Jan 04 2012

Phnom Penh’s elephant, Sambo

Published by at 8:55 pm under Sightseeing & activities


For the last 30 years, Sambo the elephant has been entertaining tourists at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh. At 51 years of age Sambo is the only living elephant in Phnom Penh. She works seven days a week and now, the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (EARS) say that it’s time for her retirement.

Sambo the elephant. Photo courtesy of the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation.

Tourists and locals are familiar with Sambo’s daily morning and sunset walk along Sisowath Quay, but most do not know her story. Sambo was born in 1960 in Kampong Speu province and captured when she was eight years old. In 1977 she was taken and abused by the Khmer Rouge, who evacuated her to Pursat province. Unlike her fellow elephant buddies, Sambo survived the ordeal and was eventually reunited with her original owner, Sin Sorn. In 1982, they moved to Phnom Penh where Sambo gives rides to tourists at Wat Phnom.

At the end of October Sin Sorn allowed EARS to conduct a medical examination of Sambo, for which they flew in veterinarians from Hong Kong. The doctors agreed that Sambo’s condition is fragile — she suffers from lameness and painful abscesses in her feet that are exacerbated by her long walk to Wat Phnom and her daily work of carrying tourists on her back.

“She has a deep black abscess in the sole of her right foot and we believe could soon collapse if she is not fully retired and given urgent medical treatment,” Louise Rogerson, the director of EARS and the woman who is working to get Sambo the medical care that she needs, told me by email. “The main reason explaining the limb lesions is the lifestyle of the animal which involves walking on hard ground on damaged feet.”

EARS has a petition to retire Sambo. They are offering to fund Sambo’s entire medical treatment and give her a comfortable place to live if Sambo’s owner is willing to retire her; given that Sambo is how Sin Sorn earns his income, retirement presumably presents a financial difficulty for him.

If you’d like to help Sambo, Louise has a few suggestions in addition to signing the petition. She asks that tourists do not pay to take a tourist ride on Sambo around the temple as this will only add to her suffering. “If you visit the temple, please voice your concern to Sambo’s owner about the horrifying condition of her feet, making it very clear that he is abusing his elephant by forcing her to work,” she said. “We are also worried that should Sambo collapse whilst a tourist is riding in the chair, it could lead to an accident to both the tourist and the elephant.”

If you would like to interact with elephants in Cambodia, Louise recommends visiting one of two rescue centres: Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC), which is one hour from Phnom Penh and the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) in Mondulkiri. “Visitors can enjoy a close up interaction with rescued elephants whilst also helping to protect them,” Louise added.

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16 responses so far

16 Responses to “Phnom Penh’s elephant, Sambo”

  1. Tory Bradenon 05 Jan 2012 at 1:17 am

    Louise Rogerson has been a determined champion of all things elephant, in particular Sambo. It is unconscionable that Sambo’s owner continues to walk her on those feet. What I understand, and hope to be corrected if wrong, it that Sin Sorn has another poor elephant in the waiting. I hope more attention paid to the slavery of tourist elephants and especially Sambo’s poor condition draws more ire from the citizens of Cambodia itself. Elephants and Sambo deserve better, meaning a well earned retirement

  2. Alisonon 05 Jan 2012 at 2:46 am

    I love Sambo and am sad to hear about her health problems. I share the call for her retirement, but I am also confused about Sin Sorn’s role in this. It seems that we are basically asking him to take a vow of poverty by retiring Sambo and I have yet to see these issues addressed (aside from the brief mention above). Has Sin Sorn’s livelihood been considered? Has anyone discussed with him a possibility for another income source? Or offered him another income source? I doubt he has the skill set and training to run out and find another job. It seems that his reluctance to retire Sambo has less to do with his cruelty towards her and more to do with a concern over care for himself and his family. Is it just for Sambo to retire and then have Sin Sorn die in poverty? These issues are intertwined and both need to be dealt with to solve this serious problem. Perhaps this has been discussed and but I am unaware of it. I’d appreciate any follow-up from anyone with more insight. Also- this is one of my favorite profiles of Sambo and Sin Sorn and shows the long relationship they have with one another: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2008/0409/p20s01-wosc.html

  3. Lisaon 05 Jan 2012 at 9:43 am

    I remember seeing this poor animal when in Phnom Penh and felt immense sympathy for him. He looked very sad indeed, and now I understand why.

    I also highly recommend the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) mentioned above. it was a great day out, and it was nice to think that rather than contributing to the demise of an animal you are actually something small to help support them.

  4. [...] Her feet are damaged and she is at risk of exhaustion. More about her story and how you can help here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Categories Animals, [...]

  5. Johnon 05 Jan 2012 at 12:50 pm

    “…Sin Son, whose rate for the popular [elephant] ride has risen to $15. Such prosperity has enabled Sin Son to send four children to college; his oldest son even went to Utah to study information technology.” Christian Science Monitor, Apr 2008 http://tiny.cc/forsambo

    An income problem? I think not.

    I’m confused why some recommend Phnom Tamao. They don’t really promote a message of elephant conservation when they have their elephants dance and perform unnatural tricks like circus elephants. There are videos of Lucky and Chhouk dancing and entertaining visitors posted on the Internet.

    Very sad to see supposed “conservationists” promoting a non-conservation message.

  6. Jude Priceon 05 Jan 2012 at 3:57 pm

    John – you said “I’m confused why some recommend Phnom Tamao. They don’t really promote a message of elephant conservation when they have their elephants dance and perform unnatural tricks like circus elephants. There are videos of Lucky and Chhouk dancing and entertaining visitors posted on the Internet.Very sad to see supposed “conservationists” promoting a non-conservation message.”

    In many Asian nations there are limited opportunities to rehabilitate and re-home elephants with a “pure” view to sanctuary. The options available are limited, they also have to be agreeable to both Sin Sorn and the Cambodian Authorities. So “conservationists” are caught between a rock and a hard place. In the end the BEST outcome for Sambo (also known as Sombo) would be a sanctuary where she is free to roam, forage and be in the company of other elephants acting within a full range of natural elephant behaviors. The most urgent and pressing need for Sambo is sustained and intensive veterinary treatment, thus the request and recommendation to go to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC). I personally would prefer to see her go to Elephant Valley Project (EVP). But when you are trying to create a situation that is compatible for all players in the situation including Sambo one must compromise in the best interests of the Elephant in question, the owners, the authorities etc. Hope this sets your mind at rest, it is a bitter pill to swallow that the only ‘alternatives’ are walking the streets in her crippled condition, standing chained in a paddock… or at a centre that is yet to reach its full potential to meet elephants needs. But thats the reality of the choices here. Take one step toward healing, which is better. And the better choice than holding out for “Best” and Sambo getting no help at all. In Animal welfare, you go for better while advocating for best because we are dealing with real lives, right now that need help…

  7. Susanon 06 Jan 2012 at 4:18 am

    Alison, Sinsorn has prospered while Sambo’s health has declined. Her feet are abscessed and each step she takes causes her excruciating pain. After supporting him and his family for decades, Sambo’s retirement has been hard earned and is long overdue. Sinsorn has a duty to do what’s best for Sambo and allow her to receive the urgent medical treatment she needs before she collapses. EARS has even made a generous offer to fund the treatment, leaving no acceptable excuse for continuing to abuse this poor old lady by prolonging her suffering.

  8. Alisonon 06 Jan 2012 at 7:59 am

    Susan-thanks for your response. This situation saddens me and I hope something gets worked out as quickly as possible.

  9. Johnon 06 Jan 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks, Jude. It’s good to hear the details and know that some of Sambo’s supporters do not see Phnom Tamao/Wildlife Alliance as being the “best.” Many are posting on the Net that Phnom Tamao is a sanctuary which is incorrect (by GFAS standards) and they recommend and support it and think everything’s good. It’s vitally important for Sambo to get immediate medical treatment. It’s also important to bring to everyone’s consciousness what this wildlife organization is really about. It’s concerning to see Sambo go to a “wildlife rescue” that supports the exploitation of wildlife as performers for human entertainment.

    Currently, US advocates are trying to garner support for HR 3359, TEAPA in congress to eliminate the suffering of circus elephants and other animal performers. The UK is undergoing the same battle. Videos of Lucky and Chhouk dancing and kicking balls are available all over the Net and teach those watching (all over the planet) that the social norm of dominating and using animals for human entertainment is endorsed by an organization that claims to be a “leader in direct protection to…wildlife.” This is a very dangerous message.

    Again I hope Sambo gets the much needed medical attention she needs. I also hope she does not become a part of the destructive message that PT/Wildlife Alliance “turns a blind eye” to and readily disseminates to the world much to the detriment of the wildlife they claim to be helping.

  10. Dave Perkeson 09 Jan 2012 at 11:56 pm

    Quite frankly those who are silly enough to think that the stimulation given to animals like elephants by performing tricks and dancing is bad are misguided.
    i have been to elephant camps and seen the training that goes. on The animals respond to the stimulation and these intelligent animals would not do so if they were not trained with care by thier handlers and I belive that it does not harm the animals.
    In the case of Sambo she should have the treatment required.TaMao is a good place to do this and they do not mistreat their animals at all.
    I do not consider the plight of Elephants in well run santuaries in the same way as caged animals in circuses. That is a different issue; though i’m not convinced that training a circus animal is any different than breaking in a horse or training working dogs.

  11. Johnon 10 Jan 2012 at 4:23 am

    Ah, the old-fashioned voice of “power and control over others” rears its head with put-you-in-your-place-words like “silly enough to think” and “misguided” to perpetuate the stakeholder’s culture of domination over others.

    Joyce Poole is an elephant scientist of 37 years whose research is published in peer-reviewed, academic journals. She states:

    “Captive elephants are…confined in small enclosures in zoos, used as gimmicks in promotions and marketing, used to carry tourists on safari or to entertain them by playing football or polo, paraded in the streets for ceremony and begging purposes, and chained in the sun at Temples. Many of them have been “tamed” through the use of unbelievable brutality, and kept under life-long human control with continued abuse. A growing number of people and organizations are working tirelessly to make a difference for the lives of captive elephants by providing rescue, sanctuary and reintroduction to the wild and by educating people.” http://bit.ly/ieYaBR (please see left sidebar for more position statements by Dr. Poole).

    Elephants were not put on this planet to entertain us. Be a responsible citizen and tourist and DON’T ALLOW yourself to be programmed with this negative, old-world messaging. Please DO NOT patronize businesses that are “sending the wrong message” as sanctuaries-founder Carol Buckley stated about just these issues with her elephant Tarra. http://bit.ly/v2CDoc.

    Buckley and the birthing of her new sanctuary in India just got written up in Scientific American http://bit.ly/w7wN3a. Thank goodness one country in Asia, India, is understanding what elephants need. And there are plenty supporting it.

  12. [...] A few days ago there was a more nuanced article by The Phnom Penh Post, followed by a TravelFish summary. http://www.phnompenhpost.com/index.php/2012010653829/Lifestyle/whats-sambos-future.html http://www.travelfish.org/blogs/phnompenh/2012/01/phnom-penhs-elephant-sambo/ [...]

  13. James Gimpeauon 30 Jan 2012 at 5:51 pm

    For those who begrudge Sin Sorn his income, please consider the following:

    “Sin Son spent two years in the labor camp, where his parents, two brothers, and two aunts would be among the 1.7 million Cambodians who perished as a result of execution, starvation, disease, and overwork under the regime.” [source: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2008/0409/p20s01-wosc.html

    Try walking a mile in those rubber sandals before saying anything which belittles Sin Sorn and his family.

  14. Jude Priceon 31 Jan 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Moderator! If this is approved can we use the next one instead please? I spotted a typo or two and have corrected. thank you.

  15. Jude Priceon 31 Jan 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Great News! Sambo walked out of the city for the last time at 4am 30 January 2012.
    See: http://www.elephantectivism.org/2012/01/victory-sombo-in-cambodia.html and follow her story soon to be updated on EARS website here: http://www.earsasia.org/why_we_need_to_help/Pages/Sombo.html
    James I understand and can empathise with the life stories of Sin Sorn and his family, the distance between the Western view and the Eastern view of animal welfare, life and making a living can be at times a gulf, but right now we are grateful that Sin Sorn has agreed and cooperated and moved Sombo away from the city. She will no longer work, thanks to his actions and the care of Elephants Asia Rescue and Survival (EARS) her veterinary treatment can commence.
    Any assistance that can be provided for Sombo’s food, care and veterinary treatments will be most gratefully received: http://www.earsasia.org/donate/donate.html

  16. [...] Sambo the elephant was being abused! I can’t believe such a high-profile figure suffered such abuse…Or can I? Sambo has [...]

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