The Elephant Valley Project
As you may know from my previous post I went backpacking through Asia with my housemate for two months. As we were researching for our travels, we both agreed that there was one specific experience we both wanted to share: volunteering at an elephant sanctuary.
While researching different sanctuaries we were both in agreement that there were certain programs we did not wish to be part of. Having been to Thailand before, I was well aware of the mistreatment some elephants experience, especially those that are used as transportation through cities and temple grounds. So with a list of criteria at hand we went looking for sanctuaries in Cambodia and Thailand. Eventually, we stumbled across the Elephant Valley Project.
Established in 2006, Elephant Valley Project (EVP) was established to create a sanctuary for captive elephants while providing a province-wide social support projects for the Bunong people. Based in Mondulkiri, Cambodia, the sanctuary covers 300,000 hectars of protected forest and is home to 10 elephants as well as supporting over 2,000 locals.
The organization makes its money from donations and volunteers, however the volunteering program is not only focused on the elephants. As a volunteer, you also help out in the community and the sanctuary, and thereby learn about the entire project while getting to know the locals who work there. This allows you to have a well-rounded experience, in which you learn a lot about Bunong culture and the threats they face in their communities.
EVP is home to 10 rescued elephants, but its sanctuary covers so much space that it is also conserving the natural habitat of wild elephants in Mondulkiri. You can meet the elephants here.
Because the elephants have spent their entire lives working with humans, they are unable to live completely isolated in the wild. To make sure they can live in their natural habitat and slowly learn natural behavior, they are guided through the forest with their mahout.
What is a mahout?
A mahout is someone who has been trained to speak to elephants in a language they understand. To me it just sounded like grunting noises, but with these commands the mahouts are able to guide their elephants through the forest, making sure they don't accidentally run into the wild elephants.
The relationship between an elephant and their mahout is one of the most beautiful relationships I have ever seen. The trust, love and care these elephants have for their mahouts reflects on how happy they live at the sanctuary. Often, the elephants that arrive don't know what natural food they can eat. Sambo, an elephant rescued from riding tourists at Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh, had a diet of burgers and chips before she came to the sanctuary. Through her mahout she learned what she could and couldn't eat, and thereby learnt to listen to her natural instincts.
Being a Volunteer
Working as a volunteer at EVP was an incredible experience. Our days were structured with working hard in the mornings to help the sanctuary and its surrounding environment, and in the afternoons we would hike through the jungle to watch the elephants eat, be washed, tear out trees and enjoy themselves immensely. It's worth mentioning that all meals are included in the program, and the cooks outdid themselves every day. Everything was sourced locally, there were vegetarian and vegan options, and it was so delicious I always helped myself to seconds!
Being able to participate in a project and physically see what an immense impact this organization has was very rewarding. Getting to know the Bunong people, who were all so friendly and keen on sharing their culture and knowledge, was the cherry on top of an amazing experience.
I'd like to give a special shout out to our guide Tuin, who not only knew everything about elephants and EVP, but also loved hearing about our travels and always wanted to learn more about the world.
The Elephant Valley Project has shown me that there are sustainable alternatives when it comes to the tourism industry, and I am inspired to look for more projects like this one in my future travels.
P.S. If you want to help out or adopt an elephant, click here.