Sen Monorom, Cambodia
Well, I spent today at the Elephant Valley Project, a sanctuary for rescued Asian elephants in Sen Monorom. Words cannot accurately describe how incredible and surreal today was. We got to hike into the forest and trek alongside a group of elephants while they were eating and getting bathed today. It was simply one of the best days I’ve ever experienced. The 6 elephants we met today are such lovely creatures and they cautiously allowed us to hang out near them.
I’m going to have to finish this post when I’m back in Phnom Penh because the WiFi signal at my guesthouse isn’t nearly strong enough for me to upload the photos and video I have for this entry. And believe me when I tell you I exercised a lot of restraint with the number of photos I will post. I am so tempted just to upload the whole day’s worth! So… more to come!
Plus, I need to get to bed tonight. I’ve got to catch an early bus tomorrow morning. Also… I’m so glad I have a high tolerance for little critters. I just heard the most unusual noise in my room and discovered it’s coming from a gecko! I haven’t heard them before. Quite a comical noise!
… back online!!! I’m in Phnom Penh again after a 5.5 hour bus ride from Sen Monorom. I’ll finish yesterday’s post (Nov 12th) and then start a new post for today (Nov 13th). If you’re not a fan of elephants, this post will be too long for you!
The elephants. Yesterday, with the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), was truly magical and I appreciated every minute we got to spend with the 6 female elephants currently at the sanctuary:
Mae Nang – age 65
Ruby – late 50s
Ning Wan – late 40s
Pearl – the youngster at age 25
Jin Yaol – 62
Mae Yao (otherwise known as Easy Rider) – late 40s
We spent the morning with the first 4 who enjoy hanging out together. Mae Nang is the matriarch and has a special bond with Pearl, who was the most recent to join. Ruby is the protector of the group and thinks she’s a tough girl. (I’m sure I’ve mixed up the 4 elephants in the photos… I wish I could remember who was who!) After a relaxing lunch at Base Camp, where I snoozed for a while in a hammock, we joined Jin Yaol and Easy who are the best of friends.
All of these girls had different stories about how they got to the sanctuary but they all involved some form of exploitation. Asian elephants are used for work, even though they have not been bred to be a working animal. They are used in logging and construction, hauling heavy loads that are harnessed to them. They are used in tourism for elephant rides, wearing heavy wooden baskets to carry riders, that cause damage to their bodies, scarring their skin and compressing the ribcage. The sanctuary is working to continue to rescue elephants while contributing to the community they work within. The money that is raised is directed in four ways:
1. financially obtain captive elephants – EVP approaches owners and pays them to move the elephants to the sanctuary
2. covers the costs to run the sanctuary – 50 staff, including employing many local people
3. education – children in that community were not consistently going to school because of lack of funds. EVP developed a scholarship that now supports about 300 students.
4. health care – public health care in rural areas is not readily available and villagers may end up not seeking care or going into debt to address health issues. EVP is funding health care for the community it resides in.
The folks at EVP that I got to meet are passionate about what they do, well informed and articulate about the cause, and just lovely all around. I had a fantastic day and am very appreciative for the opportunity.
Enough writing… on to the photos!
click link to access video: lunch time
click link to access video: Pearl’s bath time
Our first stop in the morning was a hike in to what they call Heaven Valley. I didn’t even ask why. 🙂 Most times there wasn’t even a nice bridge like this one for us and we had to hop across some rocks in the water. Lots of fun trekking in to the forest!
Each elephant has a mahout… a caretaker. These guys stay with the elephants for most of the day to ensure they are eating well, getting bathed, staying out of trouble… Kinda like an elephant’s parent. For the most part, they just stay out of the way and let the elephants do their thing.
Can you spot the fourth elephant in this photo? Only 3? Yep, one of them took some time to find us. Before we got to Heaven Valley we were instructed to listen to our guide at all times. John would show us where to stand, how far from the elephants was safe, and if it was felt that we were disturbing the elephants, he would tell us when to move (and that meant immediately, not when you’ve finished taking a photo). Everything was done in consideration of these girls and it was lovely to experience. And while I learned all of their names, and some history about them, I’m not 100% able to tell them all apart. I will do my best! In person, I could tell two of them apart from the herd.
The mahouts are locals from the community that EVP employs. They just hang out near the elephants and keep an eye on them. To bide their time, they carve small wooden elephants that are for sale at Base Camp.
She wanted to wait to join us to make an entrance! Meet Mae Nang! (I think)
Our Bunong guide, Tuin, breaks out the bananas for the girls. Part of the support EVP provides is to review the state of the elephants’ health when they arrive and to help get them healthy again. Coaxing them with some tasty bananas sometimes helps! One of the elephants was not eating regularly from what appeared to be some emotional trauma. It is known that elephants are highly emotive. She lost quite a bit of weight and EVP worked with her to supplement her bamboo and grass diet with bananas to get her diet back on track.
And another shot of Mae Nang. I did take photos of the others but I’ve really trimmed down how many I’m sharing!
Pearl is the youngster. She’s easy to spot because she’s a bit smaller and her stature is kinda droopy. They’ve lovingly nicknamed her Eeyore. Because of her captivity, her breeding cycle had not started in her teens when it should have. Now at 25 and in a healthier environment, they are hoping that her cycle will start. There are currently no males at the sanctuary but EVP is courting the owners of one male, Hen, and hopes to get him by the end of the year. They will not intentionally breed any elephants but would let nature take its course, if it happens. FYI: the gestation period for an elephant is about 21.5 months.
Did you know that elephants have two nipples? Just like monkeys and humans. Cats and dogs have rows of nipples. Cows have udders. Hmmm…
Some of the elephants had not had enough time with their parents or in the wild to develop their own instincts. Not all of the girls like to bathe, for instance. Sounds like some kids I know! But an elephant’s skin is very sensitive and needs to be cleaned. Just as much as it needs dirt and mud to cool down and moisturize. These girls did not stay clean for very long!
So funny to watch their trunks come out of the water so they could breathe. Natural snorkelers! And don’t forget to wash behind the ears!
We were standing away from the elephants as they got out of their bath. The others had meandered away but Ruby took her time coming out. She decided to come over to investigate. John told us it was okay to stay put as Ruby had not exhibited any signs of concern (slapping her trunk on the ground, making a low growl). As we stood there, Ruby walked slowly… straight over to me. I can’t describe the feeling. I asked John if I could touch her and he said yep. Here’s me and Ruby getting friendly. What an awesome and memorable moment!
No idea what these are called… but really interesting growth patterns.
Kidding! As we walked toward base camp, three pigs came running and snorting towards us! It was hysterical! Even more so when this one dropped down and rolled over to get her belly rubbed! I’m not kidding!
EVP is raising these pigs to provide to some of the folks in the community. The pigs are all female, so there is an opportunity for the villagers to breed them and continue to have pigs available. However, what they do with them once they get the pigs is up to them.
This is the view from Base Camp. It’s absolutely gorgeous there. They have a couple of buildings (big cottages, really) set up for volunteers, staff and visitors. There is a big kitchen that employs some locals. There is an outdoor toilet. Not an outhouse. Seriously a toilet that is outside with a wood fence surrounding it and a zinc roof directly above in case it rains. A nice change from the squat toilets that are more common throughout the country. We had a great lunch, some time to relax, then off to see the last 2 elephants.
Apparently, Easy is a bit of a bully and doesn’t get along with the other 4 elephants in Heaven Valley. She does get along with Jin Yaol. So these two are a quite a bit further away in some land that EVP is renting from a local farmer.
These two are so interesting together. Jin Yaol tall with long legs. Easy is short with a fuller body! Easy was used for poaching at one time, where her owners would ride her out in the wild to attract other animals. She was caught once in a trap meant for one of the animals and as a result, she has a big scar on one side of her body. Jin Yaol did not spend enough time with her parents or a herd to be properly socialized and did not learn “how to be a wild elephant”. Being in a “small herd” with Easy has helped her to adapt. We watched her as she copied almost everything that Easy did. If Easy went one way to go eat some branches and leaves, Jin Yaol would follow her and do the same. If Easy walked over to a tree trunk to get a good scratch in, Jin Yaol would do the same thing. It was really interesting to watch!
These girls get a bath from their mahouts too!
My words just don’t do justice to the experience we had with all 6 elephants. I’m grateful to EVP for the opportunity and for the work that they are doing! Visit them on Facebook to learn more and see how the herd is doing: https://www.facebook.com/groups/70820671560/