The Poor Are Losing Their Homes, But It’s OK, An Elephant Has Been Saved

Posted on by Alex Watts


Call me heartless, but I must admit I greeted the news this week that Cambodia’s most famous elephant had finally been retired not just with sympathy but with a huge amount of disbelief.

It’s easy to become hard in a country where life is so cheap, and anything that helps dispel the terrible injustices here can only be a good thing, whether it’s human or animal. But it did leave me wondering whether there are far more worthy causes the Cambodian government could be concentrating on.

Don’t get me wrong – Sombo’s story is a tragic one…

The 52-year-old elephant was abused by Pol Pot’s forces and then forced to pound the pavements in Phnom Penh for 30 years with all four of her feet now so deformed and infected with painful abscesses, she can barely support her own weight.

And yet four days a week, she was forced to limp a 4km-round trip on hot, tarmac roads, and then give rides to holidaymakers for nine hours a day at the city’s Wat Phnom temple.

But all that came to an end on Monday, when she was saved from her torment following a world-wide campaign by Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (EARS).

After months of negotiations between EARS and Sombo’s owner Sin Sorn, who was accused by the charity of being “greedy” and putting the tourist dollar before the elephant’s health, the Cambodian government stepped in.

A jubilant Louise Rogerson, founder of Hong Kong-based EARS, said: “I would like to thank the Governor of Phnom Penh and City Hall for caring enough about Sombo to insist on her retirement so she can receive the medical care she deserves and desperately needs.”

She gushed: “This beautiful, gentle girl will not carry tourists on her back again, or have to walk down busy roads, or around Wat Phnom temple on her painfully-infected feet.”

Sombo is now said to be happily munching sugar cane at her new home in a field in the Sen Sok district, on the outskirts of the city. EARS is paying Sin Sorn a remuneration package to assist with elephant food, mahout salary, water, electricity, and loss of earnings.

The charity said it would also pay for Sombo’s treatment, giving her “the best medical care she so desperately needs”. Medical bills that large parts of the Cambodian population are unable to afford for their own dying children, it’s worth pointing out.

“The vet believes her injuries could take up to two years to heal and that Sombo will never fully recover due to the length of time in which she has been left untreated,” Ms Rogerson added.

The elephant had been the centre of controversy since October last year when Hong Kong-based vet, Paolo Martelli, flew to the capital and found that she was painfully lame.

EARS launched an online petition, which gathered more than 4,000 signatures, calling for Sombo’s retirement and warned there was “a strong possibility” she could collapse on the streets.

Cambodian officials responded to her cause with uncharacteristic speed, clearly seeing a PR opportunity in ordering Sin Sorn to retire his elephant.

No doubt they will be delighted that her story has once again made the national papers back in the UK. Amazingly, Sombo even made an editorial in the Daily Mirror today, tucked away under far more trivial issues like defence cuts, the Europe crisis, and what to do about Britain’s crumbling economy.

“Sombo the elephant is putting up her giant feet and enjoying retirement thanks to Daily Mirror readers,” trumpeted the Voice of the Mirror. “The animals have jumbo memories so she’ll remember for ever those who saved her from a daily grind of tourist rides in Cambodia.”

You can only have respect for EARS’ PR savviness, hard work and dedication. It can’t be easy rousing the Cambodian government into action for a cause that must – or at least, you’d hope, should be – fairly well down their list of priorities.

But it does leave me feeling very sad that not more is done to highlight the terrible human rights abuses over here – stories that aren’t nearly as quaint and easy to write. Impoverished farmers being driven out of their homes by land-grabbing foreign conglomerates, human trafficking, child prostitution, land mine victims, acid attacks, mass faintings in garment factories churning out clothes for, err, Mirror readers.

But the worst thing is it’s not so much the lack of campaigning, skills, or media awareness from the NGOs who manage to drag themselves away from non-animal issues by targeting these woeful human atrocities, it’s the lack of appetite for them by the foreign press.

Take a story on a crippled elephant with a pretty picture, happy ending, and catchy headline like “Tusk Force” and you’re on to a winner. It’ll stomp all over ‘dry’ pieces like police corruption and malnourished babies. Hey, it’s a third world country, that sort of thing goes on over there…

Sadly, it’s this soft news agenda and general lack of interest in Cambodia in the West that helps guarantee they keep happening. If only other issues carried as much weight as limping pachyderms, then the Cambodian government might do more to stop them.

Alex Watts

Journalist, currently based in Cambodia

My new book on training to be a chef, including stints at Rick Stein’s and the Fat Duck, is available to buy on Amazon for Kindle, iPad, iPhone etc. CLICK HERE to buy for just £2.05, about the price of half a lager.

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8 Responses to The Poor Are Losing Their Homes, But It’s OK, An Elephant Has Been Saved

  1. V says:

    I believe that animals as intelligent as elephants should be treated with dignity and I’m happy that this has apparently been recognized by City Hall. An elephant is smarter than a human child, by the way, and nobody says that children should be laboring in the hot days carrying tourists on their backs. I’m also sympathetic to your hypocrisy argument.

    From a readability perspective, this article needs some work, as it’s difficult to get through it without losing one’s focus.

  2. Soi Dog says:

    Write a column on ONE particular Khmer person being badly treated and it will also generate lots of reader’s attention. Write an article about ONE particular mistreated orphan and a large public outcry will be heard. But widen the topic to tens of thousands of mistreated Khmer people or orphans and readers will make no such outcries. We feel we can’t help everyone so why get emotionally involved in their collective sad plights. Most humans find it easier to focus on individuals rather than the collective, be it people or animals. We aren’t ants.

    That’s just the way we are.

  3. ken svay says:

    Hey what about those of us that want to take an elephant ride around wat phnom?
    Dont we have rights too?

  4. Fred says:

    The elephant is extremely visible and is a focus of attention. The poor are not. If you want to really change things use youtube et al to publicise plights. Make them become visible worldwide, not just in Cambodia.

  5. Pingback: The Poor Are Losing Their Homes, But It's OK, An Elephant Has Been Saved | | Cambodia Top Stories |

  6. Jeremy says:

    Alright, my daughter needs a trip to the dentist which I can’t afford.
    Who going to pay for the “best medical treatment available” for her?

    • Stunned says:

      Can’t afford it? Pull her tooth out.

      Elephants don’t hurt anyone, have just as much right to a natural life with food and land, yet are endangered.
      Humans are greedy, self-serving, often kill one another and anything else and have over populated and polluted the planet.

      Comparing a girl’s tooth to an elephant’s protection and rehabilitation after abuse is one of the most stupid things I’ve ever seen written on this forum.

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