David Jaya-Piot stands in the shadows of three elephants. Their giant ears flap as they let out trumpets that reverberate through Bos Thom Community Forest in the foothills of Phnom Kulen in Siem Reap – the base of Kulen Elephant Forest.
“We’ve noticed a huge change in their behaviour since they moved here,” says the 25-year-old elephant sanctuary cofounder, who was involved in rescuing the 14 aging elephants from ferrying tourists around Angkor Wat.
In fact, for the elephants, it’s been a case of full circle. In 1997, David’s parents launched a cultural project to reintroduce elephant riding to Angkor Wat. For the next 22 years, the elephants spent from dawn to dusk trudging around Angkor Archaeological Park with tourists on their backs.
“It was different times,” David recalls. “Riding elephants wasn’t shocking to anyone and the only way to keep elephants in captivity was through riding. Since then, times have changed and so have mentalities. Now elephant riding has become synonymous with the horses of Central Park and camels of Giza.”
Born in Cambodia, David left his homeland to study at secondary school in Switzerland before earning a degree in economics and finance at Bentley University in Massachusetts, the US. He went on to land a job at a bank in Jordan, but in 2017 decided to return to Siem Reap, where his parents set up iconic Angkor Village Hotel in 1994, for a sabbatical.
“A conversation came up with my dad,” David says. “I said, ‘We should do things differently this time’. My parents were getting old and incapable of doing anything, so my dad said, ‘Fine, but you need to do it’. I was looking for an adventure and was tired of doing what I was doing, so this was the perfect opportunity to do something better.”
While the ultimate aim was to retire the elephants into their natural habitat, the huge project had to start with David’s personal transition. The former banking boy had to learn how to spend his days in the wild, learn every detail about elephants and their nature, scour the globe for a team of experts, and create the sanctuary.
And, this was all before embarking on the mammoth task of retraining the elephants and their mahouts to a new way of living. “It took a long and hard two years to get everything ready,” David says as he follows three elephants slowly stomping behind their mahouts along a trail that snakes through forest. They occasionally stop to tear leaves from the treetops or rip small saplings from the ground to beat away the bugs that surround them.
In 2017, the transition started. David, who also serves as president of Cambodia Hotel Association’s Siem Reap chapter, found the perfect 1,100-hectare patch of forest at the foothills of Phnom Kulen – Bos Thom Community Forest. Wanting to ensure nearby communities can reap the rewards of the sanctuary, he engaged with villagers in the area.
A community fund was launched to pay for infrastructure in the remote area about 1.5 hours from Siem Reap centre. This includes roads, bridges and community centres. In partnership with the Forestry Administration, the sanctuary also finances a community watch to patrol the forest and protect it from illegal activities.
And with 11 mouths to feed at a cost of $12,000 a year for each elephant – three have died of old age in the last couple of years – local farmers can earn money close to home selling the sanctuary more than two tonnes of fodder a day. “Working with communities in the area forms a very important part of what we do,” says David.
Intensive training with the elephants and their mahouts ensued, as well as efforts to encourage the elephants to live harmoniously in their new natural habitat. David says this process has been far from easy, with elephants – especially males – tussling for territory and friends. “There have been a few fights,” he recalls, “but this is an important part of developing a social structure and forming herds. Now, everyone has someone they’re attached to.”
Then there was the key task of resocialising the mammals after decades of being in captivity. “A neglected and extremely aggressive animal can become a huge problem,” says David. “Resocialising them here has been instrumental in being able to reintegrate them into the herd and being able to work with them once again.”
The resocialising process has been integral to starting Kulen Elephant Forest’s operations, with elephants and their mahouts, and elephants and herds, continuing to have one hour of training together every day.
“This is important to maintain cohesiveness among everyone,” David says. “We don’t have laissez-faire approach where we let the elephants wonder around doing what they want. A lot of places are lucky to do that because they cherry-picked elephants that get along, but when you take whatever you’ve got you don’t always get the best. You have to become a facility that’s able to take in even the most dangerous of elephants.”
In December 2019, the transition was complete and Kulen Elephant Forest opened its doors to visitors. This marked the end of elephant riding at Angkor Wat and a new chapter for the now-retired elephants. However, just weeks later, Covid-19 swept across the globe and Cambodia closed its borders to tourists – the sanctuary’s main source of income – for a tough 20 months.
“It’s been a really rough ride, we didn’t have a single visitor for a long time,” says David as the trio of elephants make their way out of the forest and into a clearing home to a muddy body of water that serves as a bathing pool. He adds that the only way to survive was a combination of pay-cuts and pumping his personal funds into the venture.
With borders once again reopen and travel slowly starting to resume, David is hopeful that this year will see more tourists visit Cambodia. “I’m optimistic that we will see a lot of improvements this year. I came back to Cambodia in search of an adventure, and while there have been unimaginable challenges along the way, so far it has been an incredible journey.”