ASEAN Beat | Environment | Southeast Asia

Who Cares About Kaavan?

A feel-good story about an elephant has distracted attention from the dire state of the environment in Cambodia.

Who Cares About Kaavan?

The elephant Kavaan shortly after his much-publicized touchdown in Cambodia.

Credit: Twitter/Neth Pheaktra

This week, the world has been captivated by the fact that an elephant that lived alone in Pakistan for decades, and somehow earned the epithet of the world’s “loneliest” pachyderm, was shipped off to Cambodia to be greeted by the bygone popstar Cher. Because of this, I have been forcibly informed by international newspapers and celebrities on Twitter that this is a feel-good story; informed by Cambodian government officials that this shows how much they care about nature; and informed by commissioning editors that this is the story that matters most about Cambodia, rather than the ongoing trial of hundreds of political activists, the possible epidemic, rampant deforestation, or the fact that flooding caused by changes to the environment has killed dozens of people this year.

Nor, in fact, that several key environmentalists have been arrested in Cambodia in recent months, including Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phoung Keorasmey of the environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia. As Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, noted in September, “The Cambodian authorities’ latest wave of arrests of activists shows a highly disturbing disregard not only for freedom of expression and assembly, but for land rights and the environment.”

Best of luck to the elephant Kaavan in his new home; best of luck to Cher for being in the spotlight again; and best of luck to my colleagues who have earned bylines from this. (And to editors, who will now have another topic to return to each year, possibly rivaling their annual obsession with the exact same articles on how rats are trained to detect landmines in Cambodia.)

But am I being a killjoy if I point out that while one elephant might have been helped, hundreds, if not thousands, of other species in Cambodia are at risk of becoming even more endangered because of the policies of a government that is being allowed to claim the moral high-ground in the Kaavan story? Or that Cambodia is far from being the environmental paradise it has been made out to be over the last week?

This week, the environmental publication Mongabay published an extensive report detailing the damage being done in the Cardamom Mountains, home to four national parks and four wildlife sanctuaries, and which supports “around half of Cambodia’s known bird, reptile and amphibian species, and most of the country’s large mammals,” including the Asian elephant. A study by the University of Maryland found that the Cardamoms’ national parks and wildlife sanctuaries together lost more than 8.6 percent of their tree cover between 2001 and 2019. One alone lost nearly a quarter.

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Mongabay informs us that this destruction is being perpetuated by Cambodia’s authoritarian government, which is encouraging land grabs in protected areas so as to increase “voter confidence in the current administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of national elections in 2022.” Reports published last month also informed us that Hun Sen signed a decree giving his family members ownership of large tracts of forest land in Preah Sihanouk province. Also last month, we were told that a newly-approved hydropower dam on the Pursat River could affect already one of the most endangered turtle species in the world, and that cement factories are destroying mountainous areas of the country. One might also want to inquire why the government felt it reasonable to approve investment of several new coal-fired power stations in recent months. Or why it denied accusations that this year’s flooding, which killed at least 40 Cambodians, is going to be a regular occurrence and is most likely being exacerbated because of government policy of filling in the country’s natural waterways.

With maximum irony, the narrative of Kaavan’s arrival in Cambodia was that the conditions it suffered in the Islamabad zoo were so appalling that a Pakistani court ordered it closed. Might Cambodia’s courts also want to investigate the country’s own zoos? After the Khmer Times, a ruling party-aligned newspaper, reported in October on the “shocking conditions and animal abuse” at the Phnom Penh Safari zoo, within days this article was removed (it is no longer accessible) and replaced by one with the headline “Safari animals treated with love and care.” Why this volte-face? Because the zoo, where endangered orangutans are forced to dress up and box one another, is owned by the well-connected tycoon Ly Yong Phat, also a senator for the ruling party. In addition to making his money from sugar-cane plantations marked by human rights abuses, Ly Yong Phat in October happened to receive a 600-hectare concession of state land from the government.

But you wouldn’t have known any of this if you read most news reports about Kaavan, nor if you listened to Cher. Somehow, Hillary Clinton even managed to get herself into the story by tweeting, “Is there anything Cher can’t do?” Answer: Mention one other environmental issue affecting Cambodia. I don’t know if this is her fault. After all, she’s a celebrity who wants good publicity and a lot of photo-ops. Arguing about environmental policy with ministers in dank meeting rooms doesn’t really have the same appeal. And maybe she’s just too focused on one issue, that being one elephant, to notice that by not mentioning other environmental issues her efforts are counter-productive. Granted, Cambodia might not have accepted the elephant if she had been less panegyric, but wouldn’t that have revealed more and done more for the cause of animal conservation and environmental protection as a whole?

The Kaavan story could have been the occasion for a wider debate about Cambodia’s environmental problems. Instead, these problems were glossed over and ignored – and not even “buried” deep down in most articles. Worse still, aggrandized. The narrative of almost every news report went: Pakistani zoo bad; Cambodian wilderness blissful.

A widely-republished AFP news-wire report (on November 30), for instance, found no time to comment on Cambodian environmental issues, but did find space for the exotic: “Before Kaavan was transported to the sanctuary, monks offered him bananas and watermelon, chanting prayers and sprinkling holy water on his crate to bless him.” Also note this report only quoted Cher, Amir Khalil of the animal welfare group Four Paws (which actually did most of the legwork), and Neth Pheaktra, Cambodia’s deputy environment minister, who has provided almost hourly updates on Twitter about Kavaan’s progress and apparent fondness for watermelons, and also found the time to applaud AFP’s coverage. Indeed, this saga has done the Cambodian government no harm with its international image – and for the lack of effort it had to put in, can be considered a very easy win for Phnom Penh.