Baby elephant, a big bundle of joy and conservation challenges

The new addition to Cambodia’s captive elephant population highlights the need for habitat preservation and genetic diversity among the species throughout Southeast Asia

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April 29, 2022
Baby elephant, a big bundle of joy and conservation challenges
Gee Pael and her baby, Diamond, walk through the northeast Cambodia forest sanctuary managed by the Elephant Valley Project, which works closely with the indigenous Bunong community to care for 12 captive elephants. Photo: supplied by Elephant Valley Project

Gee Pael, one of Cambodia’s few captive female elephants, lived a peaceful life in a forest sanctuary until the day a wild bull appeared, chased away her handler and ran off with Gee Pael.

“I had to run up a tree,” recalled Yel Yan, the elephant’s mahout, or caretaker. “I was angry with Gee Pael, she made me stressed because I didn’t know where she was or what she wanted.”

Gee Pael and the bull spent two weeks in 2020 foraging in local farms and snacking on bananas, cashews and sugarcane. The Bonnie and Clyde of the elephant world eventually parted ways and Gee Pael returned to the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), a conservation centre in northeast Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province. 

Cambodia’s endangered Asian elephant population increased on 25 March, when 35-year-old Gee Pael – also known as Pearl – gave birth to a baby girl named Gee Pich, meaning ‘diamond’ in Khmer, following a two year gestation period after her fling with the bull.

Gee Pael’s unexpected baby is a cause for celebration but highlights the ongoing challenges of protecting Cambodia’s remaining 400 to 600 wild elephants facing increasing threats including deforestation and human elephant conflict, EVP Programme Manager Jemma Bullock said. 

The destruction of northeast Cambodia’s protected forests, home to an estimated 200 to 300 wild elephants, likely led Diamond’s father to enter the EVP sanctuary, which cares for 12 of the Kingdom’s dwindling captive population of approximately 74 elephants.

“The migration routes of wild elephants are changing dramatically,” Bullock said. “These elephants are then going into areas they might not have traditionally been seen.”

Asian elephant populations have declined as much as 50% in the last 75 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

While captive breeding programmes are restoring or supplanting wild elephant populations in other parts of Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s small and ageing captive population is unlikely to contribute to long-term conservation, Bullock said.

To protect the Kingdom’s wild Asian elephants, the Cambodian government, with technical support from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), launched a national elephant conservation plan in 2020. 

Most of the wild herds are split between the southeastern Cardamom Mountains and northeastern Mondulkiri and unable to crossbreed, FFI’s Flagship Species Manager Pablo Sinovas said. 

“There is hope for these populations to recover if habitats can be conserved and connectivity strengthened, but this is no small task,” he said.

Brothers Yan, left, and Vinh, caretakers known as mahouts, watch over Gee Pael and baby Diamond in the Elephant Valley Project’s sanctuary in northeast Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province during the infant’s first week of life. Photo: supplied by Elephant Valley Project

EVP staff worried Gee Pael would reject her baby. She spent many years in a logging camp around male elephants without other youngsters, becoming something of an aggressive tomboy who kicked dirt and puffed herself up like a bull. But Gee Pael softened around her baby as they grazed for bamboo shoots alongside her elderly elephant aunts, Mae Nang, Ning Wan and Ruby. 

“Gee Pael’s been absolutely amazing,” Bullock said. “She’s protecting the baby. When it moves too far away she comes back and gets it.”

Gee Pael and her baby are unlikely to impact long-term conservation, Bullock explained. There are not enough young elephants in captivity in Cambodia for a concerted breeding programme to be viable.

“We would never have actively gone out to breed one baby in captivity because this is not really directly linked to conservation of the species,” Bullock said. However, EVP’s mahouts will help the baby “live as natural a life as possible in the forest.”

Other countries including Thailand and Laos have introduced successful captive breeding and rewilding initiatives. The Laos Elephant Conservation Centre, home to more than 60 elephants, has been able to “rewild” some captive elephants, centre Founder and General Manager Sébastien Duffillot said.

“We are lucky because Laos is sparsely inhabited, the area is not under pressure in terms of agricultural expansion,” Duffillot explained. “You wouldn’t do this experiment if at the end of the day you didn’t have the right forest to release these animals.”

In Duffillot’s experience, successful rewilding is costly and can take years as mahouts attempt to introduce females to each other to form herds of five or six elephants until a matriarch emerges. 

Gee Pael gave birth to baby Diamond in March after the typical elephant pregnancy period of two years. There are approximately 74 captive elephants and between 400 and 600 wild elephants in Cambodia. Photo: supplied by Elephant Valley Project
Vinh, left, an indigenous Bunong man who looks after baby Diamond, longed to take part in elephant conservation while growing up in a family of mahouts, including his older brother, Yan. Photo: supplied by Elephant Valley Project

“You can tell you have been successful when the females in the group have protective behaviour towards the young ones, even if it is not theirs,” Duffillot said.

Such conservation captive breeding programmes are unlikely to be replicated because most organisations with captive elephants lack the resources for rewilding. Many also rely on the animals to earn money and may be unwilling to release their investments, Duffillot explained.

Countries with small captive populations like Vietnam and Cambodia would need countries with bigger elephant populations such as Myanmar and Thailand to share or rent elephants to replenish captive populations. This is unlikely to happen due to difficult logistics and high costs, Duffillot said.

You can tell you have been successful when the females in the group have protective behaviour towards the young ones, even if it is not theirs”

Sébastien Duffillot, founder, Laos Elephant Conservation Centre

Elephant conservationists in Cambodia argue the focus should remain on protecting existing wild elephants and their habitats, in particular within the Cardamom Mountains and Mondulkiri’s eastern plains. 

Though small in size, Cambodia’s elephant population remains globally significant due its unique genetic pool, explained Dr. Simon Hedges of the Zoological Society of London. 

“Despite significant loss, the kind of areas needed for viable elephant populations are still around [in Cambodia] but we don’t want to lose them,” Hedges said. Cambodia’s wild elephants “could become one of the most important populations in Southeast Asia.”

Protecting the elephants requires preventing further forest fragmentation, which restricts elephant movement and prevents different herds from breeding together, FFI’s Sinovas explained. 

Roads, farms and other infrastructure can cut off different herds from reaching each other within sanctuaries and protected forests, limiting genetic diversity and increasing odds of harmful inbreeding. 

“If populations are interconnected and there is genetic flow, that really is something that can reduce chances of population extinction,” Sinovas said.

Conservation organisations including FFI and WCS have documented babies in wild herds across Cambodia, but there is no clear estimate of the population’s birth rates, he added. 

A Fauna & Flora International researcher collects genetic samples from elephant dung as part of a population assessment. There are approximately 400 to 600 wild elephants left in Cambodia, researchers said. Photo: supplied by Fauna & Flora International

Around Gee Pael’s home alongside Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, large numbers of speculators and small farmers searching for unclaimed land have increased deforestation over the past five years, EVP’s Bullock said.

The protected area encompasses 2,927 square kilometres (1130 square miles), but since 2001 Keo Seima has lost 22% of its tree cover, according to Global Witness. Much of the deforestation has occurred in the last ten years.

Mahouts like Yan watching over Gee Pael and EVP’s other elephants can hear the sound of buzz saws as they trek through stretches of tree stumps, where farms and new settlements emerge on the outskirts of the elephants’ habitat.

Baby Diamond in her second week of life at the Elephant Valley Project’s sanctuary for captive elephants in northeast Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province. Photo: supplied by Elephant Valley Project

“We have been losing so much forest in the last number of years, I see the big men with the money coming to buy land,” Yan said. “They clear the land, clear all the trees.”

Increased human activity around forest areas triggers human-elephant conflict, especially during the dry season between October and April, when elephants often enter farms in search of food. At least six elephants have been killed since 2011, generally in retaliation for destroyed crops, according to WCS advisor Cain Agger. 

“Wild elephant movements have definitely changed over the past couple of years,” he said. “The elephants are coming into contact with people a lot more.”

WCS focuses on teaching surrounding communities how to live sustainably alongside elephant populations, such as providing farmers with high power flashlights and speakers to help them scare away rather than kill elephants. Other strategies include smashing pots and pans, though WCS does not advise approaching elephants.

But elephants are smart and adapt, meaning the strategies must evolve as well, Agger explained. Rangers monitor troublesome wild elephants and can warn communities to avoid conflict.

Elephants, along with other wildlife, can also get injured or killed by snares intended to hunt and trap smaller animals like deer, leading conservation organisations and the Cambodian government to launch a campaign against placing snares in protected areas.

WCS aims to improve law enforcement by establishing clear boundaries and patrols around the key areas of Keo Seima where elephants are known to frequent, while EVP incorporates local communities into the conservation work. 

In EVP’s sanctuary, members of the indigenous Bunong communities who traditionally owned elephants now work at a lodge offering tourists the opportunity to observe captive elephants in the forest. Community members manage the sanctuary and are employed as mahouts. 

Yel Vinh, a 22-year-old Bunong man whose older brother and father are EVP mahouts, became baby Diamond’s mahout, fulfilling his dream to work with elephants: “She plays with me, learning to grab things with her trunk, holding my hand.”

His brother, 30-year-old Yan, who slept alongside Vinh in the forest for weeks to watch over Gee Pael and her baby, worries that as Diamond grows older she will have nowhere left to live.

“For the elephants to have long lives, we have to protect the forests,” Yan said.

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