Tuy Sereivathana, Conservationist

Emerging Explorer

Picture of National Geographic Explorer Tuy Sereivathana

Photograph by Tom Dusenbery

Deep in the Cambodian rain forest, Tuy Sereivathana (known as Vathana) works to save endangered Asian elephants, but his project is symbolic of a larger transition Cambodia struggles to navigate as a nation. After decades of extreme violence under Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia now faces the challenges of poverty, dramatic population growth, unregulated development, and environmental destruction. Vathana, Country Manager in Cambodia for Fauna & Flora International, is dedicated to finding answers that will help mitigate some of these problems.

After the country’s devastating period of political turmoil and conflict, masses of people returned and relocated throughout Cambodia, often creating communities, roads, and farmland that encroached on elephant habitat. “Overnight, a traditional elephant migration route would become a rice farm,” Vathana describes. With rain forests shrinking, hungry elephants foraged farmland, destroying crops. Desperately poor farmers fought back, killing elephants to protect their land and livelihood.

As a result, Cambodia’s elephant populations, which numbered around 2,000 in 1995, have dwindled to fewer than 500 today. Years of deprivation had broken a centuries-old bond between Cambodia’s people and nature. Elephants in particular had been an integral part of the nation’s religious and cultural traditions, a prime example being the world-renowned Angkor Wat temple, built with the help of elephants that carried stones, hoisted pulleys, and are now depicted in honor on the walls of the magnificent structure.

While an emerging conservation movement might rekindle the connection between the public and the environment, initial efforts created more conflict than cooperation. “Local people only associated wildlife protection with law enforcement,” Vathana explains. “When farmers were arrested for clearing the forest, they could no longer feed their families. Conservationists did not pay enough attention to human needs.” Tensions were running high by 2003, when Vathana entered the scene as manager of the Human-Elephant Conflict Team for the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group. “People were not well educated about conservation,” Vathana recalls. “They thought the elephants belonged to my project so they threw all their anger at me. It was difficult to build trust and convince them to join my efforts. But day by day we proved that we were concerned not only with elephants, but also with human beings.”

One enormous demonstration of Vathana’s and his team’s commitment to remote communities bordering elephant habitat was their role in the creation of schools. “The government had still not established schools in these areas,” Vathana remembers, “and families were very concerned that their children could not read or write.” Vathana helped set up schools and attract teachers and made wildlife conservation part of the curriculum. He and his team also introduced improved farming techniques, tools, and information on how to grow crops more efficiently and successfully without expanding into elephant habitat.

After gaining local trust, Vathana launched a series of low-cost, highly ingenious strategies for keeping crops—and elephants—safe. He and his team worked with villagers to grow crops that can be harvested before elephants know they are ripe, spread chili peppers on fences around fields, use fireworks and foghorns to scare raiding elephants away, build fences that give elephants a mild electric shock, and organize groups to stand guard in watchtowers overnight. Today, farmers who once hunted elephants now work for their preservation.

What turned out to be even more difficult than building his personal relationship with local people was convincing them to build relationships with each other. “After the civil war,” Vathana reports, “our society was broken. People didn’t care about helping each other; they were very isolated and totally focused on their own individual survival. They tried to protect crops family by family. I understood this and worked to establish a culture that emphasized community. We showed them that by joining together they would benefit together. Step by step they realized the advantages of working as a team.”

The success of Vathana’s project is unprecedented. Since 2005, not a single wild elephant has been killed in Cambodia due to human conflict. More than 30,000 local people feel the economic, educational, and social benefits of his efforts, and his community-based model is expanding to other countries in the region.

Despite significant gains, Vathana insists that many challenges lie ahead. “Cambodia’s conservation community must do a better job of working as a unified force toward our common goals. I want to see government, developers, and conservation groups sit down, listen to each other, and find ways to move forward together. Poverty must be addressed, but unbridled development will only bring short-term relief. We must never lose sight of the long-term consequences each decision will have on our wildlife, our people, and our future.”


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In Their Words

I’m working not only to protect Cambodia’s elephants, but also to make conservation directly benefit the lives of local people.

—Tuy Sereivathana

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