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