While studying abroad last semester, I was able to visit an ecotourist project that provides a sanctuary for Elephants in Mondulkiri. The project is called Elephant Valley Project (EVP). EVP is a project of the NGO called Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E.). Based in Mondulkiri, E.L.I.E. works to conserve wild elephants’ natural habitat and support locals who work with the elephants. EVP was started in 2007 as a home for injured and overworked elephants and is located within a forest that overlaps with a village. The project provides elephant care, gives locals jobs at the lodge and other projects, and is an ecotourist site that people can visit. My cohort and I arrived at EVP in the afternoon, stayed overnight, and then left the next afternoon. While it was a short visit, the memories of my time will be cherished for a lifetime.
EVP is in Mondulkiri province in Cambodia, a short drive outside of Senmonorum, the capital of the province. It is a short hike down the mountain side to get into EVPs camp. EVP is located within a 1,500-hectare area of natural forest bordered by farms and protected forest, which provides elephants a natural habitat away from humans so that EVP can provide sufficient care. Once we got to the camp, we were given a quick overview of the project, the care that elephants need, and their history with the Indigenous population. The Indigenous group, the Bunong, have traditionally cared for and utilized elephants for their survival. This is no longer possible as the Cambodian government banned capturing wild elephants, and traditional knowledge of how to capture and take care of elephants is fading within Bunong culture.
My cohort was then split into two groups so we wouldn’t overwhelm the elephants when observing them. The first afternoon at EVP, my group helped to divert the path into the camp away from a new care station. We helped create a new path so when people came into the camp, walking or on a motorcycle, they won’t disturb the elephants that are getting treatment or being cleaned. It was a fulfilling experience because I knew this would be directly benefitting the elephants. After completing the path, we had some time to relax in hammocks and take a moment to soak it all in. Being surrounded by such a vibrant green forest was amazing! We had a delicious meal that night cooked by locals. We then spent the rest of the night relaxing and basically being off grid, as the camp only has power for a limited time each night. I stayed in a little cabin with one of my classmates and had an amazing view!
The next morning, my group went out to observe the elephants with our guide. We had to cross a little river and walk about 20 minutes to where our two elephants were walking that morning. I had the pleasure of seeing Easy Rider and GeeNowl, two elephant pals! Our first encounter with these two was watching them being cleaned by their mahouts in the river, since both elephants never learned to properly clean themselves in captivity. The mahout’s job is to take care the elephants, such as cleaning and training them. The mahout usually stays with them for the duration of their stay at EVP. I was focused on Easy Rider but observed both elephants. Easy Rider is in her mid to late forties and worked as a hunter-gatherer but was not worked very hard. When she became a ranger elephant, her job was to carry heavy equipment. She came to EVP when she was caught in a trap and cut her foot badly. Of the two, Easy Rider is the leader and watches out for GeeNowl. If you want to read more about the elephants at the project click here.
While observing Easy Rider, we completed a health assessment since both were being treated for skin abrasions and infections, as well as receiving fecal medicine to assess their gut health. We completed a weekly health check to assess and monitor changes. We checked their belly, eyes, trunk/nostrils, ears, skin/body, feet, and feces to assess their health. We also checked for proper hydration and body mass indicator. During this process and while observing them, we were careful not to scare them and not hinder their movement with the help of our guide. We carefully touched Easy Rider for a minute to assess normal skin condition and to measure her body weight. A healthy body weight is considered between 5 and 7, with enough meat on their bones, but not overweight to a point that it is affecting their movements. At night, Easy Rider and GeeNowl are chained to a tree with a 25-meter chain, so they won’t eat people’s crops at night and disturb villages.
During my time with Easy Rider and at EVP, I was taught about ethical behavior towards elephants. You should not excessively touch or hinder their movements. Riding them can be extremely harmful and painful for the elephant, and since EVP is a sanctuary, they do not offer elephant rides. Swimming with elephants is a popular tourist activity, but it is not tolerated at EVP. As it is not natural for elephants to swim with people and it restricts their movement, it is not okay for people to swim with them. Only trained mahouts may interact professionally with the elephants, either riding them or helping them bathe. You may have seen elephants in captivity forced to do these things or perform tricks. This is highly insensitive and wrong and if you see an elephant hurt in captivity, I hope you speak up! As I talked about in my last article, mistreatment of wildlife is not acceptable, so I urge you to educate yourself if you plan on traveling to countries with elephant populations.
Most of E.L.I.E.s funding comes from donations, other NGOs, and visitors to EVP. The elephants receive great care at a time when elephant forest habitat is disappearing and becoming increasingly fragmented in Cambodia. If you are ever traveling to Southeast Asia or Cambodia, visiting EVP would be a worthwhile trip and you would know your money was going to a great cause! If you are interested in visiting, you can read more here. Like me, if you’ve had the dream of seeing elephants in real life, visiting EVP will be an experience you will never forget!
Have you ever witnessed elephant mistreatment in captivity? Have you ever participated in responsible tourism while traveling?
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