As we journeyed ten hours northwest of Phnom Penh, things were looking generally much brighter. While this could be because we had exhausted the reach of the smog cloud, I couldn’t help but feel that each mile further from the hustle and bustle of the city was a million miles closer to where I wanted to be. We arrived in Sen Monorom, Mondol Kiri Provence, late in the afternoon and spent a very pleasant (but chilly) night at the Tree Lodge. At 6:30am the next morning, we packed up our stuff and headed towards the Green House Bar to meet our transport to the Elephant Valley Project. We must have looked pretty out of place because a passing ‘local’ Englishwoman saw us, decided we must be lost and offered us a lift in her car. With one minute to spare, we arrived at the the back of the waiting pickup and sped out of town. A very dusty, bumpy ride later and we were dropped in the middle of the jungle. Gemma introduced us to the project, our guides, and after a little paperwork we headed into Heaven Valley.
We carried banana trees for the elephants which made the trek a little more challenging. It did, however, remind me how tough Rich and I have become from our farming. Everyone else saw that we had to carry trees and thought it was a joke. Rich and I just picked up one each and got on with it. After moving railway line in the Australian heat, what’s a little bit of banana tree?!
Just after the river crossing, I caught my first glimpse of an elephant. I gasped. She wasn’t as big as I had expected but she was beautiful and so close! We entered the valley and watched as the elephants walked, one after another, into the river for a wash. As these three elephants have been rescued from lives of abuse they needed a bit of a helping hand with washing themselves as they just didn’t know how.
The twelve elephants at The Elephant Valley Project all have unique stories and are all there under different circumstances. In Mondol Kiri Provence there are over 50 elephants in captivity. Many of these have been taken from the forest when they were young. It is my understanding that in the Bunong culture, the elephant is believed to have a spirit similar to that of a human and is considered sacred. This being said, the needs of captive elephants such as a sufficient amount of food, water and rest are often ignored. In addition, these elephants are frequently abused and overworked, sometimes to the point of death. When one dies, this increases the work load on the others and it becomes a vicious cycle. The Elephant Valley Project aims to rehabilitate these elephants and provide a safe, natural environment for these animals to live out the rest of their days.
This is a tricky situation for a number of reasons. Firstly, the project cannot just ‘take’ an elephant from a Bunong family, even if it is being abused or overworked. Cambodia doesn’t have animal protection laws in the same way that we do in the UK. In addition, depriving a Bunong family of their elephant is the same as depriving them of their livelihood and sometimes, a member of their family. For this reason, The Elephant Valley Project ‘rents’ some of their elephants from the owners. This way, the elephant gets relieved of it’s duties and can come and live at the sanctuary full-time. In exchange, it’s original owners receive a supplementary income equal or above that earned by their elephant and the elephant may return to participate in ceremonies and weddings under the supervision of The Elephant Valley Project. If the original owner cares for their elephant, they are often employed as a mahout by The Elephant Valley Project and are fully trained in recognising their elephants needs and caring for their elephant without the use of force or weapons. Sometimes the owners just opt to sell their elephant to the project and have nothing more to do with them.
Ruby’s ear was torn to shreds and another of the elephants is blind in one eye due to an injury from her previous owner. These three are new to the project so were pretty reserved but it didn’t stop them from coming to say ‘hello’!
Now that’s what you call an ear trumpet!
After an excellent morning with the eles and an equally excellent lunch, we got our hands dirty with some volunteering! Don’t forget to visit again tomorrow to find out how we we got on!… and many more elephant pics of course.
Find out more about the project here: The Elephant Valley Project