In addition to eating the meat of “animal killed in forest,” the best part of Mondulkiri has been spending two days with the Elephant Valley Project.
The Elephant Valley Project (EVP) is an ecotourism project run by the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE) which is dedicated to improving the health and welfare of the local domestic elephant population and providing support for the local Bunong community.
Some background: The ELIE was started in 2005 and was mainly dedicated to providing medical care to the 53 or so domestic elephants in Mondulkiri kept by Bunong communities. The organization traveled to the elephants to provide care, which worked out alright until various situations – things like poor road conditions and the Bunong suspicion of modern medicine – made it clear that a new model was needed. This is when the EVP was developed. Rather than travel to each elephant, the EVP created an opportunity for Bunong families to send their elephants (along with their mahouts, or caregivers) for short or long term stays.
Elephants typically bring in a hefty income for their families, but the care they receive can be seriously lacking. They’re often malnourished, sick or just too old to work, but are forced to continue working to ensure the income. The EVP has successfully brought elephants out of things like hunting and tourism (logging was also a problem, but is now outlawed in Cambodia) and into their protected area, while also employing their mahouts and families. This gives the elephants the chance to rest and get strong and also provides education on safer treatment of elephants for the Bunong owners.
But, no good Cambodian story is complete without some added drama.
The added drama: About a year ago, three local guesthouses teamed up with a few tour operators in town and accused the Elephant Valley Project of hurting their tourism business. They accused The Project of promoting a western tourism company (it’s actually an NGO) that took money away from the local communities as tourists stopped visiting them and started giving their tourism dollars to the EVP. Upon first hearing this from a guesthouse owner, it sounds legitimate. My guesthouse actually has an entire printed sheet in their menu about the flaws of the EVP and why it’s hurting the community. It’s compelling when you hear without understanding the full background. Those against the EVP created a petition, took it to the Cambodian government and apparently there was some sort of official meeting between the EVP, those against them, the Bunong community benefiting from the project and the forestry department. Luckily, it became clear that the Bunong people were pleased with the situation – they were benefiting hugely from the work of the EVP and had nothing to complain about.
The guesthouses and tourism operators lose money when they can’t send tourists to ride on the backs of elephants that are overworked and they hate this. This is the background of their argument.
Sounds like this issue is fizzling out, but it’s been interesting to hear the opinions of both sides. I spent an hour last night arguing with Mot, the owner of the Happy Elephant Bungalows where I am staying, about his perception of what the EVP is doing and then spent some time talking with the management of the project. It’s clear that what they’re doing is great.
In fact, it extends far beyond just elephants. They’ve come to know and love the community with which they’re involved and often advocate for them (they were able to get official ownership over the land on which they operate which means the Bunong homes here are also protected) and make sure they have access to the healthcare they need and deserve.
My Time with the EVP: There are a number of ways to spend time with the EVP in the jungle, ranging from a one day trip to multi-week opportunities that include volunteering. I originally planned to spend a day, which included a morning and afternoon romp through the jungle seeing the elephants currently being cared for by the EVP. But, after arriving I changed the plan to two full days – half with elephants and half volunteering.
At the EVP you won’t be riding around on elephants. Instead, a trained guide leads your small group out into the jungle where you encounter elephants with their mahouts and can watch them as they do whatever it is they’re doing at that moment. Mostly, eating. I’ve learned that the main activity of an elephant is eating and that’s primarily what we watched them do. They also spend time scratching their bodies against trees, which I’m considering trying for my mosquito bites. My second day included elephants tromping around in a river, which was my favorite part of everything.
My overall thoughts: At $70 a day for a full day of elephant goodness, it’s the most expensive thing I’ve done while in Cambodia. But, the $80 two-day option is a pretty great deal I think. For that price you start with a morning of hiking to see elephants, a really great lunch and free water refills, hammock time and then an afternoon of lots of sweating. There’s no set schedule for what you’ll be doing – it’s pretty much whatever needs doing that day. The second day starts off with some more work, followed my more lunch and water refills and an afternoon with a more laborious hike out to see more elephants.
Transportation is (mostly) included. They pick up at the Green House Bar and Restaurant in town, so if you’re not staying there you’ll just need to get yourself there in the morning. I stayed outside of the main strip and had no problem walking there and back each day.
You won’t be able to book a visit to the EVP at all guesthouses. Check out their website to contact them directly (I did and got a response the very next day) or go to the Green House Bar and Restaurant to talk to “Sam” who can book you in. Note that as of April 2014 the website is a bit incorrect. Related to some of the issues they’ve been having the grumpy people mentioned above, they aren’t able to provide accommodation at the project right now. This should be fixed soon – sounds like maybe in the next few months – but for now they offer longer term (3+ days I think?) accommodation at a guesthouse nearby that they’ve rented.
I really loved this and would recommend it to everyone in the whole world. Run, don’t walk (and don’t ride!)
Below are the photos from my two days, which included an afternoon and morning using a hoe to weed a banana plantation, churn compost heaps and search for luxury wood seed pods to be replanted.