I went on holiday to Cambodia this leave, and it was amazing. You can see how amazing it was because photos from this trip are now up on Flickr. We visited Mondulkiri in the East where we met elephants, washed them and generally hung out with them, and then went to Siem Reap where we saw a lot of temples. Both experiences were amazing, but the one that’s really going to stay with me for the longest time is meeting the elephants, and this is why:
There’s no doubt that the initial attraction of riding an elephant has an immediate appeal, especially to western tourists. To me it evokes the olden days (dare I say the pretty side of colonialism?!) with the brightly coloured trappings, the elegant looking baskets, the gentle sway of the elephant’s pace as it transports you from place to place, high above everyone else….. However, when you look closer at the elephant; if you look at it properly as a fellow living creature, not merely as a means of transport, then you realise that there’s only one species that is enjoying this spectacle.
In India, ten or so years ago, I saw elephants with chains on their ankles, trudging up and down the hills to the fort I was visiting, with groups of tourists on their back. I’d thought before I got there that I’d love to ride an elephant up the hill, for that full indian royalty experience, but then I saw them and it was truely heartbreaking; these magnificent creatures, spirits broken and reduced to little more than a slow taxi service. Elephants are not domesticated animals like cows or sheep, they are not bred for purpose, they are captured from the wild as babies, taken from their mothers and families and forced into, what is essentially, slavery. They are not dumb animals; their natural way of life is family based and they form strong bonds within a group, they demonstrate prolonged grief when one dies and share the responsibility of caring for their young; they deserve to be treated with respect and empathy.
Visiting the EVP was, for me, a very moving experience, I’d done some research on what they do there: the attention grabbing and deeply appealing bit for me was getting to wash the elephants. The idea of getting to actually interact with them, splash about and get muddy while doing something to help them sold me on the idea immediately. It wasn’t until I got there though and started to meet them as individuals and hear their stories from Jemma and Jack that I realised quite how amazing the EVP is. The elephants at EVP each have a story, most of which are heartbreaking to hear: Overworked, dehydrated, malnourished and abused; abscesses, snakebites, infections and injuries that would otherwise go untreated. These are all too common reasons for these elephants being there. There are happier stories too though, owners who have become too old to care for their elephant properly, or who have realised that that their elephant needs time to rest and recuperate have brought them there. Almost all of the elephants still bear the scars of their former lives though: Sunken rib cages, blinded eyes, broken tusks, scar tissue evidencing horrific wounds, and then there are the mental scars too, so many of the elephants arrived at the EVP scared, nervous, shy and desperately in need of tender loving care from both their mahouts and the other people at EVP, and from each other. An elephant flaps its ears when it’s happy, and it was a joy to see them so obviously enjoying being washed and scrubbed and then diving into the forest to scoff bamboo and banana trees and throw mud and dirt over themselves again.
Some were more outgoing than others; one elephant in particular, Onion, was feeling particularly down and in need of love: She had come to the EVP in 2010; having been difficult to control for a while, her then owners took extreme measures and cut a hole in her forehead which they then kept open and dug hooks into it each day to force her to do their will. After a few weeks of this she snapped mentally and they realised there was nothing they could do to make her work any more. She was brought to the EVP, broken in so many ways, and they started her on the long road to recovery. Unusually for an elephant, who generally form matriarchal groups and leave the males to wander alone, she formed a strong bond of friendship with a male elephant called Bob. They had a lot in common, having both been massively overworked in the logging industry and both having been deeply traumatised by their experiences, together they mooched around the forest and were doing well. Devastatingly, the week before we visited, Bob died. It was sudden and unexpected and shook the entire community deeply. The Bunong villagers came out en-masse and helped with his burial and performed a week of ceremonies to help his spirit pass from this world to the next, but out of everyone, Onion was the most deeply affected. She’d just lost her best friend and constant companion, and was looking for him and missing him deeply. The day after we arrived at the project, about a week after Bob had passed away, it was decided to give her a change of scenery and move her and the other three elephants from the valley they had shared with Bob for the last two years to the grassy hilltop. Moving the elephants around also gives them a change in diet and new things to learn about. We walked down the slopes of Heaven (the valley is named so because they have planted extensive amounts of extra bamboo, making it a kind of elephant all you can eat buffet) and met the elephants at the river where they had a wash and a splash. Their mahouts then directed them up the hill. This was obviously exciting for the other three elephants, who plowed up the hill, happily snacking on bamboo as they went. Onion though wanted to hang back, she was reluctant to leave the place that she so strongly associated with Bob, but also didn’t want to be left behind by the others; she came up the hill slowly, unsure and uncertain. That afternoon their mahouts brought them to the elephant washing station at Base Camp. (The elephants in the other two valleys go down to the river to wash, but when they are on top of the hill there is no easy to reach bathing area, so the EVP has a purpose built elephant washing area, fed by streams and with a trough they can drink from, this is where the volunteers get the full on soaking wet experience of elephant washing: hurling buckets of water over the elephants and scrubbing the mud off with brushes and hoses) This was a new experience for the elephants who had been brought up the hill that morning and while the other three were quite content to receive the superstar treatment of being washed with no effort from themselves, Onion stayed only briefly before deciding she had had enough. The next afternoon they were brought down to the washing station again, this time Onion stayed much longer, she seemed much more relaxed and chilled out, and also she was quite definitely intrigued by the scent of another male elephant who had been there about half an hour before! After washing we wandered up the hill and met up with her and the others, the other three stayed at the edge of the trees, pulling up grass and mud and happily throwing it over themselves. Onion though, almost gambolled into the open grassy area, and came right up to us, ears flapping and looking much happier than she had done the day before. It’s going to take her a long time to get over losing Bob, but I felt that we saw her make a big step in the right direction that day, she’s starting to spend more time with the other female elephants and make friends with them, and I hope to hear that she continues on this track in the future.
It’s not just the elephants that EVP looks after though, these elephants will never be able to go back to the wild, and while they spend their days learning how to behave as wild elephants do again, they need a mahout to look after them too. Traditionally, in the Mondulkiri region, the indigenous Bunong people have always used elephants as part of their way of life, and the EVP is working to help them maintain that relationship. When an elephant is brought to the EVP the owner continues to own it, and the EVP pays them a rental fee, the owner therefore does not lose the income they would make from working the elephant and has a reason to let them stay there. In addition, the EVP pays a salary to the mahout who looks after the elephant, this is very often a member of the family that owns the elephant, or they pay one of the local villagers to become a mahout if the owner does not or cannot look after it themselves. In instances where the owner does not want the elephant at all, the EVP raises funds to buy the elephant from the owner and then signs it over to a member of the local village who is then paid a salary to be the elephants mahout. In addition to this, the EVP supports the Bunong people with a healthcare program (while I was there there were 5 people from the villages in the local hospital, where everything, including the bed, medicine and food has to be paid for by the family, which they cannot possibly afford, so the EVP helps); they provide funding for education at all levels and help for the young people of the Bunong to find employment; they are assisting with funding and advice in the long process of land titling (Despite the Bunong people having lived in this area for thousands of years, they have no piece of paper that says that the land is theirs and therefore, officially, it belongs to the government. The land titling process involves mapping the area thoroughly using GPS and then submitting an application to the government to be granted the title deed to it, which given their love of bureaucracy and paperwork is a long and costly process! It is possible though and there have already been a few other places in Cambodia where this has been achieved); And, they are working closely with the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) to protect the remaining forest in this area. This involves paying for full time rangers to patrol the perimeters of the protected area, to stop illegal logging and poaching and ensure that the wild elephant population has enough forest to live and grow in.
All of these projects together make the EVP a realistic and sustainable long term project, but it takes a lot of money to keep them going, which is where we, the paying tourists, come in. The local town Sen Monorom, (which is populated mainly by Khmer, not the locally indigenous Bunong) is sadly suspicious of the EVP and believes that they are secretly lining their pockets and killing tourism in the area because they actively discourage riding elephants. What they seem to fail to realise is that without tourists, the project would go under. On our way to the EVP we stopped off at the ELIE office in town, a rented house which is also where Jack, the managing director, lives, it’s a tiny house up a dirt track, certainly not the home of someone who’s raking it in. And after we had left the project on Friday evening, and were having a few beers with the volunteers and managers, Jemma (the assistant manager) was celebrating having finally got hot running water after renting her place for two and half years! When Jack was still getting the project off the ground, and visitors and donations were too few to make the budget, he would go back to the UK and work on his fathers farm, driving combine harvesters for 16 hours a day, just to make enough money to keep the project going. These are not the lifestyles and actions of people who are making a profit, these are the lives and actions of people who care deeply, not just about the elephants, but the people of the Bunong, and Cambodia, and the habitat that links them all. Without the forest, both the captive and the wild elephant population will die out.
Whether or not the Government gives permission for the Bunong people to capture new wild elephants in the future to continue their traditional way of life is a contentious point (it is now illegal to do so), and one that will have to be addressed at some point. The EVP is deeply against this, but the Bunong people hold a deep seated religious belief that it is wrong to breed elephants in captivity (they are animalist in their beliefs, and believe that there are 5 forest spirits that come together to create a new elephant; if one is born in captivity they hold ceremonies and sacrifice livestock to appease the forest spirits). Meanwhile there are many elephants that are already working in Cambodia, (and Thailand) that would benefit from the EVP or a similar project. While I disagree strongly with taking elephants from the wild, I also feel it would be a shame to allow the Bunong traditional way of life to die out completely. In their traditional way of life, elephants are treated as part of the family, they work for a few hours a day and are then taken into the forest to eat, wash and rest. The commercial pressures of the modern world have forced many elephant owners into working them all day, pulling logs or carrying tourists, which is not how elephants were originally used and the elephants at the EVP with their sunken rib cages and scars both physical and mental, are testament to why it should not be allowed. If the EVP can continue it’s good work, the working elephants in the area will have access to medical care, a place to rest and recover from illness and somewhere to retire to when they can work no more. If they are given enough support they will be able to rescue abused elephants from further afield and the traditions of the Bunong people will be able to continue without either side having to renegade on their deep seated beliefs. And with further education and awareness of how fragile a balance it is between man and nature, I believe the Cambodian people will come to see how important it is that they retain what remains of their forests and wildlife and realise that the best tourism option is when we get to visit their country, and leave happy knowing we have helped make someone’s life a little bit better, be it elephant or human, or preferably both.
Please visit the EVP website to learn more about the work they are doing and the elephants who live there: www.elephantvalleyproject.org
If you would like to donate to the EVP you can do so here: uk.virginmoneygiving.com/elephantvalleyproject