Every now and then, I come across a woman who inspires me to be the change I want to see in the world. A few days ago, I met a British lass who did just that. Her name was Emma (she’s second from the left in the below pic).
With her sun-bleached hair, freckly skin and salt-of-the-earth smile, it was obvious this English Rose wasn’t afraid of a little hard yakka in the great outdoors. Emma was a woman after my own Australian heart. Dedicating her time and talents to a wildlife sanctuary in regional Cambodia, she’d kindly invited us to get our hands dirty and shadow her for the afternoon.
After a quick exchange of hellos ‘n’ hugs, we jumped in the Colonel and followed Emma’s scooter to the sanctuary. During the dusty trip, I started thinking about the cool creatures I was going to meet – species I’d never encountered before. I was “ants in my pants” excited and couldn’t wait to feed the elephants, cuddle baby bears and challenge my fear of monkeys.
But, as we parked our vehicles and started chatting to Emma about her work, the sanctuary took on a different vibe. It sounded like its residents experienced challenging living standards, which Emma was working hard to improve. I must admit, the modest set up made the zoos back home look like palaces.
The sanctuary also stimulated conversations about the treatment (and trading) of Cambodian wildlife on a broader scale. I was compelled to do a little research, so I could understand the situation better. But first, the elephants needed their daily fix of fruit, attention and affection.
As Emma handed the leathery giants whole banana trees, we saw their unique personalities come through – the female did a coy tap dance as she gently chomped away on her snack while the male asserted his strength, confidence and dominance. Their natural tendencies came out to play, as neither elephant had been trained.
The experience made me think about the countless tourists I’d seen riding elephants throughout Thailand and Cambodia. A decade or so ago, I was one of those tourists. My mum and I enjoyed a girls’ getaway in Phuket and, like many others, we thought elephant rides were a must-try local experience. We were thrilled to give it a go – it was the stuff of dreams. I couldn’t wait to get back to my friends and tell them all about it.
After visiting the sanctuary in Cambodia and researching things a bit more, I realised how wrong we were. Our actions supported the unnatural and, possibly, cruel treatment of elephants. It’s now impossible for me to ignore the chains around their ankles and lack of shade above their heads, as they wait to be fitted with weighty saddles. There’s something really unsettling about the image. I’d also read that many operators deprived their elephants of sleep and food to “break” and train them. There was no way I’d be participating in an elephant ride again.
Next, Emma took us to meet the hornbills. I’d never been a fan of birds. I was convinced they hated human affection and would “beak me to bits” if I ever got too close. The hornbills at the sanctuary certainly taught me a lesson. They were like energetic puppy dogs with feathers. The female kept nuzzling my hand and dropping her paw paw in front of me – the bird wanted to play fetch?! The same piece of fruit went back and forth about a dozen times before I tore myself away. I didn’t want to get too attached.
Next, it was time to meet the resident gibbon. Emma had a soft spot for him and it wasn’t hard to see why. The expression in his glassy eyes was enough to break anyone’s heart. He seemed to crave human attention, putting his hand through the cage so he could hold Emma’s fingers. He didn’t want her to leave.
I’d read some eye-opening articles about the illegal trade of monkeys in Cambodia. The intense poverty in this country is undeniable, with 20% of Cambodians living below the poverty line. As such, some view the local wildlife as a resource to be used for commercial benefit. Traders have been known to pack their vehicles with over a hundred monkeys, often putting them on ice. That way, if they died while being exported, the meat would stay fresh. It’s hard to comprehend.
Next, we wandered over to the bear enclosure, which housed two cubs. They were possibly the cutest things I’d ever seen! As they rolled around on their backs, juggling mangoes between oversized paws, we were able to tickle them behind the ears. I had to hold myself back from picking one up and smothering it in cuddles. It was hard to believe poachers used these glorious creatures for bait, tying sharp metal rings around their necks and making them cry out in pain so their mothers would come to the rescue. Bear fur was big business.
So it seemed, all of the creatures at this sanctuary were vulnerable to mistreatment or worse. They (or their parts) were in high-demand, especially throughout China and Vietnam. Hunting down rare delicacies, animal “remedies”, tourism opportunities and exotic accessories sounded like a lucrative game.
If only there was an obvious way to put a stop to it all – I’m not sure education and sustainable commercial avenues are enough. While it’s heart-warming to meet people like Emma who are fighting for the health and safety of the animals, it seems like bigger picture issue is a relentless battle. I guess all I can do is tuck into more research, promote awareness of the hard facts and figure out how I can help.