Single grey female

Tiwad in the jungle, ridden by her mahout, Long

Tiwad is sixty years old. She’s lived in the forests around Sen Monorum – a rough and ready town in Cambodia – all her life. She has no heirs and is likely to be the last of her kind. We found her in the forest after a sweaty hour of trailing her over muddy hills and through thickets of vegetation: she doesn’t care much for paths, even the rough jungle tracks cut by the Bunong, and prefers to roam across country. Her mahout, a boy named Long, had led our pursuit, following the occasional footprint and the line, like a bicycle track, grazed in the rain damp mud by the thirty metres of chain she drags behind her.

From the top of a wooden hill we heard her bell, clanking like a very out of place Swiss cow, and headed down into the hollow to find her eating, stripping leaves from everything within trunk reach. Elephants need about 300kg of food a day and they will range far and wide through the forest like it’s a continuous, all-you-can eat salad buffet, if they’re allowed. And the Bunong do allow them, restraining them only with a bamboo brace around the front legs, to slow them down, and a dragging chain to help their mahout find them again. For days, even weeks, at a time, the elephants are free to graze the forest at will.

This corner of north eastern Cambodia is also home to about sixty wild elephants, which range through forests not yet slashed and burned to make way for Chinese rubber. In Mondulkiri, the forest stretches across to and beyond the Vietnamese border, but as you descend westwards towards the broad Mekong valley there is precious little left. The elephants are long gone.

In Sen Monorum district, alongside the wild elephants, there are a decreasing number of domesticated ones, mostly owned by the Bunong minority. Elephants are a significant piece of capital in these parts and the Bunong own their elephants collectively, on a time-share basis. Each month, a different family has the use and care of the shared animal, bearing the costs and retaining the proceeds for themselves. Traditionally, the families would use their elephant for lifting, carrying and pushing things (mainly trees), but only for four hours a day, 20 days each month – the Bunong do not sweat their assets.  These days, the main economic value, of course, is touristic. Pity the family whose turn occurs in the midst of the rainy season, when there are precious few Europeans around.

The other idiosyncrasy of the Bunong and their elephants is the reason why, once Tiwad passes on, there will be no more. Breeding elephants is forbidden by the Bunong’s animist beliefs, unless the elephants are lawfully married. Bastard elephants are bad news, jinxing whole communities. Should any illegitimate calves arrive, it is incumbent on the family with responsibility that month to organise a shot-gun wedding to ward off the bad luck.

Of course, the length of an elephant’s gestation period may also be a factor behind this moral stringency: up to two years during which female expectant mothers can’t do the heavy work that the Bunong historically relied upon. But whether because of religion or economics, only legitimate calves are permitted. Elephant weddings are hugely expensive, complicated affairs, involving days of ceremony and livestock-draining sacrifices – in such an impoverished community, such events are effectively unthinkable.  Tiwad remains a spinster, needless to say.

In the past, the Bunong captured their elephants from the wild, but now – for good reason, in the face of quite horrific deforestation – the WWF won’t allow the capture and domestication of wild elephants. There is simply no way, between the animist ethics of the Bunong and the eco-ethics of the conservationists, that another generation of domesticated elephants can come along.

Maybe this is a good thing. The life of a working elephant here, as elsewhere, is hard and heavy; the training, over six years, involves a considerable amount of physical coercion – applied through the application of the frankly medieval ankus. But in my brief encounter, I can think of few better places to be one. And I am delighted to have had the privilege of meeting Tiwad, a graceful, slightly smelly, lady who survived the land mines and bullets of the Khmer Rouge.

She has maybe another twenty years left before she and the other Bunong elephants pass into history.  I am instinctively supportive of conservation and suspicious of religious superstition, but I don’t know how I feel about the WWF moratorium, nor the passing of a cultural relic. It is maybe too late now, but I think I would like to be a witness at Tiwad’s wedding  and – a couple of years later – help wet the head of her first born.

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