Walking with Elephants in Cambodia

The Asian Elephant. An animal seen by its owners as a symbol of spirituality and at the same time – a worker and means to carry logs and humans to this very day. Because people OWN elephants here. They’re an asset. A way to improve income. But some owners care so much that they allow their elephant to ‘go on holiday’ for a short break. Or sometimes even forever.

The holiday destination I’m referring to is the Elephant Valley Project, based in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. In December 2016 I had the experience of a lifetime here, home to 11 elephants living in the forest. You need to make the effort to get there being 390km from Phnom Penh, but I promise it’s worth it.

Think trekking in the jungle, getting as close as 5 metres away depending on how curious the elephants get, seeing them bathe, eat, communicate, scratch themselves, flick mud onto their backs and even the occasional fart. Watch them yourself in my Vlog. They’re at home – in the wild. They’ll never truly be wild animals again having been ‘broken’ in their time working for humans, but this is the next best thing.

In my brief encounter at the Project for 1 day, I had the opportunity to observe 6 elephants, all female and aged between 25 and 66 years old. They had pink skin from scarring, particularly on their ears. And there’s something about water for Ruby. While the other elephants seemed to enjoy their bath, Ruby was tensed up in the corner as our guide explained she is the last one in the bath and the first out. But they seem happy here. They get to just – be – elephants. Sadly some will return to working life but at the very least they’ve had a break.

Despite their scars, 3 of them having the end of their tails cut off (most likely for elephant hair Buddhism bracelets) and changes to their bones and posture from years of work, you can still see the spirit in their eyes. Actually the Bunong people that live there in the forest believe in ‘animism’. Animism is the belief that all things have a spirit or soul, including animals and nature. I think I may have found a religion I truly believe in.

The Elephant Valley Project is a rare opportunity to get close to the elephants without jeopardising their safety and welfare. It’s not something I would recommend with REAL wild elephants. While the elephants are in the jungle, they are essentially still in captivity. Especially as some of them still have owners. And the owners visit from time to time. Our guide explained that on one occasion an owner fell ill and thought it may have been because of something to do with their elephant, hence the need to visit and check.

 

So, each elephant has a ‘carer’ called a mahout. The elephant and their mahout have a close, trusting relationship and you can see the respect the mahouts have for ‘their elephant’. The mahouts carry a knife and I wondered what this was for until one of them climbed a steep incline to reach and cut down a banana tree for ‘the girls’. Doe and Darling. So many bananas! But the bananas were green so I watched them float downstream as the elephants munched on the banana tree leaves and trunk instead. This was AFTER feasting on other banana trees we personally carried to them from the Project base. And they sure can sniff them out! Apparently they can smell banana trees up to 1 kilometre away!

And remember what I said about Ruby? Well if her mahout didn’t bathe her, she might never have a bath. This is a really important part of their daily routine for healthy skin. Actually, the 6 elephants we observed had different bathing routines. Three enjoyed a bath given by their mahout with scrubbing brushes and buckets of water, one (Ruby) allowed her mahout to give her a bath though clearly did not enjoy it and two (Doe and Darling) gave themselves a bath by rubbing themselves up against the banks of the river, submersing themselves under the water and spraying water up and over their backs. The mahouts therefore have to adapt to their elephant.

Not only does this NGO (non-Government organisation) care for the elephants in this sanctuary of sorts, their aim is also to conserve the natural habitat and support the local people who work with the elephants. Shifting the culture and practicalities of using elephants as working animals is and will continue to be a long and complex process. Personally seeing these beautiful creatures, learning their story and looking them in the eyes will stay with me forever. Especially as they become more endangered. Did you know elephants are pregnant for 22 months? Maintaining numbers during this process is a challenge on its own. So… I challenge YOU to visit. Whether for 1 day, overnight or as a volunteer for a few months like the English girl I met there during our visit. Alternatively you can help spread the word or even donate. Thanks to the added complexity of elephant poaching for ivory, the alternative is the next generation – our children – learning about elephants as an extinct animal.

To find out more about the Elephant Valley Project you can check out their website: http://www.elephantvalleyproject.org

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