For the ethnic Bunong people in this northeastern province, animals are an integral part of the local economy.
Pigs, chickens and water buffaloes offer a variety of sustenance and labour. But it’s the elephants that bring foreigners – and foreigners bring cash.
“When I get tours, the money is spread around the community,” said 32-year-old Mnacn Hong, who has been a mahout, or elephant trainer, since the age of 13 in Poutang village, near Mondulkiri’s capital, Sen Monorom.
Hong and other local guides say tourist dollars flowed until 2005, when a conservation initiative called the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) started offering visitors a chance to observe, as opposed to ride, elephants.
The project was lauded in the media and travel blogs as an ethical alternative to the local tours. Any cursory search on the internet will result in posts and articles describing elephants beyond the reach of the project as abused.
Hong, like other mahouts in the area, has felt the reaction financially and personally.
“My elephants work four hours a day, and we treat them like family,” he said. “If there was no EVP, there would be more people in my community. Now, the tourists go to the Elephant Valley Project because they say don’t go to the communities.”
At $60 for two people, the local trek guides tourists from the village to the waterfalls, through the jungle, then back to the village. According to Hong, business is down 50 per cent.
The Elephant Valley Project, run by an NGO called Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment, or ELIE, gives guests an opportunity to observe animals in their natural setting, deep in the jungle. The EVP website advertises a full-day tour, including food, for $70. After a hike to one of three designated valleys that elephants are led to by their mahouts, visitors get a chance to see them roam the environment and bathe in the river. In the afternoon, tourists can help bathe the elephants from a man-made concrete platform.
No elephant riding allowed here, though.
Jemma Bullock, ELIE eco-tourism program officer and Elephant Valley Project assistant manager, insists that villages are exaggerating, and that the project doesn’t condemn elephant-riding tours. She pointed out that the project pays some local mahouts a $125 monthly wage to bring their elephants, instead of letting them out for rides, to the sanctuary to “do what elephants do best”, play with mud and eat.
“Visitors’ stay and donations directly contribute to the protection of these beautiful creatures, both captive and wild,” Bullock said.
“[Tourists] support many other programs that ELIE runs, providing benefits to the local Bunong community, including healthcare both in the community where the tourism project is based, as well as growing coverage to all elephant owners in Mondulkiri, a communal land-titling program, school support program and other small projects,” she said.
Jack Highwood, director of the project, declined to comment, but the “History” section of the EVP website explains where it stands.
“Elephants are able to generate a large income for the impoverished indigenous peoples, but in many cases the elephants are not receiving proper care,” it reads in part.
Despite the good intentions, anger is mounting over the distribution of tourism dollars that the NGO receives in comparison to local tourism businesses.
“The locals accuse us of being a business that keeps all the money,” Bullock said. “And they’re upset because they think we are taking all the tourists, but that’s not true.”
Broad statistics support some of her claim. Mondulkiri is one of four provinces, including Kratie, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng, that the Ministry of Tourism is pushing as an eco-tourism destination. Although there are fears that the EVP is diverting funds from locals, Mondulkiri has seen a steady increase in domestic and international tourists, a 9.7 per cent rise from 2011 to 2012.
Puch Sorya, deputy director of Mondulkiri’s tourism department, believes tourists wanting to ride elephants have actually increased.
“The Elephant Valley Project has not affected overall tourism,” he said.
Talk to locals, however, and they are quick to tell a different story.
Sam Nang, the owner of the Green House, which provides lodging and schedules tours, estimates that 80 per cent of visitors ask for the Elephant Valley alternative, ignoring other options.
Amid mounting tension between the EVP and the Bunong, Nang has found himself in the middle. Locals call him “two-faced” because he is the only tour operator in town that arranges EVP visits and traditional elephant riding.
Still, he encourages tourists to visit elephants at local sites.
“The Bunong villages rely on tourism for survival and food,” he said. “It’s not a hard job for the elephants. They get more freedom and it helps the families.”
The Elephant Valley Project competes with locals for other tourism business, including treks and hotels. Tours to waterfalls, villages, coffee plantations and jungle trekking have seen less traffic, locals say.
Than Phbara Kech, a local tour guide and travel operator who has worked with the Poutang community for more than eight years, said villages with elephants have also lost out on overnights.
“When tourists do homestays, the family they stay with gets an income, but the NGO has bungalows,” he said.
In Poutang, one elephant is typically owned by five to 12 families, consisting of around 10 people, who share the profits. The village has a total of nine elephants. Another village, Poulang, has eight. The EVP mainly works with a village called Putrom.
Phbara Kech said Bunong mahouts aren’t able to go on the web and defend themselves on English-language travel sites.
“People should come to Mondulkiri and talk to people and find out themselves. Not only reading in Lonely Planet and believing these things.”
Diverting funds or not, the Elephant Valley Project is a clear hit with tourists.
Tamsin Lambert, 30, visited at the beginning of September. It was the only tour she did in Mondulkiri, before travelling to Siem Reap.
“These are not the lifestyles and actions of people who are making a profit. These are the lives and actions of people who deeply care, not just about the elephants, but also the people of Bunong and Cambodia, and the habitat that links them all.”