In the company of the Kulen Forest elephants.

I recently had the great pleasure to meet and spend the day with a group of fourteen Asian elephants at the Kulen Elephant Forest in Cambodia, a new retirement sanctuary for the Angkor Wat elephants who spent most of their lives giving tourist rides round the temples.

Wild elephants are rapidly declining in Cambodia with only 600 inhabiting small pockets of forest which do not allow any integration. There are also 75 captive elephants with various conservation organisations encouraging owners to relinquish them. Fourteen of these reside at the new 530 acre Kulen Elephant Forest which opened in January 2020, where they can finally roam relatively free and lead a semi-natural life.

Being introduced to some of the elephants before taking a walk with them. Photo: John Brookland

The Kulen Community Forest has mostly disappeared and is situated an hours drive north of Siem Reap in the Kulen Mountain foothills. The forest belongs to the Bos Thom Community and was being heavily deforested for agricultural purposes with only 1100 acres remaining, until Kulen Forest Asia stepped in and negotiated with the villagers to take responsibility for and protect 530 acres to provide a home for the elephants. Cambodia is third on the list of countries deforesting at an alarming rate. The reserve is operated with their permission and cooperation and in return the villagers receive employment and payments for community projects from the tourist revenue and are paid for crops grown to feed the elephants.

They were “buddied” up and seemed devoted to each other. Photo: John Brookland

On arrival we hiked with a guide for twenty minutes through cultivated land and then suddenly into the forest to the newly built headquarters where we were greeted before being “introduced” to four of the elephants and told about their characters and how to act round them. I have been lucky enough to have spent a lot of time in the presence of elephants in Africa and Asia, but I am still wowed by their size, dignity, patience and gentleness. I am always drawn to their round piercing, but friendly eyes and just being around them is more relaxing than any spa. I will never understand how anyone can kill or mistreat them.

The elephants, when first brought to the reserve, were allowed to choose partners and are “buddied” up with each pair appearing to be devoted to each other. They have a dedicated mahout who spends dawn to dusk with them making sure they come to no harm. They are allowed as much freedom as possible and chance to socialise and indulge natural behaviours. It is of course impossible for them to do completely as they please as there are no fences or barriers. Unfortunately they can never become truly “wild” again, but they can enjoy roaming the forest grazing, taking dust and mud baths, swimming and anything else they desire to do with the exception of one thing – damage the trees. Left to their own devices they would destroy the forest very quickly so the mahout gives them a shout when they sneakily start pulling branches down. They are fed daily with bulk feed and added supplements to keep them healthy and the operation is overseen by an elephant specialist.

Enjoying a mud bath in the forest. Photo: John Brookland

Watching and talking to the mahouts it was obvious they were devoted to the elephants and their welfare and I could see they took pleasure in keeping the elephants happy often going out of their way to provide treats like chopping up a coconut for them. The elephants were also completely at ease with them and visitors like ourselves, but being such large creatures it can be a danger to be around them and you need to act sensibly.

Our day with the elephants involved trekking through the forest with them, watching them bathe and have a mud bath and just chilling out with them. They happily joined us for a picnic and went mad with expectation like kids when we prepared rice ball treats containing supplements for them. We were ecstatic and the elephants appeared happy and contented as well.

Enjoying a bath in the newly created lake at Kulen Elephant Forest. Photo: John Brookland

When contemplating visiting so-called “sanctuaries” many animal welfarists and animal rights advocates can be put off which is a shame, but with a little research it is possible to weed out the genuine conservation and welfare operations. Kulen Forest is quick to point out that there “are no tricks, no riding, but offer a fun, educational approach to elephant conservation and contribute as much as possible to preserving the remaining elephants of Cambodia”.

Using tourist revenue to provide income for the local community while preserving forest and habitat and providing a safe haven for captive working elephants seems to be a win win solution. Educating and getting the cooperation of local people through financial gain may not be for all conservation purists and yes, its a shame the elephants cannot be left to roam freely in peace, but these days it has got to be about compromise if we are going to “save” animals and habitat and provide them with a better life.

Looking for the rice balls when joining us for lunch

Born Free ditches Martin Clunes – an opportunity missed.

Can we really trust this man to humanely look after his elephants?

Has the Born Free Foundation missed an opportunity?

The Born Free foundation has severed its ties with actor Martin Clunes following his ill advised decision to ride on an elephant and worse still to pull on its ear in the process. He has been denounced across social media and unfortunately has lost all his kudos as an ambassador for animals.

To be fair, Martin Clunes has shown beyond doubt in many of his programmes that he is a genuine animal lover, so should we judge him so savagely. It was a very bad error of judgement by him and he is probably mortified. He allegedly voiced his concerns to the production crew about hurting the elephant by pulling at its ear and climbing up on it.

TV producers and directors are the ones at fault.

The TV production company and its producers, advisers and director are mostly at fault for their crass decision to include such a shot in the show in the first place , but have escaped most, if not all, of the censure. Rather than use the situation to highlight the plight of these elephants they chose the audience pleaser route of pressurising Mr Clunes to make an exhibition of himself with little thought to the outrage it would cause. The whole incident highlights the media approach to and misunderstanding of animal welfare and rights issues, and reinforces their ethos that animals are purely there to be utilised for entertainment and as audience pullers particularly when you can have a gullible celebrity presenter paid to front it and perform as they are told.

Unfortunately, Mr Clunes has now added himself to the list of presenters who perpetuate this creed that is acceptable to misuse animals for entertainment purposes irrespective of their rights and dignity.

Getting up close and personal is too irresistible for some animal lovers.

elephant, cruelty to elephants, chained elephant,
Is this any way to treat such a intelligent and dignified animal.

Being an animal lover is a double edged sword and many find it difficult to draw the line between being lovers and abusers.  Animal loving instincts can lead us all astray at some stage as for most people the whole point of “loving” is  to surround themselves with animals and take every opportunity to interact with them preferably at close quarters.

The lure of getting up close and personal can prove too irresistible and when presented with perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity of riding an elephant, swimming with a dolphin, or having a selfie with a bird of prey,  monkey or snake many find it difficult to ignore. We kid ourselves that just the odd encounter does not really matter, little realising that these animals are put through this manhandling and stress continually.  There is an extreme conflict of interest involved in these situations and unfortunately many cannot resist.

It could be argued that the Born Free Foundation has missed a trick with this heaven sent opportunity to use this highly publicised incident to their advantage by initiating an ad campaign with Martin Clunes to highlight that everyone is vulnerable and capable of making such a bad decision, but once they have made the error they might think twice in the future.

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More reading on the subject:

Tourists abroad risking life and limb.

The lure of close up animal attractions.