Caring for Old Friends: the Story of Elephants that Have Been Part of Cambodia’s History in Recent Decades 

Elephants walk among cut tree trunks in northern Cambodia in a scene from Mech Choulay’s documentary film “An Elephant’s Eye.” Photo: Mech Choulay 

PHNOM PENH — When Mech Choulay speaks of elephants, it’s as if she was talking about family, or at least about individuals she truly cares about. 

“Elephants are very strong—everyone knows that—when it comes to their bodies,” she said. “But one thing that is not very strong is their eyes…Elephants are like human beings: They get cataracts. 

“The doctor who takes care of the elephants said that human beings and animals are the same," she said, when it comes to some ailments. One elephant kept running into things because he could not see clearly due to a cataract in one eye, she added. 

Until Choulay heard about that elephant, she had not realized to what extent animals can be affected by physical disabilities as human beings are. And having herself vision impairment in one eye, she sympathized with that elephant.  

Choulay is a journalist as well as a documentary filmmaker and with art training. An exhibition of her work entitled “An Elephant’s Eye” is currently held in Singapore at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film. This follows Choulay winning the 2023 Objectifs Documentary Award at the center, which is supported by the National Arts Council in Singapore. 

Visitors tour the exhibition “An Elephant’s Eye” at the Singapore’s the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film. Photo: Siew Yian

Her film, as the description of the exhibition indicates, is about “imagining the entangled intersections between nature and history, religion and violence, humans and other animals through the eyes of elephants.” 

Because elephants are no ordinary animals in Cambodia. In pre-Angkorian and Angkorian times, elephants accompanied people in battles, helped build temples, and were part of major ceremonies. Even today, two elephants were at the center of a diplomatic operation on May 12 when the government of Lao PDR sent two young elephants to Cambodia as a gift for King Norodom Sihamoni. 

In addition to showing Choulay’s documentary, the exhibition in Singapore includes objects she gathered to reflect Cambodia’s beliefs and traditions as well as the ever presence of elephants. For example, there is a sculpture of Ganesha that a traditional artist in Siem Reap province did for the exhibition; this Hindu deity with an elephant head is venerated in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. 

There also is a traditional spirit’s house, this small altar in the shape of a house that people set up next to their homes in the country for the spirits in nature and of humans. 

And, reflecting today’s situation, there is an artificial leg made to replace the lower part of an elephant’s leg maimed in illegal traps in Cambodia’s forests, and also a few of these barbed-wire traps. 

Scene from the documentary film “An Elephant’s Eye” by Mech Choulay

One of the elephants injured this way is Chhouk whose story has had a happy ending. When he was a young elephant living in the jungle In the mid-2010s, he lost the lower part of a leg in a snare set up by poachers in the Srepok Wilderness Area in Mondulkiri province. Found in poor condition by patrol officers, they brought him to their station and contacted the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. After calling several prosthesis makers in the country, it is the Cambodia School of Prosthetics and Orthotics that took on the challenge of making a prosthesis to replace the young elephant’s lower leg so that he could walk.   

A documentary on elephants also had to include Sambo, Phnom Penh’s famed elephant that spent decades posing for photos at the hill where stands the Wat Phnom pagoda. Suffering from foot problems after years of walking about 30 kilometers per day back and forth to her worksite, she was retired in the Phnom Penh area in 2012 and taken to the Elephant Valley Project’s sanctuary in Mondulkiri Province two years later. She passed away in October 2023 at 63 years old.

In her work, Choulay also covers elephants in the context of history and the environment, and the fact that they suffer from war like human beings. Because in addition to having health issues as people do, she said, “elephants also go through war, you know. They also lose their families, lose their friends, and they also become disabled.

“We forget to think about the animals,” Choulay said. “We think about our lives as human beings and think of animals’ lives as cheap.” And yet, animals suffered during the war in Cambodia in cities as well as in the jungle in the 1970s and 1980s, she noted. 

 Today, illegal killing of animals still goes on in spite of measures taken by the authorities. “Elephants are famous for their horns: Some people kill them so they can cut them to sell,” Choulay said.

Young monks from a Buddhist pagoda visit with a young elephant cared for at a sanctuary in Cambodia. Photo: Mech Choulay 

Moreover, in recent years, they have been affected by forests fading away in some parts of the country and by environmental changes. “Elephants need a very big space to live,” Choulay said. “[As people] develop, cut down the forest… places where the elephants used to stay, when elephants come back, they lose it, you know. They just think ‘where is my home.’ This is the reason why my documentary film is called ‘My Home.’” It is believed that, in Cambodia, there are 400 to 600 elephants in forests and around 75 elephants domesticated or in captivity. 

Born in Kandal province in the early 1990s, Choulay has spent most of her life in Phnom Penh. Following in her mother’s footsteps, she first studied midwifery at university. However, when she started working in the field after graduation, she did not feel comfortable handling procedures that required millimeter precision due to her eye issue, she said. 

So Choulay studied journalism at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media. Later on, she took part in a one-year documentary-film training program at the Bophana Audiovisual Center, and also studied contemporary art and photography at the SaSa Arts center and gallery in Phnom Penh. 

This diverse training is reflected in her documentary: the facts covered with the accuracy of a journalist, scenes reflecting the lives of the elephants in the documentary-filmmaking tradition, and scenes shot with the eye of an artist. The filming took place at the Mondulkiri Project’s Elephant Sanctuary, the Aïravata Elephant Foundation project in Ratanakiri province, and the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center.

Today, Choulay mainly works as a freelance journalist for the online news publication CamboJA, covering especially health and healthcare as well as environmental issues.  

Her exhibition — — at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film in Singapore runs through June 16, 2024. 

Mech Choulay gives a talk during her exhibition at the Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film in Singapore. Photo: Siew Yian 

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