There are only 81,000 Asian elephants left on our planet, a blip compared to the 7 billion humans populating the earth. Which could be a good enough reason by itself to protect this giant mammal.
At the end of 2017, I was lucky enough to spend three days with these amazing creatures and the team at the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) in Cambodia. This short adventure left me with an appreciation for what organizations like this manage to accomplish, and the work they do not only for the animals but for the community around them.
Protecting the Elephants
Located in Mondulkiri Province in eastern Cambodia and close to the land border with Vietnam, in the valleys of Sen Monorom lies the sanctuary for captive elephants.
Due to deforestation, war, poaching and logging, the elephant population in Cambodia has drastically decreased. Now there are only 400 to 600 elephants in the wild and 72 in captivity; 10 of them are kept at the Elephant Valley Project.
Five of these elephants are rescue elephants and five are former working elephants who have been signed over to the project on a contract. These are mainly signed over by owners who can no longer look after them, but cannot let them go as they have been with them for their whole lives and are part of their family. The elephants are placed into groups to avoid conflict, and for them to learn from one another. Some have very little social awareness as they may not have seen another member of their species for most of their lives.
The Elephant Valley Project has come a long way since it first opened in 2006 with only the founder, British-born Jack Highwood, three vets and a dog.
Jack wanted to make sure that the project would be working closely with the Pnong (also known as Bunong) community, who wished to protect the forest, have land, and more jobs for its people. The Pnong are an ethnic minority of Cambodia who have beliefs rooted in the forests and the spirits who dwell in them, so preserving them is of great importance to their culture.
As the EVP grew, Jack and his team were able to generate jobs for local people, create universal health cover for all workers, and scholarship programmes which have already produced graduates in nursing and teaching. In addition, they have sponsored the hiring of more rangers to enable law enforcement in the forests to stop logging and poaching.
While it hasn’t completely eradicated the issue — the forest is rich in many sought-after woods such as Siamese rosewood — it has certainly helped with the preservation of the local ecosystem.
The project encompasses five valleys taking up 1,500 hectares, and is surrounded by protected forest and farmland. This gives the mahouts, the elephant carers, plenty of space to look after their elephants with minimal human disturbance.
They will check them for scratches, bites and any other ailments, as captive elephants have lowered immune systems compared to wild elephants, meaning their wounds can fester and get infected if not properly treated.
The staff of EVP work closely with the mahouts to ensure the wellbeing of the elephants is closely monitored with regular health checks that are carried out with the help of volunteers. Yet, the presence of volunteers and tourists is essential to the continuation of the work that EVP does. It allows for the upkeep of the elephants and their huge dietary and health requirements, protecting the forests, and taking on the staff who make this all happen.
My time in The Elephant Valley was short but definitely sweet. Bamboo was sawed, bed frames were made, banana trees were cut down.
But mainly it was a great joy to get back to nature and see these animals in their natural environment, interacting with each other and doing what they should be doing, being elephants.
No rides, no tricks, just elephants.
For more info, click on elephantvalleyproject.org. The sanctuary is open for visits from half days through to over a week or more. They also accept volunteers.
PHOTOS BY OLGA ROZENBAJGIER