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World Cambodia’s famous elephant shines light on protecting aging animals

People offer bananas to Sambo at a farewell ceremony in Phnom Penh in November. Now at a retirement sanctuary, the famous elephant is not allowed to eat fruit.

Pring Samrang/Reuters

In the forests of Cambodia's remote Mondulkiri Province, one elephant is different from the others.

She is not afraid of cars and motorcycles but stops dead in her tracks at the sound of monkeys jumping in trees. She puts different grasses into her mouth tentatively to find out if she likes the taste. Other elephants walk between 10 and 20 kilometres a day, but she can only manage one because of an infected foot. In fact, she wore shoes for part of her life.

This is Sambo, Cambodia's most famous elephant.

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For three decades, she gave rides to tourists in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, and even advertised beer on her back. She hadn't seen another elephant in years. But in December, the 54-year-old Sambo was moved by truck more than 350 kilometres to Elephant Valley Project, a non-profit home for retired pachyderms. The trip took five days and Sambo developed diarrhea, probably from stress, said Jack Highwood, the sanctuary's founder.

Elephant welfare and how best to care for aging animals is a concern not just in Cambodia. In North America, animal-rights activists have been leading – and winning – controversial campaigns to relocate elephants, including from zoos in Toronto and Calgary, to warmer climates and more spacious surroundings.

The question of how to ensure the welfare of domesticated elephants in Cambodia is more complex than simply releasing them into the wild, said Tuy Sereivathana, the country's director of Fauna & Flora International.

"Because they adapt to humans providing food every day, they don't know how to find the food in the forest," he said. And domesticated elephants haven't developed the skills of their counterparts in the wild of finding water sources and communicating with other elephants, he added.

Sambo now lives with eight other pachyderms at Elephant Valley Project, which Mr. Highwood, a 32-year-old British archeology graduate, said is part of a movement to let elephants roam free and "be elephants again." Most of the elephants here used to work in logging. But Elephant Valley Project is also a tourist destination: There is a guesthouse and visitors pay $85 (U.S.) a day to observe the animals.

Last year, Elephant Valley Project saw the death of two of its elephants: a 40-year-old male named Bob and his best female friend, Onion, 34. The cause of the deaths has not been established and Mr. Highwood says it is something he does not want to talk about.

Over the past 50 years, the population of wild elephants in Cambodia fell to 500 from approximately 10,000. Civil war, land mines and deforestation all contributed to the decline.

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The number of domestic elephants also decreased. There were some 1,000 elephants in captivity before the war, but now only 76 remain, including 20 that give rides at Angkor Wat, Cambodia's biggest tourist attraction. Images of elephants carrying people are carved into the walls of the ancient temples – and it was elephants that helped to build the monuments, bringing stones from kilometres away.

Like Sambo, the so-called domestic elephants were captured from the forest when they were young and trained to live with people.

"Purely so people can ride on the back of an elephant is not a good reason to keep it in captivity," said Nick Marx, a conservation biologist at Wildlife Alliance, an NGO in Cambodia.

But before domestic elephants start being moved to the jungle, scientists should do more research to see how they adapt, cautioned Fauna & Flora's Mr. Sereivathana.

"The Sambo case is a pilot case for domestic elephants when they retire. It's an idea for wildlife biologists [to study]," he said.

Sambo was captured as an eight-year-old and lived with her owner, Sin Sorn, for more than 40 years.

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Her birthday parties were covered in local newspapers, with photos of her bathing in a swimming pool with balloons. She wore a necklace of flowers around her neck and had monks sing prayers in her honour.

For Mr. Sorn, now 58, Sambo was his livelihood. When her feet became infected, he made shoes for her out of tires. He still refers to the elephant as his sister.

Mr. Sorn contacted Elephant Valley after he became ill last summer. He worried about what would happen to his beloved pet if he were to die, explained Mr. Highwood. In exchange for giving away his elephant, Mr. Sorn got taken on as an adviser at the Elephant Valley Project at a salary of $250 a month.

These days, Sambo's mahout, or caretaker, washes her twice a day and feeds her stems of banana trees. She also gets iodine baths for her infected foot. But during her first two months here, she lost weight, because Mr. Highwood doesn't believe in feeding elephants fruits, which is what Sambo ate before.

"She needs a low-sugar diet. She had a high-sugar diet before," he said, explaining that the goal is to "teach her to act like an elephant again."

Without the flowers around her neck, Sambo looks naked. Her body is covered with black circles – disinfectant on spots where she injured herself while walking through the jungle, Mr. Highwood explained. It seems like she can barely walk, as her mahout pushes her from behind to get her up the hill.

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But fame continues to follow Sambo – even in the jungle. On a recent afternoon, a Cambodian television crew showed up to report on her adjustment to the new environment.

Surrounded by people, Sambo stretched out her trunk, asking for fruit. But no one brought any bananas for her.

"She was taught to beg for food from people. This is the kind of behaviour we want to discourage," Jemma Bullock, Elephant Valley Project's manager, told visitors.

Is Sambo happier here? Too bad that elephants can't speak.

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