generation, said Bourchier, an elephant trainer with 10 years experience in Australia, London and Thailand.
The project, run by the wildlife conservation group Sangkrus Satprey, is a first step to reviving those lost traditions.
On command, Lucky and O’Raing can now hold up one leg, play catch with a stick, and stroll in procession, one leading the other with his tail. The plucky pachyderms have also learned how to bend to their knees and perform respectful sampeis to greet visitors.
“These lovely baby elephants have been learning the ways of human beings,” Bourchier said. “It is helping them to adapt to human society.”
Lack of experience with humans and abuse by elephant keepers can lead to serious problems, Bourchier said, citing a recent incident in Thailand when elephants stampeded in Bangkok, injuring several people.
Soeng Sopheap and Try Sitheng, the two teen-age mahouts, say they’ve never before had any formal training in looking after elephants, but they’re glad for the chance to learn.
“I love and look after my elephant like a son, and he also loves me,” said O’Raing’s mahout Soeng Sopheap. “He always cries for me if I am away.”
“If we educate him well, he will grow up to have good manners.”