Conservation Hero: Tuy Sereivathana

Conservation Hero: Tuy Sereivathana

From being known as the“Buffalo Kid” to “Uncle Elephant,” Tuy Sereivathana (Vathana) has been inseparable from nature since childhood. As the Cambodia Program Director of Wild Earth Allies, he advocates for the conservation of all wildlife and is internationally recognized for his work with Asian elephants.

Born in the capital of Phnom Penh, Vathana started life as a city kid in a well-educated family. However, during the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge forced his family to flee to his father’s home village. Life in the country began.

Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

Adventures of the “Buffalo Kid”

Growing rice, corn, and soybeans, the family started a farm and traded crops for two buffalo to aid with plowing. Vathana attended school in the morning and tended the buffalo by afternoon. Locals dubbed him the “buffalo kid” because he could be seen walking, swimming, riding, and even napping with the animals every day.

During this time, Vathana felt utterly immersed in nature. The family’s drinking water came from lakes, ponds, and streams, and they used medicinal plants to help with such ailments as stomach aches.

One day, after coming home from his buffalo duties, Vathana’s mother informed him he had just missed seeing a group of domestic elephants. Always fascinated with the species, he begged his mother to go to the nearby village they were headed to, but she refused, for it was getting dark.

Sneaking out, Vathana convinced two friends to join him on a journey that would entail crossing a lake by boat and walking through the forest in the middle of the night. Once the trio reached the village, the elephants’ caretaker told them all about the creatures and their habitat.

While his parents were fuming when he returned, Vathana couldn’t stop thinking about the jungles, forests, and mountains full of wild elephants. His life’s mission had begun.

Becoming “Uncle Elephant”

Vathana left Cambodia for college in the Soviet Union. He received a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Forestry from the Belarus Government University of Technology in Minsk City.

In 1995, he returned home to work in the Forestry Department and three years later started to work in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. Working with the Indigenous Kuy community, Vathana ventured deep into the forest to research elephant populations.

Vathana then became the manager of the Human-Elephant Conflict Team for Cambodian Elephant Conservation. He introduced sustainable techniques to farmers and provided information on growing crops without expanding into elephant habitats.

He and his team set up schools in the area and made conservation part of the curriculum, and created community outreach programs to teach locals in remote villages about the importance of elephants and other wildlife. Since the project’s launch in 2005, no wild elephant has been killed in Cambodia due to human conflict.

The compassion for elephants he showed and bestowed on the villagers landed Vathana the nickname of “Uncle Elephant.” It is also the title of Wild Earth Allies’ short documentary film detailing his life’s work.

Living his dream

For decades, Vathana has been a leader in elephant conservation, focusing on community involvement. In 2010, he received the Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts and became a National Geographic Explorer in 2011.

Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize

A program under Vathana’s direction from Wild Earth Allies is working to protect 1.7 million acres of Asian elephant habitat across the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia. Through this project, he lives his childhood dream of working with elephants and saving all the life in the forest.

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