Cambodia’s ‘Uncle Elephant’ named Emerging Explorer

Vathana named Emerging Explorer

Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) Tuy Sereivathana (Vathana) has been named a 2011 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his conservation work with endangered elephants in Cambodia.

“FFI are thrilled that Vathana has been recognised by the National Geographic Society in this way – and immensely proud that he is one of our Cambodia team. His story is inspirational and it motivates us to identify and encourage the growth of similar champions for wildlife conservation,” said Tony Whitten, Asia Pacific Regional Director, FFI.

Vathana, Project Manager for the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group, joined FFI as a seconded government officer from the Ministry of Environment in 2003 to work on elephant conservation as part of an environmental coalition that included the Cambodian Forestry Administration, the Ministry of Environment and FFI.

He fostered cooperation among farmers to work together as a community, organising overnight guard groups to protect the fields from elephant raids. Affectionately known as ‘Uncle Elephant‘ in the communities he works with, he was also able to revive national and religious pride attached to the Asian elephant in the communities he visited. Many Cambodians revere elephants as sacred Buddhist symbols. Because of a deep understanding of the dynamics of this environmental problem, Vathana was able to develop simple, effective strategies and practical solutions at the grassroots level.

“Vathana is a rare combination of a visionary who embraces grass-roots practicality. He understands the complexities of balancing the needs of species and ecosystems with the dynamic needs of local communities.  We are extremely proud that National Geographic has selected him for this special award” said Melissa Shackleton Dann, Chair of the US Board, FFI.

In 2006, Vathana left his government position to join the FFI Cambodia team and became the manager of the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group (CECG).

The group affords special protection to elephants and brings together key decision makers from government departments, community and local organisations and international NGOs to strike a balance between local community needs and elephant habitat requirements. Management of these large, wide-ranging animals requires a constant balancing act of maintaining natural forest habitats while preventing threats to rural people and their agriculture.

The group focuses on reducing human–elephant conflict, for example by erecting low-tech ‘chilli rope’ barriers to help farmers defend their fields from elephants.

As project manager, Vathana has helped set up schools and brought teachers to the isolated communities dealing with human-elephant conflict. He saw this as another opportunity to embed the elephant and wildlife conservation message into the community.

Since the work began, Vathana has seen significant success. At the start of the decade, elephant killings due to crop raiding were not uncommon. As a result of CECG involvement, there has not been a single confirmed elephant death due to human-elephant conflict.

Cambodia now holds one of the largest populations of Asian elephants in Southeast Asia. They historically ranged from Iran to Indonesia; however the population has declined steeply over the last century. In 1995 overall population estimates were as low as 25,000. Since then, several populations have dwindled still further, and scientists fear that current populations may have fallen well below 1995 estimates. They are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

As elephant populations throughout Asia continue to decline, Vathana and the CECG have brought hope to local communities and helped to secure the future of Asian elephants in Cambodia.

Vathana was also a recipient of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize and became one of the first Cambodians to meet President Obama.

National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers Program recognises and supports uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists, photographers and storytellers making a significant contribution to world knowledge through exploration while still early in their careers.

The Emerging Explorers each receive a $10,000 award to assist with research and to aid further exploration. The program is made possible in part by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, which has supported the program since its inception in 2004.