Barbara Adam and her family take a walk on the wild side at a Cambodian rehabilitation sanctuary, the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
As our van trundles down a track in the jungle, we suddenly spot her, Lucky, one of four Asian elephant who live at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.
Lucky is the gentlest of the four resident elephants, and the only one wandering freely throughout the 6,000-acre reserve today.
The kids, the husband and I are on a day-long tour to learn about Wildlife Alliance’s work in rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife in Cambodia. Our guides are Canadian Chris Swanlund and Cambodian Samedy Muong.
After being picked up in Phnom Penh, we’d driven about 40 minutes from the capital to a local market, where Samedy bought bucket-loads of pineapple, bananas, guava and peanuts for the elephants.
Our van smelled like fruit salad as we finally entered the park, about 90 minutes after we set off. The driver had been told Lucky had been sighted earlier heading to the back of the park, probably foraging for wild mushrooms, which were in season.
It seemed Lucky had also been scouting for a suitable picnic spot while she waited for her “treat van”. When we found her and parked the van, she led us through the jungle to the clearing she’d selected for today’s elephant appreciation session.
Samedy has already told us some of Lucky’s story: rescued from the illegal wildlife trade as an infant in 1999 and cared for round-the clock by her “second mum”, Mr Sitheng, for two years. (Elephants develop at a similar pace to humans.)
Lucky, who turned 18 in September, is one of the very few elephants in the world to have survived a bout of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus (EEHV).
She contracted the hemorrhagic virus in 2015 and was touch-and-go for six months, Samedy told us. She lost one tonne of weight and her care included a lot of intravenous treatment, which in elephants goes through in through veins in their ears. Persistent infections at the IV sites have left her ears raggedy and sensitive.
Before we get out of the bus to meet Lucky, who is now a healthy 2.5 tonnes, Samedy tells us not to touch her ears or walk behind her.
Despite the lovely verbal introduction, the sheer size of Lucky is intimidating. But we see how gentle she is with her handlers, and how gentle they are with her. And one by one we step forward to offer Lucky some fruit, which she grasps with the sticky end of her trunk and shoves into her mouth.
Elephants need to eat a staggering 150kg of food a day, so this little interlude is just a drop in the ocean for Lucky, who is very gracious about the slow speed of this particular snack break.
Then the handlers told Lucky to lift her trunk so we could put peanuts directly into her gaping maw. Watching my three-year-old bravely stretch up to place a tiny handful of peanuts inside Lucky’s mouth was one of the more stressful — and proud — moments of my parenting career.
When the fruit was finished, Lucky left us, swaying back through the jungle in the general direction of her enclosure.
We boarded the van to follow her to the staff-only elephant area to meet Lucky’s colleagues, Jamron, Chhouk and Sakor.
Jamron is the oldest of the four, a female in her early 30s. Sakor, an 18-year-old male, is the most aggressive and, at 3.5 tonnes, the biggest of the elephants at the centre. Chhouk is the baby, at only 11. He’s easily identifiable by his prosthetic foot,
Chhouk was discovered wandering in the jungle in 2007, very underweight and with a serious foot injury. He was taken to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Centre and nursed back to health. Part of his recovery included being fitted for a prosthetic to replace the foot he’s believed to have lost in a snare.
Every day, Chhouk’s handlers change his “shoe” and perform routines that desensitise him for medical checks. Samedy says Chhouk is not bothered by the patting, poking and shoe changing as long as he’s given a steady stream of fruit.
We sit well out of trunk’s reach and watch the handler check Chhouk’s ears, each of his legs and scrape under his feet with a stick.
Samedy points out that Chhouk’s eyes are fully open, meaning he’s very alert. That’s why the guests sit so far away, just in case he takes fright. Earlier, we’d noted how Lucky’s eyes were half-closed while we were patting and feeding her.
Less than an hour after we’d all had our hands inside an elephant’s mouth, the Wildlife Alliance staff demonstrate the strength of their lips, giving Chhouk a whole coconut, which he popped with his lips like it was a grape.
We get back into the van to meet some of the centres 1,200 other rescued animals, some of which are in pre-release enclosures.
Wildlife Alliance’s ultimate aim is to release all its rescued animals back into the wild. As well as Phnom Tamao, the non-governmental organisation has a wildlife release station in the Cardamom Mountains.
Not all rescued animals are suitable for release. Animals who will never leave the rescue centre include Monster, a brain damaged and partially blind pig-tailed macaque, Storm the pileated gibbon who was taught to smile in captivity, a trait that would get her killed in the wild, and Furiosa the binturong who only has two functional limbs. The centre’s four elephants and three tigers will also never be released, for their own and the community’s safety.
But for most of the rescued animals, release is the ultimate aim.
In his latest update on the Wildlife Alliance’s blog, Wildlife Programmes Director Nick Marx says the animals released recently in Koh Kong province in the Cardamom Mountains, including pangolins, macaques, muntjac and Oriental pied hornbills, appeared to be doing well, according to direct and video sightings.
On our tour, we meet rescued otters, gibbons, a Southern serow, tigers, leopards, langur, a gaur and a couple of binturong.
The final stop is the baby monkey enclosure, where we “help” with feeding. Helping consists of sitting with our backs to the fence with our cupped hands held out in front of us. We need to act like furniture because the monkeys treat us like furniture, leaping all over us to get at the longans, segments of orange and peanuts the handlers place in our hands.
We’re warned not to pet or cuddle the monkeys, as they will eventually be released. We leave the enclosure covered with dusty baby monkey footprints — the cutest souvenir ever!
It’s a truly magical experience getting to meet, feed and touch wild animals at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. We got to meet animals that weren’t even mentioned in the wildlife books I treasured as a child.
We also learned about Wildlife Alliance’s conservation work in Cambodia, including the multi-departmental Wildlife Rapid Response Team, an armed animal protection unit that has saved more than 65,000 animals over the past decade.
The six adults and two children on our tour also learned how to identify a well-treated elephant, one who has never been exposed to a cruel instrument called a bullhook, which is used to train and control most captive elephants.
Chris said some elephant handlers will use a hookless stick in public to control an elephant. But the stick only works if the animal has already been trained with a bullhook jabbed into its most sensitive areas behind its ears and around its eyes.
“We don’t use bullhooks,” said Chris, brandishing one right next to Lucky on our first stop. “We’ve never used one on Lucky, which is why she’s not bothered right now when we’re waving this one all over the place. She doesn’t even know what it is.”
The only reason the handlers have a bullhook on our tour is that Lucky, as gentle as she is, is a 2.5 tonne wild animal, so Wildlife Alliance is required to have some safety equipment on hand should anything go wrong.