7th April – 2017 – Putang Village

Not all situations have a positive ending. But we still try hard to make it happen.

When I started receiving calls on Wednesday at lunch time to say that an elephant owner had been killed by his bull elephant in Putang, another one of the main elephant communities and one where the elephants are primarily used in tourism, my heart sank. This was the 2nd time in under 6 months that a bull elephant had killed its owner/mahout.

We were receiving reports that a male elephant was on a tour and had killed its owner and run into the forest. I quickly called our research assistant and the vet to go out to the village and find out more information. They met some of the village​rs and found out which elephant it was, a 30 + year old male called Toad/Toak, and a big beautiful boy. We then discovered that a female had also run off with him, one ​from the same family ownership called Mae Krapom. The eles were now in the forest, and the families and community were focused on getting the body back to the village. So the boys returned to town in the evening. We then discussed with the Dept of Environment staff and other partners, that this might be another situation where the team needs to be called from the FA/Dept of Wildlife and Phnom Tamao rescue center and could the Dept put in the request for them to come ASAP. We went to bed restless, thinking about the eles off in the forest and the male’s state of mind.

Early Thursday mor​ning we rolled the ele rescue team into action, this time made up of the elephant man himself Mr Plouk our Head Mahout, Toin our guide and also elephant owner and mahout, Chan our elephant researcher and vet assistant and long term mahout, Mr Heir the Dept of Agriculture Veterinarian, Ben our project manager and myself. We set off with ropes, chains and everything we have to try and help catch a runaway ele. But first up we ​had to go and meet the families and gather as much information as possible.

We met the family of the owner as they were taking his body to the burial. We sadly said our respects and then went to the next house, the family of the female elephant. Here we sat and discussed with the elders and the family members how was the bull behaving and what has happened over the last month. As this ele has not been known to have any problems in the past. We actually last visited him in December to treat a small infection on the ear and ​we knew him to be gental and calm.

What we ​learned from the family was that the elephant had actually been in visible musth only two weeks before. However, the owner and mahout that was killed had thought it ok to bring him back in from seclusion in the forest on Monday for more tourist activities, something that would generally not have happened 20 yrs ago. On Monday he had also actually lost the elephant and the bull had run back toward the village heading for the forest again. He managed to catch him and then had taken him on a tour on Wednesday with a local guide who had called with a group of 20 people who wanted to come and see elephants in the village. Money versus years of experience seems to be a hard trade off.

We heard many different stories around about what actually happened on the day of the death, but the underlying story seems to be that after spending the morning with tourists the owner was taking the elephant back and something ​terrible ​happened. The male wanted to spend time with the females and we believe the owner was trying to move him away and the male snapped. Throwing the owner and stamping on him in the river. Generally, owners would keep their elephants separate from females in the musth period as the bulls get so aggressive, they want to break everything down and the females are scared of them. However, the owner brought the elephant in with two females that morning, and following the incident, one female ran off with the male into the forest.

So our next point of call was to go with the family and locate the two eles and assess the situation. We updated the heads of the Provincial Dept of Environment who were at the same time trying to coordinate the team from the Dept of Wildlife at Phnom Tamao Rescue Centre in PP and friends at Wildlife Alliance. We sent our 3 ele guys out with 2 of the owners to sneak into the forest just to observe the ele first from around 200m away, to try and see if he was calm enough and able to be caught by lassos and the local team. After observing for half an hour it was the opinion of our head mahout​, Plouk,​ that he was clearly still in musth and anytime the guys moved an inch in the forest he would turn toward them and show aggressive behaviour, being way too dangerous for a ground team to approach him. Males in musth usually last about a month, first showing signs for a week pre must, then a week or so of full musth excreting the oily musth from their glands visible on the outside of the face, then a couple of weeks after the fully visible musth period the liquid is still excreting from the gland into their mouth internally. Not the eles fault, and in the wild ​this ​would be his natural behaviour and time to get super fired up and fight all the other boys for the right to mate with the female herd! In captivity, it’s a very different situation.

So at this point we were now waiting back on the ridge, with spotters around keeping an eye on his location, waiting for a team to arrive with the means to tranquilise him and be able to then contain him and see if he could be calmed down after his musth finished. After dropping some of our team back in town, the vet and researcher and project manager. Pl​ouk and Toin and I stayed to help the community ​to spot from the ridge and keep an eye on where he was ready to pass the information to the experienced darting team.

Game changer.

When one of the elephant owners brothers arrived from further afield, he wanted to do a small ceremony in the farm above where the ele was down in the forest, where we had all just been standing in that morning. This was for the spirits of his brother and to also try to appeas​e the elephants​ spirit. So Plouk and Toin and a couple of his family walked back down the farm. It was as this point that the bull appeared out of nowhere ​charging out of the forest at full speed across the field straight toward the group. It was one of the scariest moments of my life, to see one of my closest friends and staff running for their lives. A few locals grabbed their moto bikes and rushed down to try and pick them up. The bull was in full charge and a few guys only barely made it out, with the elephant at one point only 10m behind them. Motorbikes scattered. People deserted motos too far away and jumped on each other bikes and also in our truck. As soon as the boys made it to the top of the hill and piled in the truck, that I already had started and ready to go, we evacuated.

The problem was, the bull was now on the road and on the way to the village. There were many many shiny motorbikes, and people, and cars and the poor eles senses were in overdrive. He was charging this way and that, chasing anything that moved. Some people went toward the village to warn households, and other including us were on the town side. At first he was continually chasing vehicles toward town, and we were trying to push the motos and everyone back. This was so difficult as more and more people were coming on their normal route to the village, include a full sized bus that had to quickly turn around on a small country dirt road. The instinct of the local community was to beep their motos and try to get him to follow them away from the village and this seem​ed​ to be working, albeit very dangerous​ly​. Trying to coordinate chaos ​is chao​tic. At one point Plouk was shouting at everyone telling them to now stop beeping as we managed to get him about 1km from the village and were hoping if there was quiet he would just turn off and go back into the forest. But then there was movement back on the road toward the village and he charged back that way making it all the way back to the village edge and was staring down at the school.

I was at this point on the phone constantly to authorities and government officials calling asking for assistance, as this could turn very bad very quickly. I was also on the phone earlier to Jack discussing possible strategies for the coming dusk if he was still not captured and ​discussing ​ideas of getting some fireworks for the villagers to have on hand in case he came out of the forest to try and scare him away. So we​ had previously someone to town to do a quick shop and​ had them in the back of the truck with us.

With little else to do, as the tranquilising team was delayed, we had to make a plan. So the 20 or so community guys were beeping their motos and calling the female that was with him to try and get him to follow off in the direction of the deeper forest. Finally, he started moving again toward them, fast, but stayed on the road. So then we decided to try to get him following the truck and get him back in the forest area he had come from. We got all the motos in front of us and slowly started along the road as he came full charge. When he was away from the village close to the point he had come out of the forest originally, Plouk and Toin who were hanging off the back of the truck, then started firing the fireworks above his head. They also accidentally dropped one, but this was a blessing as when the bull got to that cracker on the ground ​it was still sparking​ and that stopped him. He then turned around and stepped off the road back into the forest. We reversed​ up and continued to fire fireworks to drive him into the forest, which worked. They both meandered off over the ridge.

We then stopped and took a breath. All poor Toud wanted to do was hang out with a little female and probably have some frisky time. But his hormones were raging and he ​was​ in a populated area. Dangerous combination.

With the darting team waiting for all the permissions and mission directives stuck in Phnom Penh, we had little option but to hope he stayed in the forest and rested for the night. The team would arrive the following morning with assistance. A few staff from the Dept of Environment and some police arrived also to help and we then discussed with the community and families setting up 4 stations for the night with fireworks, firecracker​s and lighting fires to try and deter him coming into the village. We put the word out for everyone to make sure everyone had come in from the outlying farms and houses and stayed in the big houses in the village that night.

We again went home, restless and worried for the elephants and the community, exhausted having done all we could do.

Unfortunately, these precautions were not enough. ​Elephants are highly intelligent wild animals. He bypassed these stations and walked into the village around 9 pm​ as that evenings heavy rain set in​. He was enraged and on a mission of destruction. The poor thing fueled ​up and drunk on his own testosterone.

Again my phone started ​to ring with pleas of help from the community. So in turn I got on the phone to authorities, our vet and asked him to call up the line to his bosses, trying to gets some assistance out to the community. Also recommending the community chief and village chief call directly themselves to the town chief and governor for assistance. Around 11 and 12pm, police and military police arrived, with the aim of trying again to scare the bull away and back into the forest and to protect the village. They tried ​firing war​ning shots into the air. Unfortunately, the Toad was in rage and not easily scared, he proceeded to destroy 6 houses and many smaller buildings in the village. Families with children were running house to house in the pitch black and rain sheltering in stronger brick houses. The police tried using a fire truck to push the bull and move him out of the village but he ​attacked and ​smashed the back of this truck as well. Tragically the police made the decision when the ele again moved toward another house full of people, to take him down and shot his front leg. The bull went down and fell into a ditch on the side of the road. Inspection the next day with the vet showed the bullet had shattered the bone and passed from the front let through to the back leg, bringing him down. We believe he died from bleeding out from the large leg wound and possible another bullet entry wound. The female stayed with the male scared and then finally wandered off, and the family was able to recapture her in the early hours of the morning.

As I write this my heart is heavy.

With the loss of another one of these beautiful creatures, it again and again shows that the captivity of ​these​ super intelligent huge wild animals is just a ticking time bomb. This situation is not the elephants fault. All they want to do is eat, roam, play, meet other eles, have some frisky time, eat and sleep. When humans put these majestic animals in captivity and force them to adhere to our time schedules and rules, things go wrong. At the same time when outside pressures are also put on these traditional elephant owners who discard generations of knowledge of elephant care and behaviour for a quick tourist buck, I find it also very very hard to understand.

It is imperative we as people give these animals the freedom and respect they deserve​. At ELIE we will continue our important work to run our sanctuary as a home for elephants and to educate and advocate for better elephant welfare so this doesn’t happen again. If it does ELIE will be back helping to defend the elephants and support the people of Mondulkiri to the best of our ability.

Jemma Bullock​, ​ELIE Program Manager