PHNOM PENH - Phnom Penh's only working elephant was blessed by a crowd of chanting Buddhist monks Tuesday as she prepared for a life of comfortable jungle retirement after three decades of giving rides to tourists.
Sambo, a 54-year-old female, had been a fixture at the Cambodian capital's Wat Phnom temple since 1980.
She was forced to stop giving rides in 2012 after suffering a foot infection -- and after local officials accused her of causing traffic jams.
Her owner and campaigners wanted to see the faithful pachyderm rewarded for years of loyal service with a retirement away from the blaring city, a wish that was eventually made possible by international funding.
"Sambo is like a younger sister to me," owner Sin Sorn, 57, told AFP during a farewell ceremony for the elephant, who was draped in a flower garland and fed with fruit.
"I am getting old. So I decided she needed to be with nature... I am going to miss her very much," Sorn added.
Thanks to donations from supporters around the world and the United States Agency for International Development, Sambo will be transported to the wilds of the northeastern province of Mondulkiri early next month.
Sambo's new home will be an ecotourism venture -- run by conservation group Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE) -- where she will roam free along with nine other elephants.
"I think Sambo will enjoy her life until she dies," said Sorn, who has been with Sambo since his family caught her out of the forests when the elephant was aged about eight.
Jack Highwood, of ELIE, told reporters: "She's lived in Phnom Penh since 1980... and so to be able to get out of the city and go back to live in the forest -- and also to go live with other elephants -- is very important."
Cambodia is home to about 78 domesticated elephants and 400 wild elephants, according to Highwood.
The Asian elephant is listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.