Written by Lindsey Grassby, Operation Groundswell Partnership Intern
Over the past few decades, travel in Southeast Asia has become almost synonymous with elephant rides, posing some serious ethical concerns around the care for these endangered species. At OG, finding an ethical way to interact with these gentle giants was and continues to be of utmost importance to us. That’s why we began a partnership with the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) back in 2012 and have continued to grow and deepen our relationship for the past five years.
EVP was launched in Mondulkiri Province in 2007 as a sanctuary for injured and overworked elephants. It’s really the only true sanctuary for elephants in Cambodia, meaning you won’t find elephants taking part in activities you typically find at other elephant-based attractions – no riding on, swimming with, or feeding of the elephants by visitors here! Rather, guests are there strictly to observe the elephants in their natural habitat and learn about their issues and the issues facing the community in the surrounding area.
The Elephant Valley Project aims to provide an alternative approach to elephant care while returning them to their natural environment. There are currently ten elephants permanently residing at EVP who are there for a variety of reasons, including an injury from a poaching trap, malnourishment or dehydration, and retirement from logging. A lush forest surrounds EVP which allows the elephants to escape human activity and take much needed breaks from tourists and volunteers throughout the day. The elephants can freely interact with one another while they relearn their natural behaviour.
The work being done at EVP isn’t only to the benefit of the elephants; their work helps to create a better livelihood for the Bunong people in the surrounding area. EVP provides employment for the Bunong people, which includes good working conditions and assistance in protection of their land and resources. The development of EVP as a tourist attraction has created a sustainable funding mechanism for all the projects they run within the complex.
During our time with EVP, our backpacktivists have taken part in discussions on issues of deforestation, poverty, and lack of healthcare in the region. While many of these issues were initially new and largely unknown to participants, learning from the local staff has helped all of us gain insight into other lives and inspire change in our own communities.
Beyond the cross-cultural exchange and educational component, OG and EVP have also undertaken a variety of smaller maintenance projects while taking part in the process of numerous large-scale projects. We’ve taken part in bamboo planting to create a bamboo jungle for the elephants, learning firsthand what a delicate project planting bamboo can be. Our teams have also helped to create an elephant foot bath for injured elephants, and a great deal of railing networks throughout the complex.
In 2014, our summer teams helped in the construction of a dam which will serve as an area for the elephants to bathe. And with the money from the community contributions backpacktivists raise each year, EVP supports the Bunong community with healthcare programs, educational programs, and even jobs.
OG has been lucky to witness the growth of this unique organization! We’re looking forward to continuing our partnership and developing a deeper relationship for many more years. As we head into our fifth consecutive year working with the Elephant Valley Project, it has and will continue to be a staple (and highlight!) of our Southeast Asia: Animal Conservation program. Because let’s be honest – who doesn’t love elephants?!