January 31, 2023
They call him “Uncle Elephant.” Determined, intelligent, and kind, Sereivathana Tuy (known as “Vathana”) is everything you’d want in an uncle. He’s an ex-park ranger, National Geographic Explorer, and, most importantly, a committed conservationist who has devoted his life to protecting elephants in Cambodia. We chatted with Vathana about winning the Goldman Prize in 2010, his lifelong love for elephants, and his hopes for a new generation of conservationists in Cambodia.
A National Symbol
Cambodia has a deep cultural relationship with nature and elephants, which have long been domesticated for labor and transportation. Notably, the gentle giants are enshrined in the architecture of the country’s most famous buildings and monuments, including the 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex, whose construction required elephant power. Some of the entrances in the massive complex were even sized to accommodate their giant frames.
Vathana’s love for wildlife began as a small boy. During the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, his family uprooted from city life and moved to rural Cambodia, where Vathana was the caretaker for his family’s buffalo. As a teen, he was fortunate to be able to advance his education, albeit at the cost of living far from his family, and received advanced degrees in forestry from a technological university in Soviet Belarus. In his village, where most residents curtail their education at the age of 9 in order to farm, this was a significant accomplishment and a source of great pride for his family.
Vathana returned to Cambodia and continued onward, eventually finding meaningful work as a forestry officer, where he worked with farmers to collaboratively and safely prevent elephants from eating their crops through low-cost techniques like crop changes, rotating decoys, community engagement, and education. Vathana’s career advanced from forest technician to project manager of the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group. And, in 2010, he won the Goldman Prize for his work in successfully mitigating human-elephant conflict.
Today, as the Cambodia program director for Wild Earth Allies, Vathana is still dedicated to protecting elephants. He reflected fondly that this work combines “people and wildlife, the two things I love.”
A Threatened Species
In 1997, Cambodia joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), thereby enshrining legal protection for Asian elephants. Still, the largest threat to Cambodia’s elephants isn’t poaching—it’s habitat loss. Human development has encroached on key forest areas, fragmenting elephant habitat and restricting critical migratory routes.
As forests shrink, mitigating conflict between people and elephants remains a key priority for Vathana and his team. They provide training and tools to help communities protect their livelihoods and share land with elephants.
Another threat to Cambodia’s elephants, borne of habitat fragmentation, is reduced genetic diversity. The country’s total elephant population is estimated to be between 400–600 individuals, scattered widely across the country into smaller groups.
But, Vathana expressed with optimism, in just the past few years, he has seen visible reason for hope: cameras set by Wild Earth Allies have shown a growing number of young elephants. A 2022 study also found higher than expected numbers of elephants in Prey Lang, a wildlife sanctuary that provides habitat to dozens of threatened species. Still, these young elephants need genetic diversity. Vathana noted, “we’re concerned the new baby elephants might not have strong genetics because they aren’t traveling to meet other groups of elephants.”
Inspired by a New Generation
Although Cambodia’s elephants remain an endangered species, Vathana is buoyed by the promise of Cambodia’s next generation. Whereas opportunities for education were significantly limited for his generation, today higher education is becoming more accessible, and, with it, he has seen a growing drive to protect Cambodia’s natural resources and wildlife. As an example, Vathana cited Cambodia’s minister of the environment, Dr. Say Samal. Vathana is encouraged by Dr. Samal’s fresh perspective and hopes that he represents a new era of conservation for Cambodia.
Vathana is especially happy that Cambodia recently joined nations around the world in adopting the 2022 Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework to conserve at least 30% of “terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine areas.” Vathana believes that any plan that gets people talking about conservation is a good idea. He stressed that “I will always volunteer to go and talk about new protected areas. I will stop anything I’m doing to support habitat protection.” Currently, Vathana is working with Wild Earth Allies, the government, and community partners to create a new protected area in northern Cambodia. He is also collaborating with Cambodia’s fisheries administration to establish new marine protected areas.
Reflecting on his own personal journey, Vathana summed up resolutely: “Through my career in conservation, I have made a real difference for people and nature. You’ll see the many good things that come from getting involved in the environment and conservation.” It may seem cliché, but in Vathana’s case, it’s true: “Find your passion and you won’t work a day in your life.” In this case, his passion is for Cambodian elephants and the ecosystems that sustain them.
Visit Wild Earth Allies‘s website to learn how you can support Vathana and his work in conservation.
This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?
Top Photo: Allison Shelley for Wild Earth Allies
About the author
Digital Communications Manager
Ellen is excited to elevate the stories and amplify the impact of Goldman Prize recipients around the globe. She manages the Prize’s digital presence, produces written and visual content, and contributes to strategic communications planning. Prior to joining the Prize, Ellen held various roles in the solar industry, from marketing to education program management. She holds a BA in Geography and Environmental Studies, with minors in Spanish and Environmental Systems and Society from the University of California, Los Angeles. She joined the Prize in 2020.