Elephant Valley Project
Elephant Valley Project information
For an original elephant experience, visit the Elephant Valley Project. The project entices local mahouts to bring their overworked or injured elephants to this 1600-hectare sanctuary. It's very popular, so make sure you book well ahead. You can visit for a whole (US$85) or half day (US$55). It does not take overnight visitors on Friday and Saturday nights and is not open to day visitors on Saturday and Sunday.
A Briton with a contagious passion for elephants, project founder Jack Highwood is on a mission to improve the lot of Mondulkiri’s working elephants – the EVP is a place where ‘elephants get to be elephants again’. While Bunong tradition calls for giving elephants a certain amount of down time, Highwood says that economic incentives to overwork elephants prove too great for the impoverished mahouts of Mondulkiri. In addition to toting tourists around on their backs, elephants are hired to haul around anything and everything, including illegally cut timber. ‘In Mondulkiri, the elephant is basically seen as a cheap tractor’, he says.
Most tour companies in Mondulkiri stress that their tours employ only humanely treated elephants. Highwood commends this, but says it's the exception rather than the rule. ‘Mondulkiri's remaining 48 elephants are often in a highly stressed state because there are just not enough to go around’, he says. ‘They are generally too old to work and made to do things they aren’t meant to be doing.’
Enter the EVP. Mahouts who bring their elephants here are paid a competitive working wage to retire their elephants full-time to the forest and ecotourism. Mahouts continue to work with their elephants, feeding and caring for them and making sure they are as content as possible. The elephants, for their part, can spend their days blasting through the forest in search of food and hanging out by the river spraying mud on one another.
Visitors are not allowed to ride the elephants here. Instead, you simply walk through the forest with them and observe them in their element. In the process you learn a lot about not only elephant behaviour but also Bunong culture and forest ecology. Other project components include funding forestry protection for wild elephants, health care and other support for Bunong communities in the project area in exchange for use of the forest – and, most importantly, health and veterinary care for all the elephants in Mondulkiri, not just those resident in the valley. The Wildlife Conservation Society lauds the EVP for helping to protect the eastern reaches of the Seima Protected Forest.
The overnight options include a stay in exquisite bungalows tucked into the jungle on a ridge overlooking the valley. A two-day package in dorm-style accommodation costs US$125, while private bungalows cost US$145. Longer stays of three days in the dorm/bungalow (US$235/265) and five days (US$405/455) are also available. Prices include full board.
Access to the site is tightly controlled, so don’t show up unannounced as there are free-range elephants wandering around. It's popular so book well in advance before your arrival in Mondulkiri. The maximum number of day-trippers allowed per day is 12.
If you are in Mondulkiri at the weekend, you may want to consider an alternative elephant experience, such as visiting a community-owned elephant in the villages of Putang or Phulung and watching the elephants forage in the forest, as promoted by the Green House and its Elephant Community Program.