By Adam Miller and Buth Reaksmey Kongkea
Sambo, the bull elephant that terrorised a small village in Kampong Speu province earlier this month, has finally found a new home at Phnom Tamao Zoo, following a Herculean effort by Forestry Administration officials and local NGOs to safely relocate him on Saturday.
Ahead of his arrival at the zoo, the raging hormonal beast, who was in the musth period of his adult life – a time of intense aggression that affects bull elephants periodically – was tranquilised and coaxed into a steel cage while hundreds of villagers watched on.
For hours, local vendors cashed in on the spectacle, selling coconut ice cream and loaves of bread to gawking locals who drank and cheered as the caged Sambo was hoisted onto the back of a truck.
“The situation was certainly not ideal. We were in a location close to many people and this did not make looking after him easy,” said Jack Highwood, director of the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment.
“We had to deal with people who wanted to get close [to] him, ride him, catch him and drive him – and especially deal with drunken people who wanted to take him home with them. However, we had great co-operation from the local authorities and the fact that the elephant is still alive and nobody else was killed was a huge achievement.”
After killing his owner earlier this month, Sambo ran wild in Mon village, in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district, trampling ricefields and terrorising locals. He was finally subdued on December 15 after being tranquillised and chained up by officials from the Forestry Administration.
Sambo has since lost 500-600 kilogrammes in weight in after being put on a strict diet, and a road was built late last week to allow access to the rice paddy where he was left stranded.
The road proved troublesome for the truck used to transport him to the zoo. The large vehicle sat in the mud for hours as rescue workers used a bulldozer to push it closer to the elephant. An excavator was then used to bring the cage closer to Sambo. Ropes were then tied around him to help steer him toward the massive steel cage.
Sambo finally relented at about 4pm, giving up his three-week struggle and walking into the cage under his own power, where he was lifted by crane onto the flatbed truck and driven away.
“This was incredibly successful,” said Highwood. “I think this is a huge achievement for the Forestry Administration, Wildlife Alliance and ELIE.”
Nhem Thy, deputy director of Phnom Tamao Zoo, said that Sambo arrived at the zoo safely at 10pm on Saturday night.
“Sambo is now staying in his new enclosure, but he could only eat a little bit of food because his health is not very good after being tranquilised. We hope that his condition improves in the coming days,” he said.
When Sambo’s health improves, zoo officials hope to breed him with Srey Pao, a 45-year-old female elephant at the zoo, Nhem Thy said.
“However, we are now thinking that if Srey Pao is too old and she can’t have a baby with Sambo, we will put him with three young female elephants at the zoo,” he added
Yet despite the happy ending for Sambo, some Mon village residents say they will miss the danger and excitement that the aggressive elephant brought to their small community.
“What are we going to look at now that the elephant is gone?” one villager asked Heywood. “Rice? Cows?”