We spent a week within the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, midway between the Thai border to the north and Siem Reap to the south. We helped out by planting trees in one of the most deforested countries in the world, weeding, creating gardens, and cleaning out the duck pond (not as much fun as the other tasks). We did all these jobs with the knowledge that one of the two resident elephants could walk by at any moment. Seeing them only grew our anticipation for the promised elephant walk through the jungle towards the end of the week.
Finally, the day had arrived that we got to meet Arun Rai and Kham Lin more intimately. Having logged for over 30 years, these two Asian elephants were rescued from eastern Cambodia, and will now spend the rest of their lives roaming the jungles at the sanctuary under the protection of Save Elephant Foundation and the King’s Army of Cambodia.
Getting to Know the Elephants
Our jungle walk with these two beautiful elephants was definitely the highlight of our week. Along the way, we discovered that Arun Rai enjoys a faster pace, while Kham Lin prefers to take her time, smelling (and eating) vegetation as she goes. We also learned that Arun Rai is in her early 40’s while Kham Lin is in her mid-thirties, which surprised us given Kham Lin’s older looking appearance and Arun Rai’s youthful bounce in her step. Both elephants were still adjusting after decades of abuse, having only been rescued four months prior.
Collecting Food for Kham Lin
After passing through fields of long grasses and paths shaded by the canopy of big, vine-wrapped trees, Arun Rai decided to go on ahead of Kham Lin. We stayed with Kham Lin, preferring her slower pace in the Cambodian heat. The remainder of the jungle hike became more intimate as we walked next to her, petting her and talking to her. We paid close attention to the kind of plants she liked and collected them for her.
Long grasses and young palm trees, pulled from the roots and shaken free of dirt, seemed to be her favorite. We prepared her snacks in the same way Kham Lin did: smacking the dirt-covered roots against our legs before handing her the bounty. Never have we gotten such joy from someone approving of our prepared meal!
She waited for us!
The pace was deliberate and slow with many stops to watch Kham Lin feast on a jungle treat. Once, however, Ligeia stopped to tie her shoe, confident that she would easily catch up. To both her surprise and delight, Kham Lin stopped a few meters ahead and turned to look back, as if waiting patiently for her friend and did not continue walking until Ligeia was again by her side. On two separate occasions, she gave us both “rumbles”, which are similar to cat purrs and is a way that elephants communicate to their companions. It truly felt as though we had gained her trust and made a new friend.
Getting Lost in the Cambodian Jungle
Eventually, the path led us to an open field of nothing but tall grasses – an elephant’s dream spot – and we knew that this would be a longer wait, so we found a log to sit on to enjoy the best reality show ever!
Kham Lin wandered from place to place, ripping up trunkfulls of tall grasses as she went. She eventually disappeared through some trees and we waited while the mahout followed after her. A few minutes turned into 30, and we began to wonder if they were coming back for us. As the hot, midday sun beat down on us, we took stock of how much water we had left.
We decided to start walking in the direction we thought the project was. After passing through the other side of the grassy field, the path forked and we had a decision to make. We chose the path to the right, but taking a mental snapshot of the intersection in case we had to backtrack. We looked for any signs that elephants had been there – a footprint, a banana peel or a softball-sized piece of dung. Had we chosen the correct path? We were in full sun, yet the other way was shaded. Regardless, we forged ahead.
With a sigh of relief, we came upon a familiar tree, and quickly gulped our remaining drops of water. Ligeia had taken pictures of this tree only days before, and as it is one of the only large trees around, it soared high above the surrounding grasses. With its branches pointing us in the right direction, we returned to the project’s main building just in time for lunch!