The Elephant Valley Project in Sen Monorom Cambodia (and recently in Thailand) is an organization that cares for elephants and helps them be elephants again. In Asia you come across more of these kinds of projects, but the question is to what extent they are really good for the elephants themselves. Are they being treated well? Is it only about earning money and is the elephant just an afterthought? And which elephant sanctuary can you trust and what are the activities? Swimming? Washing?
In the end, I had chosen the Elephant Valley Project in Sen Monorom, Cambodia. Even though I prefer to see elephants free in the wild, I was quite impressed by this organization. In this article I will explain the positive and negative sides of the Elephant Valley Project. I decided to stay here for two days.
Readers’ tip: Would you like to know more about the best places to visit in Sen Monorom and the surrounding area? Read it in the travel guide about this exceptionally nice place in Cambodia.
The Elephant Valley Project: What is it?
The Elephant Valley Project is located in the forests near the town of Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri. In 2006 the Englishman Jack Highwood founded the ELIE project. ELIE stands for Elephants, Livelihood, Initiative, Environment. It is a collaborative project with the local Bunong people. They make agreements with elephant owners to allow the elephants here to live their last years in freedom in exchange for food and medicine.
Currently, the Elephant Valley Project has ten elephants ‘on loan’. All the elephants have a sad history of hard labor behind them. Some had to haul logs, others have had tourists on their backs for years leading to a fused spine.
The goal is to let every elephant be an elephant again. But that’s easier said than done. Most elephants were beaten and tortured to such an extent that they can no longer do most things on their own. That’s why every animal has a mahout, an elephant caretaker, who is present every day of the week to help and guide the elephants. To get an impression of the suffering of these beautiful animals, I will go into the sad story of Sambo.
Fact: The Asian elephant is smaller than the African elephant.
Sambo, Cambodia’s most famous elephant
Sambo is the most famous elephant of the ten that reside here at the Elephant Valley Project. For more than 30 years, Sambo has carried tourists and children on her back in Phnom Penh. This had a major impact on her spine. And in addition, Sambo had also suffered from an infection on her foot for many years, because she had stepped in a large nail in Phnom Penh. In 2012, the big giant was allowed to retire, and in 2014 Sambo ended up at Sen Monorom Mondulkiri and the Elephant Valley Project.
Twice a day she has to stand in a bath for 20 minutes to reduce the infection on the foot. And that’s already quite a task, but achievable if the elephant gets enough to eat. Because that’s what an elephant does: it eats… a lot.
Fact: An elephant eats 160 kilos of food per day.
The Elephant Valley Project based on research
Okay, now you know what the project is about and why the elephants are here. But why should the Elephant Valley Project be a serious option?
Like I said, elephants in the wild is the best thing in the world, right? I too doubted for a while whether I should do it at all. Yet, based on advice online and through the facebook group Inside Cambodia, I decided to sign up. You can only really give an opinion when you’ve seen it yourself, right? And of course you have to have a good feeling about it beforehand…
The Elephant Valley Project is also recommended by Lonely Planet, Animal Planet and National Geographic.
But why choose the Elephant Valley Project?
On instagram you come across several pictures of people swimming with elephants or cuddling with them in some way. It looks beautiful and the elephants seem to be enjoying themselves as well. But is that really the case? After all, they are big animals that can seriously injure a person in an instant. To prevent that from happening, elephants must know that they are not allowed to do that. Do they not do that from themselves or maybe they are beaten so they know not to do that. Tell me about it if you know more?
The special thing about the Elephant Valley Project is that you are not allowed to swim with the elephants or come close to them. And you certainly aren’t allowed to take a ride on them or touch them. But what are you allowed to do?
The answer is simple: the elephants come out with their mahouts and all you have to do is follow them, see what they do and how they eat. Because they do the latter 80% of the day. That may not sound appealing, but I assure you… it is. Because you can look at those beautiful animals for hours, right? I know I could.
What do you contribute?
It is possible to join the Elephant Valley Project for one day, but also for two days. Or even a whole week or a whole month. If you stay for two days or more you will also do volunteer work. Okay, my contribution consisted of watering plants for the elephants and other small chores. But the stories you exchange with other volunteers are extremely interesting.
Is there any criticism about the Elephant Valley Project?
So far you have only heard positive things about this project. But surely there will be some critical never cracked. Certainly, although you have to keep that in perspective.
The mahouts work every day from 9 am to 5 pm. After that, the elephants are on their own and a ‘loose’ elephant has proven to be unreliable in this case. For example, a few years ago some of the animals ate part of a farmer’s crop. The total cost was thousands of euros. And of course no one was happy about this….
How did they solve that problem at the Elephant Valley Project? Every night the elephants are put on a chain of 25 meters. Not a nice solution, but which solution is better? A good question and also I don’t doubt the intentions of the project. Still, this solution sounds pretty fierce. Nevertheless, they are never alone. Another solution could be a fence. But even then they are trapped, right?
Final words about the Elephant Valley Project
The only project with elephants that I have visited in Asia is the Elephant Valley Project. And personally, I think this is the only project I will ever visit in my life. Later when I was in Kui Buri National Park in Thailand and in Udawalale National Park in Sri Lanka I really got excited about elephants with ‘freedom’.
Beyond that, I can’t pass judgment on all the projects going on in Asia. There will undoubtedly be shelters that do have the best interests of elephants at heart. But there are also some that prefer to make money and have the real care for elephants on a second place.
If you do decide to visit an elephant sanctuary, try to find out which ones have positive reviews. A final note about the Elephant Valley Project. In terms of price, this may be one of the more expensive sanctuaries in Asia, but when you know that it is reliable and treats the animals well, then money is an afterthought, right?
Would you like to visit the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri, Cambodia?
Would you like to join the project for half a day, a day, two days or more? You can make a reservation through the website of the Elephant Valley Project, but do this well in advance (up to two weeks). You will receive instructions through the mail, but you have to gather at the Hefalump Cafe. It is only possible to visit the elephants from Monday to Friday. In the weekend they have weekend…
Hotel: In Sen Monorom I stayed in Chantha Sreypich Guesthouse. Basic, but fine for 5 dollars a night.
Do you have any tips, comments or ideas about the Elephant Valley Project in Sen Monorom, Cambodia? Feel free to leave a comment below.