A forest gave Cambodia’s captive elephants a new life. Now they’re paying it back

PU TROM, Cambodia — The quiet life that Sambo leads today seems as distant from her past plight as the searing-hot streets she once trod as a tourist attraction in the far-off capital of Phnom Penh.

“Elephants are not meant to walk on concrete,” says Jemma Bullock, deputy director at the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment and the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) near the community of Pu Trom in eastern Cambodia.

Sambo is one of 12 elephants currently residing at the EVP site in a blanket of forest draped over a scuttle of hills and valleys in Mondulkiri province. All but one of them have followed similar trajectories to this place. Aging and in many ways made obsolete by the mechanized world, these elephants have found solace living out their days wandering around the forest.

Jack Highwood, a British archaeology student-turned-elephant mahout, and Chhaeul Plouk, a member of the local Bunong Indigenous community whose family had kept elephants for generations, started the project in 2006 and began taking in elephants in 2007. The project sits on titled land leased from families living in the nearby villages of Pu Trom.

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John Cannon