After a four-day journey across the country—and more than 30 years working on the capital’s streets—Phnom Penh’s former resident elephant finally returned to the jungle this week, arriving at her new home in Mondolkiri on Wednesday.
With barely a glance at a large pile of fruit assembled in her honor, Sambo the elephant made straight for a patch of bamboo at the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) in Sen Monorom district, according to the project’s founder, Jack Highwood.
“She’s already starting to rumble —a noise elephants make to communicate with each other—and I’ve never heard her rumble before,” Mr. Highwood said, adding that the 54-year-old pachyderm had also indulged in a mud bath.
“We’re going to wait a couple of weeks to introduce her to other elephants [because] we want to get her strong first, fatten her up and start her exercising, because she hasn’t been exercising for the last few years,” he said.
“When you looked at her in Phnom Penh she seemed so strong, but when she’s around the trees and stuff, you can see that she’s a frail elephant. The years haven’t been kind to her.”
According to Sambo’s owner, Sin Sorn, his father took her out of the jungles of Kompong Speu province 46 years ago. She then worked farmland for four years under the Khmer Rouge and, he says, also had her back legs struck with an ax by soldiers before she was reunited with her master.
The elephant then spent three decades ferrying visitors around Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, bearing witness to the rapid changes in the capital and earning a place in the hearts of tourists and locals alike with her affectionate nature.
As sunset fell over the city last Sunday, dozens of people gathered at Sambo’s temporary enclosure in Sen Sok district—where she retired to in 2012 with a foot infection—while her owner and his relative, 36-year-old Im Sophal, who is also her mahout, prepared for the cross-country journey to Mondolkiri.
Watched on by his wife and daughter, who also spent much of their lives with Sambo, Mr. Sorn solemnly led the elephant out of the enclosure gates into a specially-modified container, with its top removed and sides reinforced, that was then hefted onto a truck with a crane.
“Sambo is leaving Phnom Penh now. Phnom Penh will be quiet and there is no more elephant in Phnom Penh,” Mr. Sorn said. “But, I want Sambo to live [in Mondolkiri] because I am old now and sick mostly. Another thing is that I want her to live with other elephants.”
Traveling only at night to avoid the searing daytime heat, and moving at just 20 km an hour, the truck with its large and rather unusual cargo first arrived at a rest stop in Tbong Khmum province near the border with Vietnam in the early hours of Monday morning.
Although Sambo had received a week of training walking in and out of the container, Mr. Highwood said it was her first time in the truck. A decision had been made not to sedate her after a stress test showed her heart might not cope with the strain of the medication.
“We went out of Phnom Penh very slowly. She was quite nervous, but she calmed down after a couple of hours,” Mr. Highwood said, adding that the convoy rested for a day before continuing the journey, which was made possible by about $5,000 in funding from USAID and a further $6,000 in donations from EVP supporters.
Following another extended stop on the edge of Mondolkiri’s Seima Protected Forest, where EVP is located, the convoy made it to the elephant sanctuary inside the protected zone, where Sambo seemingly embraced her new life.
But Mr. Sorn and his family say they will not forget the elephant, whose labor has fed, clothed, and housed them for decades. He said he would be visiting her at EVP at least once a month.
His wife, Kim Horng, said through tears that she was so sad to say goodbye to Sambo that she felt “almost crazy.”
“It’s like losing a precious thing in my life,” she said. “She is part of our life.”
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