The elephant’s friend
Content submitted by UNWTO – Grace
Submited Date : 02/07/2018

My name is Sokhem Kuon and this is my story...

When I was born, my parents named me Sokhem. In English, it means Hope. This name puzzled me, as at that time there was no hope. The Khmer Rouge had destroyed Cambodia. In 1980, when I was a small boy, we had no food, no land, no money, no schools, and no doctors. My father found work as a woodcutter around Chi Phat, a village hidden in the Cardamom Mountains. We cleared land for ourselves and lived off the forest; we planted corn, trapped animals and tapped resin to sell. That is when I learned about the forest. My father was very skilled, and taught me all he knew. The first time I saw elephants, the most dangerous of all the animals, I cried in fear. My father put his hat on my head, saying, “Wear this magic hat. It will make you invisible to elephants, if you stay still and quiet”. At ten years old, I learn all about the forest, and how to respect Neak Ta, the guardian spirit of the forest. My father was never afraid of the animals, but he was fearful of Neak Ta. “Do not anger Neak Ta. He is powerful, and will make you sick and die,” he told me. “What angers him?” “Taking what is his,” said my father. “What is his?” “Everything in the forest is his. If he favors us, he will show us wild fruit trees, and lead animals to our traps. We may take what we need to live, but no more, and whatever we take, we must share with him.” It was never easy to survive on what we could collect from the forest, but year by year, we managed. I grew to be skilled in forest life. With the end of war, roads came and our lives became harder. Loggers and traders moved in, buying our wood and animals to sell on. People took more than they needed to survive. The forest had survived the war, but could not survive the peace. We hated those people; we were just trying to survive. My father aged, and fell ill: Neak Ta was angry. He stayed home, while I went to the forest with friends. One day, while checking my traps, soldiers arrested me. They took me to see a foreigner who was sitting on the forest floor, crying. Nearby, a mouse deer lay dead in my trap. She asked me why I had killed the deer and I explained that we needed food. “Why don’t you work?” she asked. I explained that there was no work. I did not know it yet, but that day, my life changed. One month later, the village chief called us to a meeting. The soldiers were there, and the foreign lady. She was the most beautiful person I had ever seen, but I was more afraid of her than of Neak Ta. The lady, Suwanna, was the leader of Wildlife Alliance. Suwanna said she would give us jobs as part of an ecotourism community. No one believed it would work but it did. Suwanna helped us to set it up. We elected a management team, and I became the leader of the forest rangers. I still live and work in the forest, but now I remove traps and put out fires. Every year, more visitors come to Chi Phat to enjoy its beauty. Now, 250 villagers are guesthouse owners, guides, cooks, boat drivers, bicycle mechanics, waste collectors, or rangers like me. We all still earn a little income from farming and fishing, but when times are hard, or our children are sick, we have an income, and no longer need to go to the forest. I no longer fear Neak Ta. I am his ally to save the forest. I am still afraid of elephants. Deep in the forest, we hear them, and we see them. When they come close to our camp at nighttime, the ground trembles, and we shake with fear. I miss my father’s magic hat. Truly, I am the elephants’ friend, but I fear the elephants forget this. These days, my future is bright. My children are healthy, and go to school. I can look after my parents. Life is not easy, but I am hopeful. Maybe my parents chose my name wisely after all.