Among the Elephants

Malibu resident and elephant rescuer David Casselman visits a baby elephant at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s orphanage for elephants and rhinos in Kenya.

If it’s true that an elephant never forgets, there are a lot of elephants in Southeast Asia that will never forget Malibu resident and Southern California Super Lawyer David Casselman. 

In Casselman’s professional life, he is a well-known trial lawyer, speaker, legal expert, law professor and published author, but his passion of elephants has led him into pro bono work for animal welfare, including suing the LA Zoo over its treatment of elephants. His current project involves trying to stop canned big game hunts in Zimbabwe—and that is not all.

Always an animal lover, his first big opportunity to make a difference was co-founding the million-acre Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary in 2004 in partnership with his friend Sok Hong—a Cambodian entrepreneur and philanthropist, and Cambodia’s Minister of the Environment. He and Hong both serve as executive directors.

When Casselman first became aware of the sanctuary property, he was distressed to learn that the large area of prime habitat was being destroyed by uncontrolled poaching, illegal logging and burning. Even though it was technically a sanctuary, “It was not really protected,” Casselman said. “There were no tigers left. I convinced the government that their land was being devastated by loggers taking out mahogany, teak and rubber trees for huge profits and using poor people for labor. There were all kinds of bribes and the central government wasn’t aware of it.

“Cambodia is a third-world country with aspirations to be a first-world country,” he continued. “But many of the people are subsistence living and the government is too poor to help them. So we offered to provide the development for the sanctuary and the Cambodians agreed. We created our own small military unit and received nonprofit status in the U.S. and Cambodia.” 

Casselman explained that despite damage, the sanctuary is still one of the most environmentally exceptional areas of Cambodia “because it was never clear cut, and because the Khmer Rouge [communist organization] hung out there and used it as their own little Sherwood Forest.” As a result, it is one of the only areas in the country that is not riddled with land mines. A total of 36 “red list” species live there, including six that are critically endangered. 

For four years, Casselman did his best to hire locals and bring in an international veterinary staff. “But I’m not good at fundraising, and I was financing all of this myself,” he said. 

Then, he met Sangduen “Lek” Chailert from Thailand—founder of the Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation in that country. Lek had been a lifelong elephant advocate with worldwide recognition and awards. 

The two formed a successful partnership, with her organization taking over the operation of the sanctuary in Cambodia, and contributing a significant amount of revenue from donors all over the world, including Wall Street. Casselman contributes by using his political contacts in the region to help clear political problems the sanctuary encounters, like high import tariffs for supplies.

The sanctuary now serves as an elephant sanctuary as well as a nature reserve in general. It brings in volunteers from various countries who pay to be there, and now has 50 local employees, bungalows, fruit and vegetable gardens to feed animals and people, security patrols, bathrooms, outreach to local schools, water features for elephants, a monkey and gibbon sanctuary, fencing, and many other improvements. More than two million trees have been planted. 

The recently-released “Love & Bananas” documentary about elephants was executive-produced by Casselman. In the process of telling the story of an ailing elephant being rescued from servitude, it educates the public about the cruel treatment that so many Asian elephants still suffer as work animals.

Baby elephants are basically tortured for days in what’s called a “crush box,” Casselman explained, in order to make them obedient to humans—“you crush their spirit.” In addition, elephants are tortured and beaten with bullhooks (only recently outlawed in California)—basically a stick with a metal spike at the end. “If you find an elephant skull there, you’ll find hundreds of holes in it from these bullhooks,” Casselman said. “They use it mercilessly.”

The point of the movie is to educate people that this is how elephants are brought into service—so don’t go on elephant rides when you’re on vacation, and don’t buy paintings made by elephants, Casselman and his wife, Pam, cautioned.

The film has had sold-out audiences wherever it’s been shown, and will be on Starz and iTunes eventually, Casselman said. They are even hoping for Oscar consideration. The next LA area screenings will be from July 20-26 at Hollywood’s Arena Cinelounge.