A recent report by economists suggests that people living in medieval Britain had a more prosperous existence than those living in the poorest parts of the world today. The average annual income per head of a Britain in the Middle Ages would have been around 990 dollars (634 British pounds) in today’s money. Last year, the World Bank listed countries which had a per capita income of less than 1000 dollars per year, a list which included Cambodia. With earnings averaging a mere 650 dollars per head, Cambodians are among the poorest people in the world, with a lower standard of living than peasants in the Middle Ages.
According to government statistics, a third of Cambodia’s population survive below the state poverty line of 0.75 dollars a day. Therefore, when wild elephants threaten to trample or eat their crops, it is understandable why poor farmers would want to attack the animals. However, this can land villagers in serious trouble. Under Cambodian laws, poachers or people found guilty of killing an elephant, can face jail sentences of up to 10 years or fines of over 2,000 dollars. These laws were introduced to try and protect the dwindling number of elephants in Cambodia. Hunted for their tusks, tails and trunks, poaching was widespread under the Khmer Rouge and in the following two decades, deforestation forced the animals from their traditional forest habits. There were an estimated 2,000 elephants left in the wild in 1995 and today that number has dwindled to fewer than 500.
Now, Flora and Fauna International, a wildlife non-profit organization based in the UK, is teaching Cambodian farmers ways of protecting their precious crops without harming the elephants. The organisation has trained elephant-specialists who advise farmers how to avoid losing crops to the animals. One such expert is Sereivathana Tuy. An ex-park ranger, he hires people to teach children in remote schools all about the elephants, so the children can then pass on this knowledge to their parents. Elephants can, for example, be warded off by growing chilli peppers around fields because the animals dislike the smell. Crops such as cucumbers and radishes can also be harvested quickly and many times over a year, giving elephants fewer chances to eat them.
Following such guidance, one adviser in the region believes there have been fewer elephant attacks in Cambodia over the last seven years and only one person killed, because the animals have not been goaded into retaliation. One rice farmer, Sokha Seang, explains how villagers used to threaten the elephants with bamboo sticks and guns, or leave out poisoned food. Now, with the help of the wildlife charity, his rural community in the southwest province of Koh Kong has learnt to live peacefully alongside the elephants and crucially, protect their livelihoods at the same time.