Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary’s Innovative Plan to Create a Sustainable Future for Elephants

By Jordan Schaul | National Geographic | May 30, 2013

My friend Ken Wahl is an award-winning actor having won a Golden Globe and been nominated for an Emmy. The passionate animal advocate and voice for veterans of war is best known for his starring role in the prime-time television series Wiseguy. Ken is anything, but a traditional actor. In fact, he was on a trajectory to play Major League Baseball before an injury left him with an uncertain future.

Ken stumbled onto the stage as a way to make ends meet and his career took him to a level beyond what the typical Hollywood actor ever dreams of reaching.  I asked Ken to share some stories of people helping animals and he suggested interviewing some of his friends who are doing terrific things on behalf of the animal kingdom.

Ken elected to interview veterinarian Dr. Jenny Conrad and trial lawyer David Casselman—both well-known animal activists in Los Angeles and supporters of the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. Ken interviewed them concerning their involvement with the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary and their efforts to save some of Southeast Asia’s vanishing species.

Dr. Jenny Conrad is a Los Angeles-based wildlife veterinarian who is not only a dedicated and gifted clinician but an innovative and influential advocate for both companion animal welfare and the welfare of captive wildlife. Among her achievements, Dr. Conrad launched the highly acclaimed Paw Project as an endeavor to help educate the public and even some of her veterinary colleagues concerning the clinical ramifications of declawing felids from house cats to Amur tigers.

David Casselman is a nationally recognized civil trial lawyer based in Los Angeles. The preeminent jury trial lawyer is also a law school professor and legal author. During his distinguished career has achieved jury verdicts and settlements totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  But, at the same time, Mr. Casselman has made a point of giving back, providing pro bono legal services to aid animals of all kinds. He most recently went to bat for some famous zoo elephants to ensure their welfare for years to come.


Ken Wahl: What is the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary?

Dr. Jenny Conrad: The Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary is the brainchild of Los Angeles-based attorney, David Casselman and his Cambodian business partner, Sok Hong. They had an opportunity to protect many animals in Cambodia and took advantage of it. About a decade ago, they were able to convince the Cambodian government into forming a joint venture with them to protect some of the last unspoiled lands in Cambodia.

The Sanctuary is approximately 1,000,000 acres of land where many of Cambodia’s native wild animals still exist. Casselman and Sok Hong have a vision of making it a world-class Asian animal rescue site. They want to provide a home for any and all displaced Asian elephants as well as tigers, Asian birds, and the diverse primate populations of that region.

Ken Wahl: What’s different about the Sanctuary?

Dr. Jenny Conrad: Recognizing this venture requires worldwide expertise, Casselman and Sok Hong have paired up with a Thai woman named Lek. She has long been a leader in Asia, founding her own rescue organization for elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Together, they have set out to make a better home for elephants in Cambodia as well. They have been raising funds to rescue elephants from logging camps where they are made to work from dawn to dusk pulling heavy logs with chains on their legs. To date, they have purchased two elephants and more will hopefully soon call the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary their home.

Realizing that the only way to really protect the Teak and Mahogany forest and the animals that live on Sanctuary land made it critical to get the local communities involved.  David Casselman and Sok Hong realized from the beginning that it would be essential to employ the local people, who had been logging the land and poaching the animals to live, to patrol that land and protect the animals.  The goal has always been to help them realize that protecting their natural environment for the long term is critical, and ultimately more lucrative than using it all up for short-term profit and then having nothing.

Ken Wahl: What is your role in the Sanctuary?

Dr. Jenny Conrad: I am the director of Veterinary Medical Programs. I first met David Casselman in Los Angeles.  I was involved with elephants in captivity who needed more space to be comfortable.  Elephants in captivity very often have foot problems. Because of what I do with my nonprofit entity, the Paw Project, David Casselman approached me.  He was aware of my work, educating the public about the crippling problems created by declawing cats, and developing a new surgical technique to treat disfigured cats.  Apparently, he thought I might know something about elephant feet, too.

That was the beginning of my involvement in this tremendously important project.

I am ultimately hoping that after we are able to ban the declawing of all animals in North America, I will be able to move to Cambodia permanently. Until then, I am hoping that my new documentary, The Paw Project, will permeate American minds enough to make the campaign easy.

Ken Wahl: How can people help?

Dr. Jenny Conrad: Whatever you are able to do to help the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary would be wonderful.  Those who are able to donate time or money should go to our website.  We are also working with Elephants In Crisis ( which tries to stay abreast of the issues and problems impacting elephants.  Read and learn all you can.  There are so many problems adding to the plight of elephants on the planet.  But, first and foremost, boycott ivory and anyone who sells ivory. Let your voice be heard. Get active. We can win this battle if we come together. Think about it, elephants are one of the most majestic animals that have ever been on this planet. We really must protect them.

David Casselman is a nationally recognized civil trial lawyer, who has served as a National Board member and President of the Los Angeles Chapter and later as President of all California Chapters of the American Board of Trial Advocates, the pre-eminent jury trial lawyer organization in the country.  Mr. Casselman is also a law school professor, legal author and during his distinguished career has achieved jury verdicts and settlements totaling in excess of $500 million.  But, at the same time, Mr. Casselman has made a point of giving back, providing pro bono legal services to aid animals of all kinds.  Recently, he won a high-profile trial in Los Angeles against the LA Zoo, to stop the abuse of their elephants.  That case is currently on appeal.

Ken Wahl: David, how did you get involved in legal work involving animals?

David Casselman: Shortly after I graduated from law school it dawned on me that I could actually do something about things I had only heard about and felt powerless to change.  So, I tried to learn how to be an effective advocate first, and then later, I offered my time, pro bono, to help animals.  I remember one of the first animal cases I worked on was to help the Whale Rescue Team, founded and directed by Peter Wallerstein in Santa Monica.  He was outraged by the fact that the Federal government had euthanized a dolphin that had been rescued, simply because it had a cold.  Our efforts to work within and also to fight against the “system” on that case were my first real exposure to work just for animals.  To be clear, I was and still am awed by Peter and what he does.  But, my real motivation was to help him save the animals.  From there, I have tried to reach out and just save one “Starfish” at a time.

Ken Wahl: Will you share with our readers what you mean when you say you try to save Starfish?

David Casselman: Yes, I think many people who advocate or fight for animals are motivated by the story of the little boy on an east coast beach, throwing starfish back into the water at low tide.  An older man asks him “What are you doing son.  I know they are dying out here in the sun, but look down the shoreline…there are millions of them.  You can’t make a difference.”  In response, the little boy ignored him, bent over and picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the life-giving sea.  Then, he turned back to the gentleman and smiled, saying “Made a difference to that one.”

That is all any of us can do.  Save one Starfish at a time.  Sometimes we get an opportunity to do a bit more.  But, so often failure is a part of the animal rescue process, that we have to just do our best and hope to make a difference to one precious little soul at a time.

Ken Wahl: So, what kinds of things have you been doing as a lawyer, helping animals?

David Cassleman: Gosh, over thirty years, I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work on cases involving almost every kind of animal, from dolphins to horses, feral cats to birds, kittens and puppies being abused and sold, dogs, pot-bellied pigs and of course, elephants being kept in zoos under horrific conditions.  I have helped draft legislation in Sacramento, testified for and against other legislation, written letters, negotiated settlements, taken cases to trial and on appeal.

All in all, I am proud to say that not one animal has ever complained about my work and I have never billed anyone a single dime for any of my animal efforts.

Ken Wahl: So how much time are we talking about, how do you stay in business?

David Casselman:  It really depends on the case.  Over thirty years, it adds up pretty quickly.  My work on the Billy case, to free the elephants from the LA Zoo has been through trial and the Court of Appeal once already.  It is on its second trip to the Court of Appeal now.   On that case alone, I have spent over $5 million in billable time.   But, it feels right to me and that is all that matters.  My family has always been very supportive and I have been fortunate in that my work for people has been sufficiently lucrative that I have the luxury of being able to spend my free time working on animal cases and issues.

Ken Wahl: So, what happened in the L.A. Zoo elephant trial and where are things in that case now?

David Cassleman: The City built a $42 million exhibit, supposedly to provide a world-class environment for their elephants.  But, the truth was, the new exhibit spruced up the spectator areas, but did nothing to improve the horrific living conditions for the elephants.

So, we went to trial and proved that the elephants were not healthy, happy, or thriving, as claimed.  They are surrounded by hot wire in tiny enclosures.  Historically, they were disciplined with electric shock devices and bullhooks.  The ground is as hard as concrete because it is never roto-tilled.  They often stand in their own urine and feces and they are forced to live in near isolation in spaces of approximately a quarter of an acre in size.  They compact the ground quickly and then develop arthritis, abscesses, and foot cracks.  In a few years, the current elephants will develop serious foot problems and die like the other 14 elephants that lived in this zoo.

After hearing the evidence, the trial court entered judgment in our favor, banning any further use of bullhooks or electric shock on LA zoo elephants.  He also ordered the space roto-tilled on a regular basis and further ordered that the zoo exercise its elephants for two hours daily.  Rather than comply with the judgment, the City has appealed.  The case is now working its way through the appellate court system.  We hope to convince the Court of Appeal that the only solution is to close the exhibit to elephants, period.

Ken Wahl: Well, fingers crossed.  But, in the meantime, I understand you have been busy trying to help elephants in another way?

David Casselman: Yes, I was fortunate enough to develop a very close bond with a powerful gentleman in Cambodia by the name of Mr. Sok Hong.  Together, we convinced the Cambodian government to entrust us with the care and protection of the last remaining unmined jungle land in the entire country.  It is 1 million acres in the vicinity of the ancient Angkor temples.  Our work there has now been ongoing for a decade.

Our goal is to enlist the aid of the local people who have lived off the land for many years.  They have cut down the immensely valuable Teak, Mahogany, and Rubber trees to sell them to Thailand and China.  At the same time, they have poached the animals to near extinction.   We need to educate them to the short-term limits of this strategy and offer them lifetime employment protecting their precious habitat and the amazing animals of Southeast Asia.  Prime among the severely endangered animals are elephants, tigers, gibbons, gaur, and many species of birds that live on that land.

We have also received amazing support from Lek Chaillert and her husband Darrick Thompson.  Lek is a longtime crusader for elephants and the founder of the Thai elephant sanctuary known as the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.

We were also fortunate to have enlisted the aid and expertise of Dr. Jenny Conrad from Los Angeles.  Her work with exotic animals of all kinds, together with her crusade to end the declawing of cats has been nothing short of inspirational.

Our goal is to eventually open the Sanctuary to the public as an eco-tourism facility.  The money would employ the native people and experts alike while allowing us to permanently protect the land and the animals.  The plan is to protect the abandoned animals, like broken working elephants, in one area, and free the animals capable of sustaining themselves into the remainder of the sanctuary.

Currently, we are accepting volunteers to help us.  We have two elephants in the Sanctuary and hopefully, many more to come.  If the project ultimately turns into a successful eco-tourism destination (again, it could, because it is close to the popular Angkor Temples) we hope to funnel the profits into other start-up organizations to repeat the process around the world, country by country.  We need to move fast if we intend to protect the land and animals so close to extinction in so many countries.

Ken Wahl: The Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary sounds like the project of a lifetime?

David Casselman: Well, let me put it this way…I will probably continue working on it as long as I live.  So, in that sense, yes, it is a lifetime project.  But, in a more practical sense, it is just another Starfish story.  It has the ability to reach many animals and people as well.  But, for me, it is just another opportunity to make a difference, day by day.  Some days are better than others.  But, so far, so good.  In the end, Thomas Hobbs was right, man is basically selfish.  What I try to do to help animals makes me feel good.  But, I can live with that.



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Jordan Carlton SchaulWith training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine, and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife and conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska (As Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (As executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition, he was an ex officio member of the council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management.