We had a quick breakfast and were picked up at 7:30 for the ride out to Elephant Valley Project, a few kilometres outside Sen Monorom. A quick orientation and we were off into the forest. As a group of about eight visitors, accompanied by a Western and a local Bunong guide, walked towards where one group of five elephants were about to take their morning bath, we learned a little about the project.
For the most part, elephants taken from the wild to work in logging or tourism have a tough life. They are often abused by their owners, either deliberately or by the (understandable enough) need for the owner, or group of owners, to earn a living and support a family. And, essentially, elephants are not designed to be beasts of burden; they haven’t been selectively bred in captivlty to have strong backs as domestic horses have been. All working elephants (in the local area of Cambodia at any rate – I don’t know about other regions) have been captured as youngsters in the wild and their backs are only designed to carry about 10% of their body weight (300 kg for a 3000 kg elephant). For this reason, the Elephant Valley Project decided some time ago to stop offering elephant rides and now guests at the project walk amongst the elephants rather than ride on top of them; a typical poorly fitted frame and the people inside are just too heavy. (So, I should have taken an elephant ride whilst I still could, while I was still ignorant of the effects ;)
Elephants need to eat about eighteen hours per day so most working elephants are malnourished. It is the tourist elephants, surprisingly, who suffer more than those working in logging as far as eating is concerned since those giving tourist rides tend to follow the same path repeatedly whereas logging elephants are usually working in different areas of the forest.
Working in logging is pretty brutal, though. One of the project’s elephants, with a history of hauling logs, show evidence of several breaks to her tail caused by a log slamming into the back of the elephant when hauling downhill.
The project seeks to rehabilitate elephants by renting them from their owners or, where possible, purchasing – ‘rescuing’ – them. The rent is to compensate the owner for loss of income and to provide an incentive to part with the animal temporarily – although periods of rental can be quite long and may stretch into several years. At the moment, the project is home to ten elephants with six in one valley (one male and five females, although one was sick and not roaming through the forest) and four females in another valley (one was back at her owner’s village to take part in some festivals).
Each elephant has a mahout with them throughout the day (except for Bob, the unpredictable male, who has two), either walking with them or sitting astride them. But they can wander more or less at will and do what elephants are supposed to do – bathe, cover themselves with dirt again, eat.
At night, the mahouts get to go home and the elephants are kept on long chains, free enough for them to eat but not to wander out of the project and destroy nearby villagers’ farms and buildings. Had my bath, now it’s time to get dirty again!It has been illegal to trap elephants in the wild in Cambodia for some time now so it is possible that when all the elephants currently working have died, there may only be elephants in the wild. If there is sufficient habitat for them. Importantly, the skill of catching baby elephants is also dying out, with only one person (locally, I presume) left with this knowledge.
Local medicine: a hole is cut in this tree to collect oil. This is then boiled with bark to produce an antiseptic and anti-fungal treatment that has been tested by ‘modern’ scientists and found to be effective.
Typically, visitors spend half a day ($30) with the elephants and half a day volunteering around the camp. After lunch, we spent the afternoon digging fencepost holes and building a goat shed. One of the project employees, a local Bunong carpenter, seemed a little bemused by the sight of all these prosperous Westerners (who could afford to spend so much to watch elephants) doing manual labour, getting very dirty and sweaty in the process.
I’m a little bemused myself. Would it have been more useful to spend a little more for our elephant viewing and using those extra funds to employ a local villager? Who would be much more productive than us unskilled volunteers.
We spent the night at the project in the forest, fifty metres or so away from the next bungalow, alone with all the forest noises. It was a very peaceful place to be. And very comfortable, despite its rather rustic exterior.
Under Pol Pot’s brutal regime, land ownership was abolished in Cambodia and many people are struggling to get title to their properties now. Vast areas of the forest are being grabbed by speculators who clear the forest and plant rubber or cashew trees, exploiting a legal loophole that allows any squatter to remain until his crop is harvested – many years in the case of new plantings. The wild elephant habitat is under serious assault.
The local Bunong have no title to the land they have occupied for a thousand years and the Elephant Valley Project is helping them negotiate with the government for title to their ancestral lands, and is contributing financially. Without this help, the local three villages would be under a real threat of losing their land to those who want to clear the forest for other purposes. Maybe they are still.
The Elephant Valley Project (voluntarily) pays rent to the nearby villages for the land that their project uses. The rent is paid in rice.