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Cambodia’s Angkor Temple Complex Ending Elephant Rides

FILE - In this May 30, 2009, file photo, tourists ride on elephants at Bayon front gate of Cambodia's Angkor complex in Siem Reap province, north of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Elephants that serve as a tourist attraction and give rides at Cambodia’s famed Angkor temple complex will be moved to a new home in a suitable jungle area, an official said Thursday.

Apsara Authority, the government agency that oversees the Angkor archaeological site, said it is important for the animals to be able to live in their natural habitat, and there are other ways to provide attractions and rides for tourists.

Some of the 14 elephants officially at the site under the management of a private company are old and in ill health. They have been providing rides for tourists since 2001.

The death of a female elephant in 2016 of heart failure after giving a tourist a ride triggered an outpouring of grief and criticism on social media. A petition was posted on the website addressed to the Apsara Authority calling for the end of elephant riding there.

The agency said tourists will be allowed to see, but not ride, the elephants at their new location about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Angkor Wat.

Apsara Authority spokesman Long Kosal said by phone from Siem Reap that the elephants will continue to be under the care of the company that owns them, which would also train them to put on performances for visitors.

He said two of elephants have already been taken by truck to their new home and the rest will be gradually transported through the end of this year.

Domesticated elephants used to be employed in large numbers for logging in Southeast Asia. Mechanization and deforestation pushed most of them out of that role, and they are now often found at tourist attractions. Animal rights activists are concerned that they are mistreated when used for rides and tourist shows.

The temples at Angkor, built between the 9th and 15th centuries, are Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site and a symbol of national pride that is emblazoned on the Cambodian flag.