When Tuy Sereivathana began working with an international conservation group in 2003, the first thing he thought of was the issue at hand: wild elephants in Cambodia, and especially in the Cardamom Mountains, were endangered.
This was because the elephants were raiding villages and destroying the crops of farmers, who in turn sought ways to hurt or kill the elephants. In some of these confrontations, people themselves were hurt or killed.
The elephants were reacting to the encroachment of humans into their migration routes, as people cleared forest land and built roads. The loss of habitat led to the confrontations, but more and more people were moving into the forests.
And so Tuy Sereivathana, who is now head of the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group at Flora and Fauna International, began imagining ways to help the humans keep the elephants at arms length, and to keep the elephants from attacking the interlopers.
“We experimented with hot chilies mixed with oil and painted this on ropes or fence posts around the farms where elephants pass, ” Tuy Sereivathana, who is 40, told VOA Khmer one day in March, as he moved through a village in the Cardamom Mountains. “The smell can keep the elephants out of the farms.”
His ideas were simple, yet innovative, and they have now landed him a big prize. On Monday, Tuy Sereivathana was set to accept a $150,000 award, the Goldman Environmental Prize, in San Francisco. The award is given annually to just six grassroots environmentalists—one from each inhabited continent.
The prize will be a highlight of a career that began early. Evan as a young boy in Kandal province, where he was born, Tuy Sereivathana loved elephants. He studied their biology, and as an adult underwent training and workshops in China, Indonesia, Kenya and Vietnam. He received a master’s degree in forestry from Russia, in 1995, before he began work for the Ministry of Agriculture.
In 2003, he was working as a government official alongside Flora and Fauna International, but he moved to work fulltime with the conservation group in 2005.
His methods are now used in neighboring communities in the Cardamoms and Preah Sihanouk province and are under consideration by Indonesia and Vietnam, which both have human-elephant conflicts.
Cambodia has an estimated 500 wild elephants remaining. Hundreds were believed killed in the 1980s and 1990s, as a result of conflicts with humans. However, not one has been killed from such confrontation since 2005, Tuy Sereivathana said.
That is, in part, due to Tuy Sereivathana’s ruses. And he has many.
He puts up hammocks, hats and perfume near fields, to trick elephants into thinking humans are asleep there, keeping the animals at bay.
“We also made loud sounds, like with fireworks and fog horns, to ward off the elephants,” he said in March.
Tuy Sereivathana advises villagers on how to use electrical wire, powered by the sun, to keep elephants away. He encourages overnight guard groups, and the burning of dung with hot chilies at the entrances of fields.
“Strategically, we switch the methods every week so that elephants cannot be aware of and become familiar with them,” he said, as he instructed a villager on how to burn dung.
Tuy Sereivathana also encourages farmers to grow alternative crops like chilies and cucumbers, which can be harvested in a shorter period of time, before the elephants find the field and feast on it.
That proved difficult. People were accustomed to growing bananas and sugarcane, “which are all attractive to elephants,” he said.
In the end, Tuy Sereivathana and his bag of tricks made it easier for elephants and people to live together.
In the villages, he is now affectionately known as “Uncle Elephant.”