banlung district, Ratanakkiri province – 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 the Pol Pot regime’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