Elephant Conservation in Mondulkiri

On my last day in Mondulkiri Province I visited the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), 12km outside Sen Monorom. There are many elephant experiences that you can choose to do in the area, however, I chose this particular organisation because it seemed like the most ethical to me. Their main goal is to give captive elephants a life free from captivity, cruelty, and hard work, and to live like they would in their natural habitat. As such, at EVP you cannot ride, feed, touch, swim or wash the elephants, but you do get to walk with them through the forest and observe their natural behaviours. I was picked up in town, along with about 10 other elephant lovers, and taken to the sanctuary to start this awesome adventure.

You can choose from a variety of options from a half day, to several days, weeks and even months if you have the time to volunteer here. I chose to spend the morning with the elephants and to do a jungle trek in the afternoon. Other options are to spend the afternoon with the elephants again, or to volunteer and help around the sanctuary. The volunteer program allows you to stay at the sanctuary for as long as you like, but of course there are costs involved for accomodation and meals. After arriving at the sanctuary we were given a briefing on EVP and the activities involved in the day’s experience before heading down a steep slope into the valley below.

We were taken down a steep track where we were to meet Darling and Doe, two female elephants, who are 60 years old and early 40’s respectively. They were both retired here by their ageing owner and will hopefully see out the rest of their days living a peaceful elephant existence. Most of the elephants come from the local Bunong people who are given a monthly sum of money to forfeit them into a life free of work, to live a relatively wild existence. The land that EVP is situated on is owned by 76 indigenous Bunong families and they all receive around 30 kg of rice each month, in compensation for using the land for the elephant sanctuary.

There are currently ten elephants here at EVP and we were to meet two of then that morning. Darling and Doe finally made an appearance, crossing the river in front of us, ready to take their daily bath. But they both had other ideas, and came up close to where we were all standing, on a bridge, to eat the fresh young bamboo growing all around us. The mahouts finally convinced them to return to the river for a quick scrub before they were allowed to roam free and do as they please.

After a refreshing bath they both had a good scratch on a tree near the river and then set off in search of thier favourite food, bamboo. Our guides kept us on the move so as to be close enough to see Darling and Doe, but also to be out of their way. Both the elephants have been at EVP several times in the past and currently have lived there for a year. As such they are considered to be semi wild now and can be unpredictable, which is why the guides required us to keep some distance from them. We followed them up a steep part of the hill, before they retreated back down again and started to head towards another part of the river.

I was up the front with Ian, our local Bunong guide, as we traced the elephants down towards the river through a thicket of bamboo. All of a sudden Ian stopped the group, as several metres in front of us was a wasp’s nest that the elephants must have knocked down as they bulldozed their way through the dense forest. I wasn’t the least bit worried, until he yelled “RUN”, and I saw the nest of wasps coming for us like tiny drones attacking an enemy. We all ran and I ducked and waved my hands frantically trying to keep them away from hey head, which worked, but one of them stung my left ring finger.

That was the first time I had ever been stung by a wasp and the pain was quite intense. The gave me some cortisone cream and then at lunch some antihistamine and I took some ibuprofen as well. The next day my hand was quite swollen and you couldn’t see my knuckles, but after about a week it was mostly back to normal. Anyway we went around the other side of the river and found the elephants again. But with all the commotion it was nearly time to say goodbye to these majestic creatures and head to the base camp for lunch.

They served up a really delicious lunch that you just help yourself to, buffet style, and then we had time to take a break before the afternoon’s activities. I had chosen the jungle trek to a waterfall, along with a young couple from Belgium. Our guide told us it was 3km, although I think he must have meant one way. Anyway, it was going to be easy after my 12km trek the day before. Like all treks in mountainous Mondulkiri there’s a lot of steep inclines and declines, but this one was wasn’t as intense as other days and the scenery was , as always, stunning.

We trekked through the forest for some time and came across a clearing with a small farm, growing rice. It was the traditional Bunong rice, grown in a regular feild, and relying only on rainfall. You could see it was beginning to dry out, as it’s the end of the rainy season here, and would soon be ready for harvesting. This kind of rice isn’t cut, instead they collect the grains by pulling along the stalk and putting the rice into baskets.

Not long after, we came across a river and it was time to remove our shoes and edge across the fast flowing water. Luckily it wasn’t that deep, and Mother Nature had provided a flat bed of rocks which made it easy to traverse to the other side. The water was delightfully cool and refreshing on my feet after the hot trek through the forest.

A little further down the river was the first drop of a 2-tiered waterfall, which was flowing well now, but after the dry season it is apparently a little disappointing. It was a welcome relief to rest here for a bit as the flow of the water and the mist provided a natural air conditioning. But there was more to see a little further downstream and we returned to the overgrown track and headed for the second tier of the falls.

The lush surroundings and the flow of the water was so relaxing and picturesque. I could have stayed for hours here but we had to head back to the EVP base camp to meet up with the others who had been doing various things with their afternoon. We crossed several wooden bridges on the way back and our guide showed us a tree where the local Bunong collect a type of resin that is used to make fire torches and also for waterproofing of boats. The final leg of the trek took us back up a steep climb to the camp and further on to the front gate where the van picked us up to take us back into town.

Arriving back in Sen Monorom there was some commotion around the paved communal area in the centre of town. A sculpture of an elephant had arrived as part of a public awareness campaign on the habitat loss of elephants in Mondulkiri, due to logging. The amazing life-size sculpture has been made of some 300 chainsaws and motorbike parts that have been confiscated from illegal loggers. The major threat to Cambodian elephants is habitat loss and this sculpture will hopefully spread its very important message.

Also, organisations like the Elephant Valley Project, are doing great work in conservation and eco tourism, paving the way for others to follow in their example. It really had been a wonderful day at the sanctuary and to top it off I got to see this awesome sculpture before I left town early the next morning.

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