prey nup district, Sihanoukville province – The night the elephants came to Tuy Neang’s village she hid in her hut, afraid of the carnage she imagined lay beyond the front door. As an animal as tall as her house trampled a casava plantation just meters away, the 85-year-old woman waited for help to arrive, then climbed onto her daughter’s back so the pair could flee into the night.
“My daughter warned me that the elephant might step on me,” she said, sharing her story with a recent visitor as she scaled a fish on her front porch.
The herd of three to eight animals—villagers disagreed over how many came that night—stole the family’s clothes from where they were left to dry outside the hut because they were drawn by the scent of people on the clothing fabric, said Tuy Neang. One elephant flung a kitchen knife that she had left near her cooking area far into the jungle, probably to leave the people defenseless, she said.
And though they could easily outrun the lumbering giants, the family was afraid of being crushed, or struck down by great clods of earth that the elephants loosed from the ground with kicks of brute force.
“If you were here you would be chased by the elephant, too,” said the daughter, Chain Jeung. “And you would run away like we did.”
An elephant, perhaps the same one that trampled casava and certainly one from the same herd, was shot dead a few days later, on Nov 14, allegedly by the village chief. He acted after terrorized villagers said they were living in fear.
The confrontation in Svay village in Prey Nup district, Sihanoukville province, occurred less than 10 km from a heavily-traveled road to Kompong Sam. The village sits in the shadow of Bokor Mountain, and near the Kirirom Wildlife refuge, where poachers have been caught harvesting elephants for their tusks, bone and meat.
The estimated 400 elephants remaining in Cambodia face pressures from domestication and, especially, poaching. But experts say the shooting in Svay village is an example of a different sort of conflict that threatens the world’s largest land mammal, one between farmers and elephants, each in search of space to live.
A severe example of such conflicts is playing out in Vietnam right now. Vietnam’s wild elephant population, thought to be under 100 animals, could become extinct in the near future because of intense competition for land.
A herd of elephants that has trampled to death at least 12 people in the past three years in an area east of Ho Chi Minh City is now the target of a government relocation plan meant to save elephant and farmer alike. The elephants will be moved to a national park in the Central Highlands, about 30 km from the Cambodian border, where they should have enough room to forage without panicking farmers.
The years of human-elephant conflict in Vietnam have left some people traumatized; they say elephants are vindictive animals who hunt their human prey.
“We are ready to shoot the elephant anytime we see it,” said Nguyen Xuan Linh, who was hired by the Vietnamese government to protect farmers in a commune where the killings have occurred.
Stories of elephants on the prowl for human blood alarm people like Joe Heffernan, an elephant biologist with Fauna and Flora International.
“I don’t believe there’s any vindictive streak that would drive elephants to hunt humans,” said Heffernan.
Slayings like the one in Svay village should be easy to prevent, since elephants rarely live up to their reputation as human killers. Heffernan said he especially doubts stories that portray the elephant as a menace who would spirit away people’s clothing or throw a villager’s knife into the jungle.
Even in Vietnam, where the human body count has climbed quickly, biologists believe the problem may be one elephant with a mineral deficiency that leaves it craving salt. The fatalities may be happening as the elephant bowls over huts where people are cooking, eating salty foods or merely storing the salt, experts say.
The problem of human-elephant conflict received global attention for the first time in 1997, when the World Conservation Union addressed the issue in Africa. Heffernan, a recent transplant to Southeast Asia, said he plans to adopt the lessons he learned in western Africa to the elephant populations of Asia.
The conflict here is driven by competition for land. The Asian elephant lives in a region that is home to 20 percent of the world’s population, where people live mostly in dense concentrations with few open spaces for large animals.
The two sometimes live in close cooperation: Cambodia has some 162 domesticated elephants, mostly in Mondolkiri province, a government survey reported in August. The use of elephants for labor and transportation has fallen in recent years as cheaper alternatives like tractors and motos become available in remote parts of the country, the report said.
Conservationists say Cambodia’s 181,000 sq km should be enough room for the nation’s 12 million inhabitants to co-exist peacefully with large mammals.
Still, there were problems in Svay village. Tuy Neang’s family said they moved onto their land just three years ago, clearing a virgin plot of jungle more than a kilometer from the center of the village.
Experts say the conflicts usually arise just like this, when farmers clear new land and inadvertantly settle on an elephant migration route. Elephants may have a migration pattern that takes 20 to 30 years to complete, and may not appear along a route for several years, said Heffernan.
A study of human-elephant conflict in Cambodia will begin next year, said Heffernan. It could lead to preventative measures in villages that have elephant problems, including electric fences, ditches or even domestic elephants to drive off the wild animals.
Further studies of the wild elephant population are currenly underway by at least four wildlife groups, including Fauna and Flora International, the World Conservation Society, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund.
“Mainly the last two years has been spent trying to learn where the populations are and where the threats are,” said Joe Walston, a technical advisor with the World Conservation Society.
What the groups have learned has reinforced their worst fears: poaching is exacting a terrible toll on large mammals. WCS studies of Cambodia’s wild elephant population from the 1950s and 1960s revealed evidence of great herds of elephants roaming across the northern plains of Cambodia. Almost no such evidence is found today, said Walston.
A report released this week from WildAid and the Department of Forestry had even grimmer news: at least 26 elephants have been slain in Mondolkiri, Koh Kong and Preah Vihear provinces since May of 2000, a rate that will wipe out the elephant population in less than ten years.
“This is really quite a stunning level. Those animals are going fast,” said Hunter Weiler, of WildAid.
Evidence of poaching has been found in the remote Cardamom mountains, whose isolation have until recently offered the elephants refuge. Poaching is also a problem in Preah Vihear and Mondolkiri provinces.
It can be an unusually brutal trade: Conservationists have reported poachers laying anti-tank mines along trails used by the elephants, then laying mines again around the carcass of the fallen elephant to attract and slay tigers.
The result has been devastating. A World Wide Fund for Nature survey in 1999 found a complete absence of elephants in Virachey National Park in northeast Cambodia. The 35-day survey used 11 camera traps to photograph smaller animals, including leopards, wild dogs, deer, sunbears, and wild pigs, but no elephants.
Money drives the trade: A live animal is worth $6,000 to $7,000, according to Sun Hean, at MAFF. Baby elephants are sometimes sought by private zoos. Tusks can fetch up to $27,000, made expensive by their rarity and an international ban that makes them more dangerous to trade.
“Elephants are caught to order these days,” said Heffernan, claiming ivory buyers place their orders with the poachers before the animals are harvested.
A Cambodian government effort to slow poaching and the illegal wildlife trade using a 13-man team of police and forestry officials has led to the confiscation of 3,000 animals—including four elephants—in just five months of operation. But organizers of the so-called Wildlife Protection Mobile Unit say they are only seeing a fraction of the illegal trade.
One of the confiscated elephants was just three months old when it was discovered by WPMU agents in July. Too young to be separated from its mother, whom agents assumed had been killed, the baby died in October after refusing to eat. A second elephant, aged 12, was sent to live with another teenage elephant at a zoo. The other two elephants, 45 and 75 years old, are being cared for at a military camp and may one day be released into the wild, according to Suwanna Gauntlett, president of WildAid.
Poachers continue to harvest wild animals in Cambodia at an alarming rate, thanks to lax enforcement of wildlife protection laws and the lack of strict punishments or fines.
A joint declaration signed in 1996 by the ministries of Environment and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries forbids the taking of wild animals. It is also illegal to sell, transport or “exploit” wild animals, under the declaration.
That same declaration also forbids eating endangered animals. The punishment for anyone caught violating the declaration is a fine of 10,000 to 1 million riel (about $2.50 to $250).
A 1994 declaration from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries says all elephants belong to the state and forbids hunting or live capture for sale or transportation. That declaration does not mention fines or punishments.
But punishments are rarely severe for people caught shooting elephants. A farmer who shot to death a cow elephant in Koh Kong province in July, 1999, then sold its baby, was ordered to pay $265, about one-half of his profit.
The farmer told officials that he was angered by a herd of elephants who came to his crops nightly and to eat his rice. He said he hid in a tree with a rifle, and when the elephants returned, fired blindly into the herd, killing the cow. Officials said he was not jailed because the shooting was unintentional.
What happens in the Svay village slaying will speak volumes about the country’s desire to protect elephants.
The case has riled government conservation agents, who say the animal posed no serious threat. Three men, Svay village chief Sem Ren, 55, and his deputy chiefs Nhem Nhel, 46 and Say Chhoeun, 42, are now awaiting trial on charges of illegal possession of weapons, violating a 1999 government ban on weapons possession.
A fourth man who escaped investigators is being sought, authorities say.
Sem Ren is the only suspect charged with shooting the elephant, and it will be up to the court to decide what punishment that merits, since no punishments are described in existing laws.
The men’s families and neighbors have pleaded for their release in a letter of support that was signed with 228 thumbprint signatures. In the plea the villagers claimed the elephants destroyed a casava plantation and two houses.
“The reason we shoot the elephant is because we want to defend our plantation,” said Hun Pheap, a 46-year-old Svay village resident. “It was not wrong. They shot the elephant because they got a complaint from the people and the people do not have weapons, and they dare not face the elephants.”
Shortly after the shooting, the Ministry of Environment sent a team to investigate. The investigators found that the damage was less severe than villagers reported; only a portion of the plantation was flattened and both houses were still standing, but with one wall partially pushed in.
Sun Hean, of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said he has only one message for villagers who fear elephants: Report the animal to authorities, who can help.
“Don’t kill them,” he said.
A simple request, but for villagers who live along the migration routes of the wild elephant, it’s easier to remember that a wild elephant is a five-ton animal with a mind of its own. And even if wildlife biologists say elephants are unlikely to attack people, villagers say they feel afraid.
Chain Jeung, who carried her mother to safety a few days before the elephant was killed, said she knows no other way the village could have reacted.
“It was an emergency situation. If we didn’t kill it, it would step on the people,” she said.
As a young girl, she once saw her mother chased from a field by an elephant. She also claimed an uncle was killed in a nearby area.
“My uncle was stepped on by the elephants and his body was swallowed up,” she said.
As her family prepared a fish dinner, Chain Jeung reflected on her own history with elephants. When she was young they were kinder, she said. Now, as the farmers move into the jungle, they are more stubborn.
“They are very clever. They are a very knowledgable animal,” she said.