In the first draft of my adventure list, I wrote down “ride an elephant.” But the more research I did on how to make it happen, the more I realized that this is the last thing you should attempt to do when you visit Asia. Trekking and tourist camps are everywhere, even at Angkor Wat, but any legitimate conservationist will tell you that you should never, EVER ride elephants. Never. Even if you’re small and lightweight, elephant treks and other tourist-focused experiences promote an industry that mistreats the animals.
But not to worry – sanctuaries and parks have popped up all over the region to rehabilitate elephants that have been used for work in tourism or logging and subsequently abused or injured. The goal of these organizations is to save captive elephants from bad situations, promote good care practices, and launch conservation efforts for wild elephants. The Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri sounded like exactly the kind of place I wanted to check out.
As I learned when I arrived for my visit, EVP’s goal is to help “elephants be elephants again.” The Project currently has twelve elephants — it owns two, and the remaining ten are “rented” from their villages and/or owners. The EVP pays in cash the value of what the elephant would earn each month in exchange for bringing them onsite for rehabilitation. Villages can and do take them back for special events and ceremonies so that the animals remain a part of their culture, but EVP lobbies to keep the elephants for as long as possible.
At the Project, visitors have the option to spend a full day observing the elephants (and pay more) or do a half-day visit and take the afternoon to do some volunteer work. Partly due to budget, and partly because I liked the idea of giving back, I chose the latter. Project staff met about ten of us at the Greenhouse Bar in the center of Sen Monoram, piled luggage and bodies on benches in the back of the pickup truck, and shuttled us up and down dirt roads to the top of the hill overlooking the valley.
Here we signed waivers and met our guides — Samnang and Tuan — and headed down a steep trail for a morning with one of the elephant families living onsite. EVP rents the land (some 60 hectares, I think?) from local families in exchange for the equivalent amount of rice that would be grown in the area. We visited Heaven Valley, which six of the Project’s 12 elephants call home.
I quickly realized that I forgot to put the memory card back in my SLR, so I had to rely on my iPhone. I spent the rest of the day kicking myself for making such a stupid mistake, and the quality of my photos is proof that I should always check it twice.
We waited patiently in a clump of trees for the first four eles (Ruby, Ning Wan, Mae Nang, and Milot) to emerge. EVP’s elephants are accompanied by mahouts, but they don’t wear saddles or ropes and spend most of the day roaming freely. The mahouts merely observe from afar and only hop on the animals’ shoulders when guiding them in and out of the area. There are no whips or bullhooks, just voice commands. These four, all girls but of varying ages and sizes, walked into a small pond for their daily bath. We got to help out, and I managed to step right in the way of a full bucket of water.
After the girls wandered off to eat, Bob and Onion, the resident elephant “couple,” made their entrance. Bob is the only male in this family, and he and girlfriend Onion don’t interact much with the other four due to jealousy and territorial behavior. We were told that Bob is quite temperamental, so more care is taken in handling him. Interestingly, when the Project brings in a new elephant, staff lets them roam with different groups until they figure out which animals work best together. They have such big and distinct personalities!
We spent most of the morning just moving around through the trees and observing the elephants as they socialized and ate. We could touch them only if they approached us first, and I was really hoping this opportunity would arise.
At one point, Mae Nang, Ning Wan, and Ruby seemed to be following our group with a purpose, and we had to keep moving forward to stay out of their path. It turns out they could smell the bananas I had in my bag and, of course, wanted some. Our guides gave us permission to feed them.
Ruby was really into the bananas.
She ate almost the whole bunch. The other two were pretty content with chomping on bamboo.
I learned a lot about EVP’s elephants and the situation in Cambodia from the guides and staff. Their elephants range in size from three to four tons and have to eat several hundred kilos of food and drink two kilos of water every day. As such, the amount of land required to sustain a single elephant’s diet is significant, so EVP’s capacity is only about 20 animals at a time.
The future for elephants in Cambodia is uncertain. There are about 90 captive elephants in the country, more than 50 of which reside in Mondulkiri Province. There are only 150 remaining in the wild. This is a very small number compared to the populations in Thailand and Burma. The local villages don’t promote elephant breeding, so most of the captive animals are past reproductive age. Bob and Onion are sort of a last hope for the Project’s baby potential. But wild elephants in Cambodia are reproducing, a positive step that EVP hopes to continue to support.
After a few hours of watching and bathing and feeding, we headed back to the Project’s central area for lunch and siesta. The food was amazing, and I was pretty thrilled to spend an hour or so relaxing on a porch with comfy chairs and a view.
For the afternoon, about six of us chose to help out with clearing a path from the main entrance road down to where a new information center is being built. We were given axes, machetes, and hoes (no, not kidding) and told to chop away at the stumps and roots and fallen trees. It was hard work, but by the end we’d cleared a few dozen meters and could definitely pat ourselves on the back. After another hour or so watching the sun go down from the porch, we headed back to town.
I had a fantastic day at the Elephant Valley Project, and I would highly recommend a visit if you find yourself in Mondulkiri. A word of caution, though:
I was really excited about heading to EVP — it was the main reason I went to Mondulkiri — but the owner of my guesthouse did not have nice things to say about it, and he turned ugly as soon as other travelers and I admitted to having arranged a visit. Actually, he just said that it “wasn’t good” but wouldn’t tell us why. There was an American guy living at the guesthouse on a semi-permanent basis to help the owner and his wife refine their restaurant menu, and he jumped in on a conversation a few of us were having to say that EVP mistreats its elephants (doesn’t feed them, chains them at night), takes away business from local trekking guides, and charges a lot of money for unsuspecting tourists to visit, which is goes straight into the pockets of the British founders. The local people take care of elephants the way they always have, he said, adding that the extent of the “abuse” is lightly tapping the animals with sticks.
Stoning and female genital mutilation have been practiced for centuries, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evolve past them. A fellow traveler from my guesthouse went on an elephant trek, arranged by said guesthouse owner, the same day I headed to EVP, and he reported back that the horrible treatment of the animals made him cringe.
Anyway, all of these “concerns” were addressed by the EVP staff without anyone having to ask. Yes, they chain the elephants at night so they don’t wander away, but they’re on 20-30m leads (not tightly chained to a tree like they are in tourist trekking villages) so they can continue to eat and socialize. They spend most of their days eating, but it’s bamboo and plants and bananas and other things elephants in the wild actually eat, not cheap feed forced down their throats. And not only does the project employ several dozen locals in various capacities, it pays for the health care costs of several villages and sponsors education programs for local children. It’s a registered NGO, and I’m confident that if something fishy was being done with the money — or in the treatment of the elephants — someone would have figured it out by now.
The only reason we could come up with for the vitriole was that EVP takes away from the business of guides leading elephant treks, and after a few days of reflection, I’m confident that this is exactly the problem. So someone who resents the Project started rumors about the organization, and in this small town, people quickly latched on. I think it’s worth noting that neither my guesthouse owner or the hippie American dude have ever been to EVP.
In the end, everyone is entitled to their own opinion about what’s best for the elephants and for the local community, and I’m ready and waiting to be proven wrong about anything I’ve said here. But in the meantime, I think EVP has a great program for elephant conservation and for supporting the tribes who have long cared for said elephants, and I hope that Cambodia is able to continue to support these amazing animals. If you go to Southeast Asia and want to interact with elephants, at least consider a sanctuary visit as an alternative to riding them!