Ratanakkiri province, Banlung – Tin Loung was 11 years old when his family bought an elephant in 1960.
“My mother and my aunt spent a lot of money for this elephant, who was 5 years old at that time,” Tin Loung said.
“They sold buffaloes, cows, bulls, rice, pigs, chickens and other goods to collect the money-we lost everything and got only him,” Tin Loung recounted. But that young elephant was so valuable to his family that they called him Khamm Kang, object of wealth.
For ethnic minority Tampuon villagers in Ratanakkiri province, an elephant was a symbol of affluence, said Chheu Bal, who claimed to be 100 years old. “An elephant was very important for transportation-it was like people who have cars today,” she added.
Tin Loung and the elephant grew up together and weathered decades of conflicts through the 1960s, 70s and 80s when Ratanakkiri’s jungles were turned into a war zone and wild elephant hordes slowly vanished.
But it was not a stray bullet or bomb, or even illness that parted Tin Loung and Khamm Kang, but simply greed: the 52-year-old elephant was poisoned and his ivory tusks sawed off on the night of March 23.
When Tin Loung found his elephant mutilated, he went into shock, unable to eat anything or hear what people were telling him, he said in a recent interview at his home in Ratanakkiri.
“I was like a drunken man, unconscious, a crazy man,” said Tin Loung, a former RCAF first lieutenant.
Hor Ang, deputy chief of the provincial police, said he is treating the killing of the elephant as a serious crime.
“We already have suspects but we need to investigate and find more evidence,” he said. “I have ordered my officials to break this case as soon as possible. We are very sorry to have an elephant poisoned because it is a rare animal species that has nearly disappeared in this country.”
Khamm Kang was the first reported case of a domestic elephant intentionally poisoned in the province, said Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc.
“Before this, people did business, they bought and sold elephants,” he said. “Now they have poisoned an elephant for its tusks-they are out of control,” he said.
One kilogram of elephant tusk can fetch $300, he said.
Over the last few years, several businessmen had approached Tin Loung seeking to buy the elephant, and one man offered him $8,000 last year. But Tin Loung said that amount would not even have covered the purchase price of another elephant: $12,000 to $13,000 for a young pachyderm and $10,000 for an older one.
Besides, he said, “I considered this elephant my heritage from my parents. If I sold this elephant, it would have been like selling my parents.”
Khamm Kang was an extended-family inheritance belonging to the 11 children of Tin Loung’s mother and aunt who bought him in 1960 chiefly for transportation.
“We transported everything…. Even the Khmer teachers who came to teach hilltribes hired our elephant to take them from village to village,” Tin Loung said.
In 1963, Tin Loung’s whole family had to move to Chrey village on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Banlung to make room for Khmer settlers.
Their arrival was part of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s settlement plans for the northeast region bordering Vietnam.
According to the 2003 book “Des montagnards aux minorites ethniques,” or From Montagnards to Ethnic Minorities, about 3,000 Khmer relocated to Ratanakkiri province between 1955 and 1970.
Given land, they settled close to the military base in Banlung and the nearby rubber plantation of Lanbasiek set up in 1960.
Tin Loung said the Tampuon wanted to live some distance from the Khmer settlements because they needed forested areas for their elephants and the Khmer soldiers frightened animals.
In the early 1970s, Ratanakkiri province was plunged into war, with the Khmer Rouge taking control of the region early on and the US bombarding the area as they fought North Vietnam.
“If an elephant owner did not respect the orders of Angkar [as Pol Pot’s government was known], the Khmer Rouge soldiers would confiscate his elephant and send the owner to a work camp,” Tin Loung said. Elephant owners would face internment if they could not deliver potatoes, rice and other goods to military and work camps and return to their village within a single day, he said.
After Pol Pot’s defeat in 1979, the Vietnamese and Cambodian government forces kept fighting the Khmer Rouge in the Ratanakkiri jungle, which led to the near disappearance of wild elephant hordes, Tin Loung said.
“In 1980, you still could see elephant footsteps in the jungle. But they progressively vanished.”
When he was alive Khamm Kang had a reputation for clairvoyance and could sense some things about human beings before they would know themselves.
“If any daughter had an illicit affair without being married and was even one month pregnant, this elephant would know first,” said Tin Torng, 66, Tin Loung’s brother. “That happened three times: in 1987, 1990 and 2001” he said.
Every year, the elephant’s owners held four ceremonies around him: after rice had been planted, when rice had grown, when rice was ripe and after the harvest, said Lan Pev, a 34-year-old cousin of Tin Loung.
“During the ceremony, we would ask [the elephant] not to be fierce, not to cut his chain and go eat other people’s rice and vegetables, not to harm other people, and to bring us good luck and help us hunt animals,” Lan Pev said.
Eleven relatives shared the elephant’s care, and it was Lan Pev’s month to have Khamm Kang when he was poisoned in March.
The elephant was kept some distance from Lan Pev’s house on the outskirts of Banlung in an area of dense vegetation with trees to shelter the animal. There was no defined trail leading to the spot.
Lan Pev said he always brought Khamm Kang to that place, leaving him at night on a 10-meter chain attached to a tree near water. There are several homes and two dirt roads along the patch of wilderness where the elephant was kept, but he was hidden out of sight.
A mature elephant, Khamm Kang did not let strangers near him, so his killers resorted to lacing jackfruit with poison, Tin Loung said.
“Any sweet fruit, he loved and ate. So this person knew what the elephant liked and put the poison in it,” he said.
Plastic bags of jackfruit and small pellets of commercial poison were found about three meters from the tree to which the elephant was chained, Lan Pev said.
Khamm Kang cried in agony the night he was poisoned.
“I heard the sound of screaming but I did not know what kind of call or what kind of animal was making it,” said Thoung Mit, a 25-year-old Tampuon woman whose house borders the wilderness area where Khamm Kang was tethered.
“I did not go [to check the noise]. But when the sound continued, we four women and children decided to run to our homes,” she said.
The extended family that raised Khamm Kang held a 2-day memorial ceremony in his honor earlier this month.
“When they killed this elephant, it’s as if they had killed a family member,” Tin Torng said.
“Our tradition is that if an elephant dies, we must hold a ceremony to pray for him to release the bad things and bad luck, and bring in good luck and health to our families,” he said.
“If he had died because of disease or old age, I would not think about it. But he was poisoned,” Tin Torng added. “I feel so sorry for him.”