Chab Leoung, a dark-skinned farmer, sat behind his cottage one day in March, complaining of injuries to his jaw and foot. The 48-year-old was trammeled by an elephant while traveling in the forest in the Cardamom Mountains three years ago.
“A group of elephants first ran after my dog, but then one in the group turned on me,” recalled the father of four, who lives in Chi Phat commune, in Koh Kong province’s Thmar Bang district. “It hit me and then stepped on my face and my foot.”
Chab Leoung depends on the forest to earn a living, but he has been reluctant to return. He is just one example of people who have run afoul of wild elephants in these jungle mountains, as humans move further into the forest.
With more Cambodians clearing forest land for agriculture and an increase of development projects in remote areas like this, the habitat for wild elephants is decreasing, putting them in conflict with humans.
The elephants destroy crops and homes as they look for food. And sometimes they attack. In turn, people sometimes strike back.
Such problems led one conservationist, Tuy Sereivathana, who heads an elephant team for Flora and Fauna International, to develop unorthodox methods to keep people and elephants from conflict.
Using chili peppers, electric fences and altered farming methods, among others, Tuy Sereivathana developed ticks that have reduced the conflicts, helping to protect Cambodia’s dwindling population of elephants and earning him a $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize this week.
“We introduce the methods and concepts of elephant conservation to the people so that they no longer get angry with elephants or have negative thoughts about the animals,” he told VOA Khmer on a trip to the mountains in March.
Farmers like Hang Yon, 55, who lives in Kampong Seila district, have benefited. Her house was twice destroyed by roaming elephants, but since she has used Tuy Sereivathana’s methods, such conflicts have decreased.
“It is not as frequent as before, due to the methods introduced by the conservation group,” she said in March, as she sat next to her newest home.
Pit Sen, the chief of Obakrotes commune, where Hang Yon lives, said education programs have improved people’s attitudes toward elephants.
“We have no compensation or damages of any kind for the damaged property,” he said. “But thanks to Mr. Tuy Serey Vathana, the people are less angry with the elephants and have come to love the animals.”