I spent a week over Winter Break playing with elephants in the forest.
More specifically, I was volunteering at the Elephant Valley Project in the Mondulkiri Province of Cambodia. Four other volunteers worked with me that week, we spent our days bathing elephants, taking them around the forest to eat, and helping out around the project by building houses for the local villagers. We admired the views from our gorgeous bungalows and attempted to muffle our screams when seeing tarantula-sized spiders in our rooms.
The Elephant Valley Project is run by a local nongovernmental organization (LNGO) called Elephants Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE), which has partnered with a United Kingdom-based charity, Globalteer, to operate a volunteer program. According to its website, as a LNGO, ELIE is committed to providing employment to locals, many of whom come from a nearby Phnong village.
The Phnong people are the aboriginal people of Cambodia (as opposed to the Khmer people, the predominant ethic group in Cambodia) and have a long history with domesticated elephants. Some of the organization’s volunteer activities include helping to build houses in the village and collecting the grass for thatched roofing made by village women for the project.
To reach Mondulkiri, we had to drive eight hours from the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. I spent a day in Phnom Penh first, and the city seemed to me like an interesting conglomeration of a lot of the places I’d seen in the past. Cars honked on the streets like they did in New Delhi, and the people were all exceptionally friendly like they are in Rio. The city was full of vibrant night markets like in those in Bangkok.
However, there were also pervasive signs of poverty all around the city — the streets were lined with decrepit buildings, homeless citizens and peddlers desperately hawking their wares. That night, I could hear refrains floating through my window of everything from John Mayer to local Cambodian music to classical music with a hint of opera.
The next morning, we started the drive to Mondulkiri bright and early at seven a.m. Sen Monorom is a dusty town populated by expats, locals and backpackers / tourists looking for a town with a more authentic flair than they could find in Westernized major cities. From the town, it was another 40-minute drive to the project, this time in a pickup truck. The project had rented a series of farms to serve as a sanctuary for sick and injured “domestic” elephants. The elephants come to the project with their handlers, or mahouts, to recuperate while the mahouts are taught about elephant welfare.
The elephants are allowed to lead as natural a life as possible — they spend theie days foraging through the forests and grasslands and swimming in the river or being bathed. However, they do need to be tied up at night so that they don’t tear up neighboring farms. They’re not ridden, since characteristic elephant riding baskets often morph the shape of the elephant’s spine in response to the pressure. Without the baskets, elephants are freer to throw dirt and mud onto their backs, an action that comes naturally to them.
In the past, working elephants were often beaten for accidentally throwing mud onto their riders. One of the elephants was so afraid of throwing mud on herself when she first got to the project that we had to encourage her by throwing mud on her ourselves.
As volunteers, we each got our own cozy little bungalow that became our home in the forest for the entirety of the week. On a typical day, we would wake up for breakfast cooked by the resident local chef at 7 a.m. and then go to bathe Princess, one of the elephants, at 8.
Princess was the most crippled of the five elephants at the project (they thought that she might have been hit by a truck because one of her legs and her back were twisted). She couldn’t be with the other elephants too much because her body couldn’t keep up with their level of activity.
After Princess’s bath, we could choose from a variety of activities, such as going with the mahouts and elephants into the forest (as an animal science major, I almost always chose this option) or helping out with other projects around the sanctuary.
The forest itself isn’t like one I’d ever seen (or imagined) before. There is almost no animal or bird life, supposedly because of hunting / habitat destruction, so there were insects everywhere. The first time I saw a tarantula-type spider next to my bed it was a little hard to fall asleep, even though theoretically they shouldn’t be able to come through the mosquito net around the bed. Also, I had a patron Tokay gecko (brightly colored, made a loud “tokay” sound, very sharp teeth and about a foot long) or two that lived in my bungalow and hunted them. All that being said, the forest was still beautiful and green everywhere; watching the sunset against a soundtrack of chirping, rustling and gurgling water was incredible.
After another scrumptious meal at noon, we used the two hottest hours of the day to relax. I preferred to spend the time reading (often books about elephants that were lying around) and napping in the treetop bar / lounge. The afternoon was then similar to the morning and concluded in a bath for all of the elephants, showers for us volunteers, dinner and three hours of electricity, provided by a generator, before bed at around 9:30 p.m. Going to sleep at 9:30 p.m. and waking up before 7 was a little hard for my Cornell-adjusted body to work with, but the days were always packed enough to make it possible. Going to bed to the sound of insects buzzing around the mosquito net and waking up to the sounds of the forest in the morning was a beautiful experience.
I came away from the week with an interest in conservation and an admiration for the magnificent animals that we call elephants. I found them to be remarkably intelligent in numerous ways. For example, they beat grass against their legs to knock off the clumps of dirt at the roots. Each elephant had a unique personality, and you could see the awareness in their eyes. It almost seemed as if they knew exactly how much power they had and just chose not to use it.
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s website, at the turn of the 20th century there were around 100,000 Asian elephants in the wild. However, by 1995 there were only around 25,000 to 33,000, and numbers are thought to have decreased even more since then. There are around 16,000 more Asian elephants in captivity, working or serving as tourist attractions.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ website, Asian elephants once ranged over nine million kilometers from the Iranian coast through Southeast Asia. Now, their range is only around 500,000 kilometers, and they are extinct in West Asia, Java and most of China.
With habitat loss due to logging and farming, poaching for males’ ivory tusks and the killing of elephants who destroy the farms that have infringed on their homes, it is imperative that efforts such as those undertaken by ELIE continue so that this highly endangered species might be saved.
Original Author: Nikhita Parandekar