Elephants aren’t meant to walk the streets of Phnom Penh, or circle Angkor Wat, or live in a zoo” says Jack Highwood, founder of the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri. “This is their natural habitat. We have a huge area of land here. This is where they are meant to be.”
Highwood established his elephant sanctuary in the hills just outside Sen Monorom four years ago.
“I was working with elephants in Thailand for two years,” says Highwood. “While there I came to Cambodia and I saw the situation here was pretty bad when it comes to elephant care.”
Initially the project focused on carrying out research and providing veterinary care for elephants. However, Highwood soon realised that this was doing little to alleviate the real problem that domestic elephants face, namely overwork.
“We decided rather than go to the elephants, to bring them to us, and that is how the sanctuary started,” he explains. “Rather than doing a five year project that, like all other NGOs, when it runs out of money it closes down and doesn’t really benefit anyone, I decided to gamble.”
Highwood’s throw of the dice was to construct an eco-tourism site that could provide a sustainable income for the project. Tourists can eat and sleep at the Elephant Valley as well as volunteer for the project. In addition to helping wash elephants, volunteers construct more lodges and plant trees. They also “hang-out” with the elephants.
The income generated from tourists goes towards caring for the elephants.
“All the elephants you see here are highly abused animals who have suffered horrific injuries,” says Highwood. “You can make an elephant sick in a week, but it takes a year to heal it up again.”
As the land is communal land, the local villagers benefit from the project in terms of rent generation as well as employment.
“We bring in tourists and volunteers and that provides lots of jobs,” he says.
All but two of the people employed at the project are from the local village in Poutrom district. Highwood also provides universal health care to all the villagers as well as food, mosquito nets and private medical care.
This attitude is beginning to reap dividends. “When I first came here they wanted to cut down the forest and sell it off,” he says. “After a year they said ‘we like this, this is better’.”
According to Highwood, there are only 121 domestic elephants left in Cambodia, about half of which live in Mondulkiri. In addition to the seven elephants that live permanently at the sanctuary, the project carries out low level veterinary training with half of these elephants.
Its research and monitoring team regularly monitors the elephants. Upon discovering an elephant that needs treatment, the team tries to persuade its owners to let the elephant come to the sanctuary.
“We’ll rent it for a month so they get the same amount of income,” says Highwood. “We’ll give the elephant antibiotics, heal it up and send it back, hopefully with some better training and equipment.”
The increasing number of tourists coming to the province is partially responsible for the worsening condition of domestic elephants in Mondulkiri, according to Highwood.
“Tourism is a serious problem,” he says. “There’s massive profit to be made from elephants carrying tourism. They just push the mahouts to carry as many tourists as possible. They drive these elephants into the ground just to carry tourists around and around in circles.”
He cites the example of an elephant working in tourism that died in December.
“We were trying to talk to the owner,” he explains. “We said the elephant is just getting thinner and thinner. He was making $20 a day and the guest house was making $50 to $70. They just kept on pushing him and it was a complete waste. The thing just keeled over and died.”
Despite this, Highwood believes that the villagers his project reaches are beginning to realise there is a relationship between the way they treat their elephants and their reputation with tourists. Those who treat their animals better will see an increase in their income from tourism.
For Highwood, the fate of domestic elephants in Mondulkiri hangs in the balance.
“We’re at that tipping stage at the moment, where it goes we are not too sure.”
TRANSLATION BY RANN REUY