When we initially found EVP online and were considering it as part of our trip, I have to admit I was more than sceptical. I was all too aware of the “sanctuaries” you can visit in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, each offering some form of interaction with the elephants – varying from hand feeding, swimming/bathing in a river with them and in some cases riding. All of such places are tourist traps with only big profits in mind, disregarding animal welfare in spite of the plethora of information that is readily available that condemns such practices. I was somewhat reassured by the “Ethos & Facts” page on EVP’s website although decided I would reserve judgement until we’d seen it for ourselves.
Arriving early afternoon in Mondulkiri we made our way, as directed, to the Heffalump Cafe from where we were to be collected along with other volunteers staying for the five day programme. Looking around the cafe it seemed the elephants weren’t the sole money making attraction I had thought they might be. Projects such as bird conservation were displayed next to local community coffee chats. The Heffalump cafe wasn’t just a handy pick up spot in town for those visiting the project but was an epicenter of goodness, conservation and eco-tourism! It is the home of E.L.I.E (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment) the NGO (non government organisation) under which a number of programmes are run. We met with our guide – Connor – who jumped in a minivan and we were taken up to the entrance archway at the top of the forest from which we hiked down to base camp.
Very quickly after arriving at the project my initial concerns were quashed. It was apparent that floating upon a pedestal above a sea of fake “sanctuaries” and “rescue centres”, EVP is the real deal.
Everything about EVP seems to ooze generosity, selflessness and welfare for both people and animals. The ground under our feet (1,500 hectares of land) had been purchased but under the local people’s name – The Bunong – to protect their treasured environment and provide a future for generations.
Over the course of the five days we were introduced to each of the ten elephants from the five valleys. Each had a story, some more sorrowful than others, but all seemed so peaceful and free here. We were asked to respect their space, giving at least six feet at all times which for some seemed the least we could do given their history.
As volunteers our days were split in to one full day hiking with the elephants and four half days. We spent the other half days offering help where needed around base camp. I smile every time I think about the sand pit we built or how difficult it was to hoe round a banana tree. In the sweltering heat it seemed like every hit with the hoe was through treacle, but as hard as it was I felt proud that it made me a very small part of a bigger picture.
The project is NFP (not for profit), therefore is run entirely from donations. It seemed amusing at the time to think that the ongoing work there was possible because three Brits and a Belgian lady had chosen to stand in a forest watching an elephant just potter around.
One of the fundamental differences between EVP and the “other” companies offering elephant encounters is that EVP recognise that animal welfare should come before tourist demand. If you get in a river and wash an elephant – consider what does the animal get out of it? They don’t get to scratch up against the river bank as we saw Darling do. They don’t get to fully submerge themselves like Do did. Elephants aren’t domesticated in the way that other animals are and it goes against all of their instincts to stand still and have twenty tourists flick water over them for pictures for their Instagram pages.
The simplest way to describe it is that EVP let elephants just be elephants. And that, I think, is something worth celebrating.