Street elephant can put her feet up, thanks to HK

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


A Hong Kong expatriate and a veterinarian from Ocean Park have teamed up to save a badly injured three-tonne elephant from a life of misery on the streets of Cambodia.

Sombo - known to thousands as the female elephant who for the past two decades has given rides to tourists around the Wat Phnom temple in Phnom Penh - has badly deformed feet from treading the hot concrete.

Now the 52-year-old elephant is on the road to recovery after a Hong Kong-based animal welfare charity won her a dignified retirement near the Cambodian capital.

Louise Rogerson, founder of the Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival foundation (EARS) walked Sombo to a new home five kilometres outside Phnom Pehn after months of negotiation with her owner and officials.

Rogerson is in Phnom Penh with Ocean Park chief vet Paolo Martelli, who volunteered to help the unique rescue operation.

Sombo's move followed talks with the elephant's owner whose livelihood has depended on the rides she gave to tourists.

Rogerson, who set up her charity in 2010, took up Sombo's case after a visitor returning from a holiday in Cambodia e-mailed her to tell her about the animal's pitiful condition and badly injured feet.

When Rogerson first saw Sombo last year, the elephant was working six to eight hours a day with tourists paying US$15 to ride in a metal chair on her back. Tourists would also pay US$1 to feed her bananas and have their picture taken with her.

Over the years, Sombo's feet were crippled by the unnatural terrain she was forced to walk on.

'Her feet were awful,' Rogerson recalled. 'I've not seen an elephant with feet that bad since I started this work. 'If she had continued working, she would have eventually collapsed on the street.'

Complicating any intervention was Sombo's celebrity status.

'It wasn't an easy case at all because Sombo is an icon of the city,' Rogerson said. 'She is a famous elephant and probably the most famous elephant in Cambodia.'

Rogerson recruited Martelli, a former Singapore Zoo vet who is a specialist in elephant medical care. Rogerson at first wanted to take Sombo to an established rescue centre but, after lengthy negotiations, she hit upon a compromise.

'The owner found a piece of land outside Phnom Penh and it's a lovely piece of land suitable for an elephant,' she said. 'He gets to keep his elephant and I've given him a remuneration package which will support her food, the electricity and water, and the loss of earnings for the owner. I've also pledged to fund all medical care as well.'

The cost of keeping Sombo away from the temple and the tourists is US$600 a month plus medical costs which are expected to amount to between US$10,000 and US$15,000. Rogerson has a two-year contract with the elephant's owner.

Martelli said Sombo's recuperation would be slow.

'Elephants are very stoic animals and they are probably in a lot more pain than they appear to be because they don't do well on three legs.'

The broader significance of Sombo's rescue is the attention it draws to the plight of elephants in Southeast Asia in general, Martelli believes.

'Elephants in southeast Asia are at risk because of human behaviour, above all development and short-term investment in fast returns by big companies and corrupt governments,' he said.

Rogerson says she has been 'overwhelmed' by the support of Hong Kong people keen to help her project.

Updates on Sombo's progress and the work of the charity EARS are available at