There are few truly sustainable projects happening on Earth that work towards environmental conservation, preservation for an endangered species, and create job opportunities for marginalized people. Fortunately, the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) is one such place. Here’s why you should visit Cambodia’s Elephant Valley Project.
Elephants are the largest mammal on earth and have the largest brains of all land mammals. They’re herbivores and spend 18-20 hours a day grazing. One elephant eats up to 250 pounds of plants a day! It’s devastating that there are only estimated to be between 25,000-35,000 wild Asian elephants left. I am fully in love with these creatures. Cambodia has 400-600 wild Asian elephants, mostly in Mondulkiri where EVP is located.
There are many opportunities to see highly endangered Asian elephants in Southeast Asia but few and far between are actually ethical or safe for the animals. Most are illegitimate elephant sanctuaries that trick well-meaning tourists. Don’t fall for marketing jargon or trendy vernacular. Encountering elephants is a life-altering experience, but you best do your research.
Elephant Valley Project is operated by the registered NGO, Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E.) which launched in 2006. EVP is the most humane elephant sanctuary I’ve had the chance to visit. So, if you’re an elephant lover like me (remember when I cried when I saw 50+ wild Asian elephants in Sri Lanka?) I suggest adding EVP to your Cambodia or Southeast Asia itinerary. It goes without saying that EVP has a strict hands-off policy which includes no riding, bathing, swimming, or touching. There’s no abuse and no tricks at EVP. More elephant sanctuaries should follow this ethical standard as EVP is the oldest and has become the largest elephant conservation project in Asia.
HOW TO GET TO ELEPHANT VALLEY PROJECT
I was invited to go to EVP for the 2-day/1-night package and although the roundtrip bus transport is a doozy it was a wonderful experience and a solid amount of time with the elephants. The incredible efforts at EVP make it absolutely worth the horrific overnight 6+ hour bus ride up to the rusty red hill station of Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri, Cambodia.
Check bus schedules from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh to Mondulkiri on Baolau. To maximize time take a night bus the evening before and stay in a hotel. You’ll have to be at the EVP office by around 6 AM. Browse and book accommodation options in Sen Monorom on Booking.com. I’m claustrophobic and I’d do the ride twice again within 48 hours if it meant spending more time with the incredible creatures that habitat the genuine sanctuary at EVP.
WHAT MAKES ELEPHANT VALLEY PROJECT CRUELTY-FREE
EVP truly prioritizes animal welfare — not human amusement — as well as environmental and social sustainability. They allow visitors to spend time in the wild with their gigantic inhabitants through a series of short or long term volunteer opportunities that include a variety of projects that are animal-friendly. That means that your time at EVP won’t negatively impact animals but will instead contribute to their preservation.
It’s no secret that Asian elephants are subjected to animal abuse from tourist activities to logging which has made the creatures an at-risk species. EVP tackles this head-on by rescuing and rehabilitating captive elephants and bringing them to their animal-friendly safe haven. No elephant is turned away no matter if they’re old or injured. In fact, EVP provides health and veterinary care for all the elephants in Mondulkiri—not just those at the sanctuary.
The large space at EVP covers 3,700 acres of protected nature reserve of the elephant’s natural habitat—rivers, grasslands, forests, and bamboo groves. Even in this remote section in northeast Cambodia, there is an abundance of Chinese infrastructure projects that are deforesting the area. EVP is involved in local forest conservation efforts and collaborates with Wildlife Conservation Society and the Ministry of the Environment to develop and fund protection plans of the neighboring Seima Wildlife Sanctuary such as local ranger teams.
The 10 elephants at Elephant Valley Project are mostly on loan via contracts from their owners. A few are rescued and fully retired from harmful tourism or logging roles. The rescued elephants were purchased for around $20,000 USD. Contract elephants are rented from the owners and usually, the deal also includes employment of one family member to act like the elephant’s mahout who will be paid by the EVP in wages equal to what they would have earned should they have been using their elephants to haul timber.
The elephant sanctuary works directly with members of the indigenous Bunong tribe Mondulkiri. Most of the staff of about 40 people at EVP are from the Bunong community. In addition to fair wages, they’re provided with healthcare for their families. Thus EVP provides health insurance for 2,400 villagers. Other programs help to provide schooling for 300 children, food for impoverished families, and on-going sustainable employment opportunities.
WHAT YOU’LL DO DURING YOUR ELEPHANT VALLEY PROJECT VISIT
You’ll be able to observe these fantastic animals from a respectful distance as you trek near them in the forest (always at least 10-20 meters away, I have a long camera lens). Who can resist the chance to roam with the herd and observe semi-wild Asian elephants behavior in their true element in the dense Cambodian jungle? You’ll always be guided by a local indigenous Bunong community member as they’re the most knowledgeable about the forests and elephants. Mahouts will also always be resent to monitor and observe their elephants. This is the most responsible way to get up-close-and-personal with elephants in Asia. EVPs voluntourism doesn’t exploit local people or inflict animal suffering.
The EVP slogan is “let them run free” is somewhat misleading as the elephants are semi-wild and don’t run free, but roam as freely as possible for their safety and the safety of villagers. They have much more freedom then they would have if they were still captive and used for entertainment or logging. The female elephants roam with their mahout in the area to monitor them.
The male bull elephant roams with his mahout sitting on his neck to keep him behaved but the elephant still determines where to wander. I was confused to see that they do have bullhooks at EVP which are used as a fear factor and in-case of emergency as I read many articles that said they were banned at EVP. Males are large and more unpredictable so bullhooks are kept on site for the safety of the staff and also for the safety of the elephant.
Like many rescued animals, the elephants at EVP can no longer take care of themselves without human aid as most have been in captivity since youth. This is why you will witness the mahouts bathing the elephants in the river and might prepare food for them. EVP does not over-bathe the elephants. The bath is not at all a performance.
The bath ended up being my favorite part of my experience at Elephant Valley Project. As the elephants exited the water, on their own accord, they immediately covered themselves with blood-red mud and began to give themselves scratches against trees as if they were puppies. A few trees were even completely uprooted. These giants are powerful. The herd at EVP includes Ruby, MaeNang, Pearl, NingWan, EasyRider, GeeNowl, Sambo, Darling, Doe and Hen, the bull. Each has distinct personalities and watching them interact was fascinating.
Be mindful that volunteering at EVP isn’t all leisurely walks through the jungle. During the overnight trip, I had two sessions with the elephants and one session of volunteering. My volunteer role was to walk through the forest to look for animal traps which were honestly quite terrifying as I worried someone might step on one. Other volunteers may be asked to contribute to other sorts of manual labor such as cleaning enclosures, preparing food, planting trees, assisting with construction projects, etc.
You’ll also likely get the chance to visit the nearby waterfalls and Bunong spirit house. The Bunong are Animists and believe that everything in nature has a spirit with elephants being one of the most sacred animals. The Bunong have a folk story which dictates that man and elephants were once the same beings. There are particular rituals for when a new elephant arrives and when an elephant dies. The bones are buried on a hill far away to prevent the elephant’s spirit from wreaking havoc.
If you stay overnight at EVP you can look forward to very comfortable forest lodging. It’s not quite glamping but the beds in the dorm are suitable and each has its own mosquito net which you’ll really want to use as there are all sorts of creepy crawlers out there!
Be sure to pack some natural insect repellent. If you tend to go to the bathroom at night you’ll want to bring a solar-powered flashlight as the generator is shut off around 9 PM and there are no lights. There’s also no WiFi here! You won’t miss it, I mean, come on, you’re hanging out with elephants!
You’ll get to know your fellow volunteers in the cozy communal open-air lounge or take a snooze in a hammock after lunch. EVP is able to create vegan-friendly meals upon request—just be sure to let them know in advance. Meals are included in the package price.
EVP recently opened an elephant sanctuary in one of my favorite places—Chiang Rai, Thailand! Pay a visit and let me know about your experience there. Give the eles an air hug for me.
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I was partially hosted at Elephant Valley Project. All opinions and photos are my own. This article contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.