Friday, February 18, 2011
Phnom Penh Pachyderms
There aren’t a lot of elephants around Phnom Penh these days, in fact there is just the one sole and perhaps lonely Sambo, who gives rides around Wat Phnom and sleeps in an empty field in the Tonle Bassac area, behind the new Australian embassy. She was also a common sight on her way to and from work along Sisowath Quay for years, until some recent decision forced Sambo’s mahout to take her on a different route, along street 19 behind the royal palace. So that’s it as far as elephants go for a few hundred kilometers. There is of course the excellent Phnom Tamao wildlife refuge/zoo, about 70 km south of the capital in Takeo province, which houses quite a few pachyderms, but outside of there you won’t find many till you hit mountains and wilderness.
Back a century or so ago, things were quite different. Elephants were commonly used as draught animals or to transport goods or passengers. There were elephant taxis around Phnom Penh, and the palace maintained a large retinue of the beasts. These were used in ceremonies, and especially auspicious were the white elephants which the king would keep as his own personal sort of talisman. These animals are not really white, but have pink or light-colored patches that give them their name. The palace white elephants were often taken away as booty after wars with neighboring emergent states. The part of the Royal Palace that tourists exit from these days is where the elephant stables once stood. Along the front of the palace you can still see the small pavilions where elephants were posted up until the late 1960s. Now there are just ceremonial guards and empty spaces.
There are still some very limited numbers of wild elephants in Cambodia, but it’s very hard to say how many. In the north eastern highlands of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri they are still used as beasts of burden or for tourist rides. Some also exist in the Cardamom mountains in Koh Kong and Kampong Speu and perhaps neighboring provinces, but there are no clear figures.
The decline in this animal’s numbers is due to many factors, but disappearing habitat must be the main one. The animal is generally held in reverence by local people and poaching would not seem to be a major problem, however snares set for other animals often cause major damage to their legs. Landmines do of course also take their toll. Obviously a huge, lumbering creature like this can easily die as a result of an injury to any limb because of incapacitation or infection.
During the Pol Pot regime, these animals lost their status and many were slaughtered, for meat and more importantly their bones which were exported to China. The details of just a couple of shipments of agricultural and wildlife products, taken from David Chandler’s well researched and documented book “The Pol Pot Regime” gives a small glimpse of the scale this trade perhaps had.
On 14 March (1977), the Chinese ship Heng Shan left for Whampoa with one thousand tons of Cambodian raw rubber and forty-four tons of betel, ten tons of lotus seeds, and other plant matter. But the Heng Shan also carried an extraordinary eighteen tons of deer horn, seven tons of pangolin scales, and two tons of tortoiseshell. One hesitates to compute the number of carcasses contributing to this cargo. Many more made up a 22 May shipment to the China National Native Products and Animal By-Products Import and Export Corporation. Dispatched to Whampoa on the Xindu were over six tons of monkey bone, 1.5 tons of elephant bone, “24,760 pieces” of dried gecko (apparently individual animals, weighing over half a ton in all), a ton of snake skins (mostly python), along with 145 kg of panther and tiger skins, 73 kg of black bear skins, and 128 kg of ring-mark lizard.
The Xindu also carried nearly 1000 tons of raw rubber, plus 160 tons of green beans, 130 tons of kapok, 65 tons of strychnine, 30 tons of white sesame, 20 tons of betel, 15 tons of pepper, 5 tons of malvanut, and 2 tons of frangipani flower.
One and a half tons of elephant bone in one shipment, perhaps the bones of more than ten animals. Obviously they had some use in traditional Chinese medicine, and perhaps that has something to do with the continuing decline in this incredible animal’s numbers. Otherwise it’s just that the forests which covered something like 70 percent of the country less than a century ago have in the main disappeared, a huge proportion just in the last 20 years. It’s difficult to see how such a large animal can survive alongside humans as less land becomes available for foraging and conflicts start to arise with farmers.