After three decades of giving rides to tourists, Phnom Penh’s only elephant, Sambo, is finally set to return to the jungle.
Early next month, the 54-year-old pachyderm will make what is likely to be her last major journey when she is transported in a specially modified container to the wilds of Mondolkiri.
Sambo had been a fixture at Wat Phnom since 1981 until two years ago, when she was retired to a temporary enclosure in Sen Sok district after suffering a foot infection and raising the ire of City Hall by causing traffic jams in the area during peak hour.
Since then, Sambo has spent her days chained to a post at the site, while being fed, washed and cared for by her owner, as attempts were made to heal her foot.
Her new home will be at the Elephant Valley Project, an ecotourism venture run by the NGO Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE), where she will roam free along with nine other elephants.
“There are two in particular that we think we might put her with, but we’ve got no idea how it’s going to go—she hasn’t seen another elephant for six years and the last time she lived with another elephant was the late ’80s,” said Jack Highwood, the founder and manager of ELIE.
“She’s going to find a friend. We just don’t know which one yet.”
Since March, a question mark has been hanging over what would happen to the iconic elephant after the Hong Kong-based Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation pulled its funding support for her medical treatment in the midst of disagreements with her owner, Sin Sorn, over her future.
Mr. Sorn said that because of the elephant’s ongoing foot troubles and serious health issues he and his wife had suffered in recent years, he had revised his earlier hopes that Sambo would return to work.
Mr. Sorn, 57, who has been with Sambo since his family took her out of the forests of Kompong Speu province almost 50 years ago, with the exception of four years when she worked farmland during the Khmer Rouge period, said parting ways would be difficult.
“Our plan is to go every month and visit her for a week, but if I miss her too much I will go every two weeks,” he said.
“She’s like a younger sister [to me]. I’m the older brother and she’s the younger sister.”
Mr. Highwood said his organization had been overwhelmed by donations from Cambodians, expatriates and people overseas who wanted to help Sambo reach the Elephant Valley Project sanctuary.
“It’s going to be a difficult journey for her,” he said, when asked about his plans for the cross-country journey. “There’s no rulebook for this, there’s no school of elephant—you just have to use common sense.”