A glimpse of Cambodia’s elephants mating for the camera

After spending the last few years surveying and tracking elephants in Cambodia, I never thought getting a photograph of one would be so difficult.  The range and distribution of the Asian elephant in the country is relatively well known in terms of the general areas that the animals inhabit.

They live largely in the eastern plains of Mondulkiri province and the rugged and remote Cardamom Mountains in the country’s Southwest.  And yet, despite many surveys over the past decade, there are still large swathes of forest that remain uncharted by biologists, where elephants have not yet given up their secrets.

The elusive elephant

Being such elusive beasts with a penchant for damaging crops and property, heading out into the forest armed with a camera and tripod was never a good idea in terms of personal safety or getting results on film.

Deploying motion-triggered camera traps were our only viable alternative, so in 2010 the Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Cambodia elephant team set out to try and capture images and data on a group of elephants that was only rumoured to exist, high on a forested plateau called Dalai.

Last year: into the jungle

Last year in March we travelled for one day by four wheel drive westwards from Phnom Penh to the huge Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, which is over 300 000 hectares in area-we started our first ascent of Dalai on foot.

We were horribly sweaty and dehydrated after a seven-hour hike, six hours of which was spent scrambling up steep overgrown jungle trails.  But the hard exercise was worth it.

As we neared the summit we found fresh elephant tracks less than a day old, with fresh gaur prints inside them. To the left of the trail I saw a tree with fresh bear scratches and to top it all off a flock of wreathed hornbills flew overhead as we were scratching our heads trying to estimate the size of the bear that climbed the tree.

Finding this many animal signs in such a short space of time is very rare these days and we immediately realized this mountain and surrounding plateau might be one of the last uninhabited and un-hunted areas in the Cardamoms.

We made camp just off the trail in a clearing next to the only known water source on the mountain – a small freshwater spring forming the head of a stream with a small saltlick nearby. The thought then occurred to me that camping here might not be such a good idea after all if there were going to be any thirsty night-time visitors…

We woke at 5.30am the next morning to a deafening dawn chorus of birds and cicadas and after a hasty breakfast of dried noodles and coffee, found fresh elephant tracks less than 100m from our hammocks!

The next two days were spent carefully selecting the best locations to set up our cameras.  Tempting as it is to put cameras all around the tracks we found, some wise words from FFI photographer and camera trapping expert Jeremy Holden reminded me that the cameras needed to be in places where elephants would come to, not necessarily where they had already been.

Several litres of sweat and inordinate amounts of rehydration salts later our cameras were set at a watering hole, a saltlick and across numerous trails crisscrossing the mountain top. All we could do then was to wait.

The first pictures of mating

Now, many trips to Dalai later, we are extremely pleased with the results.  Although it took months to get our first shot of elephants – a pair of females – we now have concrete evidence that the population is actively mating.

Through an outstanding bit of luck rather than skill, we were able to capture moments of the courtship and mating process on camera, including the frankly very graphic copulation shots! Had the camera been placed a couple of metres either side of where it was we would not have been so fortunate.

Warning: Explicit Footage

We also captured pictures of a male “tusker”, the first photographic evidence of a male with tusks in the Cardamom Mountains – confirming our belief that poachers had not yet accessed the area and that FFI’s support to the management and protection of the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary remains vital.

The study also turned up some other surprises: a breeding herd of gaur; evidence of sambar deer at over 1000m elevation – which are an important tiger prey species; a muntjac deer; the first ever photo of the coral-billed ground cuckoo in Cambodia; the Asiatic black bear; pileated gibbons; crab-eating mongooses; large Indian civets; long-tailed macaques as well as wild pigs and leopard cats.

We plan to continue camera trapping for a further three months until we have a year of data. It is still unknown where the elephants go between visits to the mountain, and how many more of them there may be. Hopefully the forest and its elephants might give up a few more of their secrets….

More links on FFI in the Cardamom Mountains:

New species of gecko named after FFI scientist

‘Ecstasy oil’ distilleries raided in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains