Elephant who survived Khmer Rouge needs help

SHE can barely support her 2000-kilogram weight, her feet deformed and infected.

SHE can barely support her 2000-kilogram weight, her feet deformed and infected.

For more than 30 years Sombo trundled the pavements of Phnom Penh, giving rides and pleasure to tourists.

Now the future of Cambodia's most famous elephant is uncertain after a campaign by animal rights activists to force her into early retirement.

"I am finding it hard to find the 80 kilograms of food she needs to eat every day . . . we have lost our livelihood and I have no money," say Sin Sorn, the owner of the 52-year-old elephant that survived capture and mistreatment by the murderous Khmer Rouge almost four decades ago.

"Sometimes I give my food to Sombo and I go hungry . . . She must eat and drink 10 times a day," he says.

"Who is going to look after her if I leave to find work?" Sombo blinks her eyes as she lifts her right foot for relief from pain, raising her trunk to greet visitors to a compound on Phnom Penh's outskirts, her new temporary home.

Mr Sin Sorn says Sombo has always been placid and non-threatening, even in Phnom Penh's chaotic traffic.

Mr Sin Sorn, 55, says he used to earn $40 to $50 a day from tourists who rode Sombo around Phnom Penh's Wat Phnom. Despite suffering abscesses on her feet for at least a year, Sombo was kept working nine hours a day.

"It costs $10 a day for the bananas and sugar cane Sombo needs but I also have to care for my family," Mr Sin Sorn says.

He says he has borrowed $6000 to build a compound for Sombo where she will get medical treatment provided by the Hong Kong-based Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation, which led the campaign to stop her working.

Louise Rogerson from the foundation says the non-government organisation is seeking donations to care for Sombo as she recovers, which could take up to two years.

Ms Rogerson accompanied Sombo from the city on January 30 on what she described as the elephant's "freedom walk".

"This beautiful, gentle girl will not carry tourists on her back again, or have to walk down busy roads or around Wat Phnom on her painfully infected feet," she says.

Ms Rogerson says examination of Sombo by a veterinary surgeon showed she may never recover fully from her injuries.

The foundation was told of Sombo's condition by an Australian tourist. Many of 4000 letters activists sent to Phnom Penh city officials urging them to stop Sombo working came from Australia.

Mr Sin Sorn says he appreciates any fund-raising effort to help Sombo's feet recover but insists the elephant will return to the streets of Phnom Penh. "I will not take her into the forests to drag logs as the work is too hard," he says. "She has 50 years of life to live. What else is she to do but go back to her old job?"

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