Mondulkiri – Big Hearts in the Jungle

View from the lounge at Elephant Valley Project

We knew that in our trip to Southeast Asia we needed to see the elephants, but that when we did, we wanted to do it in the most ethical and humane way possible. Saddling up and riding elephants is damaging to an elephant’s spine, not to mention the stress on the animal. Plenty of other operations offered all sorts of up close and personal interactions with elephants, but often at the expense of the animal. For the last year Mandy had her eye on the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia which offered more than just a full or half day excursion. It allowed for as many as 2 weeks (or more I am sure) of volunteering where you could get your hands dirty helping the project. In the end we settled on EVP for a week long adventure. We went expecting an ethical operation humanely handling elephants, which is the core of the mission, but in our 5 days we learned more about the long-term goals and challenges of the project. One thing is sure, every member of the team has a key role to play and a heart as big as the elephants they protect.

EVP provides a place for elephants to come and retire from a lifetime of work. Some elephants are as old as 68, one as young as 28. These 9 ladies, and one old man, have lived hard lives logging, giving rides to tourists, or in the case of the most famous elephant in Cambodia, Sambo, living their entire life on concrete for the benefit of city tourists. The result of this life is poor Sambo had an abscess on her foot that an entire fist could be inserted into. All the best treatment is provided for her including Epson salt baths, scraping away millimeters at a time from the abscess, and medicine balls of turmeric and tamarind to help with inflammation. There has been great progress, but 5 years later the abscess remains, albeit significantly shrunken from the time Sambo arrived. The elephants are separated into groups of who get along best and spread across the 150,000-hectare land rented by the project from the surrounding local villages. In all cases the elephants we met were healthy, happy, and incredibly well cared for.

Sambo soaking that poor foot of her’s

One message that continues to resonate with me the longer I am away from home is how much our world is hurting. The sheer volume of plastic in the oceans or on the side of the road in Southeast Asia boggles the mind. We have tried to do our part picking up bags of trash at a time, but for every piece we pick up I watch hundreds more littered right in front of my eyes. Not only that, but the familiar haze that hit our Pacific Northwest last summer due to wildfires, blankets Southeast Asia as well. Countries in poverty simply do not have the luxury of caring about the environment. They are utilizing their available resources to survive in the modern economies of the first world. Cambodia is no different. Nearly 75% of the forests have been clear cut by logging operations. Some of the trees that reside in the 150,000-hectare land title that EVP shares with the local Bunong people, are near extinction.

One of the volunteer projects that we assisted with was shoring up a raised bed that will eventually be a nursery for these endangered trees. The project hopes to grow as many as 2,000 of these trees to re-populate the species in the area. This kind of conservation effort is key to preserving the forests that are the natural habitat for elephants in Cambodia. But most importantly, partnering with the local village and employing 43 local people at the project, a clear path out of the destructive cycle that has gobbled up so many villages in Cambodia is illuminated. In addition to employment, EVP offers the village free medical evacuation to Phnom Penh in the event of injury. If an owner of an elephant in captivity in Cambodia wishes the elephant to have a place to retire instead of work, EVP will buy, or pay the family a rental fee, for the elephant so they do not lose money on their investment. They knew early on the best way to protect the elephants was to protect and invest in the local people. Only by having the local people on board with the project was EVP able to negotiate the land title for the sanctuary we visited.

One of our guides, a resident from a local Bunong village.

Cambodia is much like the Wild West, sometimes referred to as the Wild East. Despite the land title, every year more and more of the forest shrinks. A group of 24 rangers are charged with the near impossible task of patrolling the land in hopes of protecting it from poachers, loggers, and development. We learned that these rangers are often shot at, and in some cases killed, when they find illegal activity in the forest. They try to confiscate chainsaws, snares, and equipment, but there is no authority to truly stop them if the poachers/loggers decide they don’t want to give anything up.

The government and police in Cambodia are bloated with corruption. One small example is a new village that sprung up on protected land. In a short month the forest was cleared, and a fishing village was built. Some 1,000 people now live on this land. One of the residents is a government official for Cambodia specifically charged with the protection of the environment, fish, and wildlife. He owns several fisheries. This is land that will not be taken back. And if it was, at what cost? The 1,000 people who now live there are raising families and are doing what they can to survive with the tools at hand. Who are we to tell them that what they have done is wrong when they are working hard to provide for their families? This grey area is often where the project must operate, creating unique challenges that have no clear cut, black and white answer.

I have great respect for every member of the project, and we are so glad we got to meet the people responsible for the care taking of these magnificent creatures. Our world is hurting and there is not one answer that will solve the problem of this runaway train we are all on. We are hurtling towards environmental disaster seeing major impact of climate change in 20 years. The only solution is thinking outside of the box like those at EVP. What can you do in your local community to develop positive environmental change? My thoughts are consumed with a whole myriad of ways, some more fantastical than reality, but I know this is the direction I want to take when I return from travelling in both my personal and professional life.

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