IN total I spent two nights and three days of my trip to Cambodia, visiting the Mondulkiri Province. Due to it being located so far East of Cambodia, it was a five-hour journey from the temples of Siem Reap to the jungle of Mondulkiri. Before I traveled to Asia, I knew I really wanted to see and spend time with wild elephants. As a result, in 2016 I spent one day at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since it was such an incredible experience, I was searching for something similar in Cambodia.
“The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?” – Sir David Attenborough
This article will cover the following:
- Tribal life
- Endangered animals
- Elephant shows and rides
- Cambodia tourism
- Mondulkiri project
- The elephant sanctuary
- Help the elephants
- Survival story: Princess and Comvine
- Help save elephant Happy
- Book your visit to see the elephants
- Additional extras
Just here for the freebie? Download the Printable Mindful Adult Colouring Book:
When I arrived in the jungle, I was greeted by a few family members from the Bunong tribe. Trekking through the jungle reeds and wildlife in my bright pink Timberland’s, I felt like a female version of Indiana Jones. They kindly showed me to a tree house which would be our home for the next two nights.
During my short stay, I learned so much about the life of the tribe. Consequently, I was in awe of how resourceful they were and primitively they lived in the jungle; I even watched as a man casually climbed a tree to collect mangoes and watermelons!
It wasn’t until we trekked deeper into the jungle that the magic happened. First of all, Mr. Tree showed us to where the elephants sometimes appear to get their bananas. In addition, we were warned that as the elephants are in charge and can do whatever they please. Hence, sometimes they will come and eat the bananas and then leave. Luckily for us that day, the elephants stayed for a while, allowing their jungle antics to be observed. Most noteworthy, one of the elephants came to play with us in the river and waited while we helped to scrub his back! Check out the video below:
Elephants are beautifully majestic yet calm and peaceful animals. Generally speaking, they can weigh up to six tonnes and vary between eighteen and twenty-four feet in length. The ancestorial home for these large majestic mammals is all across the African and Asian continents. We, therefore, differentiate the two species; African and Asian elephants. Especially relevant, Cambodian elephants form part of the Asian elephant species.
Due to the fact that the total number of Asian elephants today is fewer than 50.000, they are endangered animals. The Asian elephants inhabit forests of the Eastern Himalayas and the Greater Mekong. Most of all, elephants in Cambodia have always been an important part of the culture. They can be found mostly in southwest mountains and in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri Provinces.
Unfortunately, there are very few elephants remaining in Cambodia. Recent estimations suggest there are 76 captive elephants and 400 wild elephants left in Cambodia. Of these, 250 wild elephants and 48 captive elephants live in the Mondulkiri Province.
Elephants have struggled for years with competing with humans for primitive resources. For the most part, elephants feed on large areas and migrate with the changing seasons. Not to mention, they have to have access to water at least once on daily basis to survive.
With the growing population and demand for land and resources, it was inevitable for elephants and humans to clash. However, we know that reducing the use of natural resources is key to preserving the earth’s climate and mitigating the problems of climate change and ecosystem destruction. Most noteworthy, one of the vital functions of jungles and forests is to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, and retain carbon in their wood; thus reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Not to mention, elephants need the forests to feed on too!
Elephant shows and rides
Since they are a popular tourist attraction, there are elephants kept in captivity simply for the entertainment of the tourist. Sadly, many captive elephants used for elephant rides and shows live in terrible conditions:
- Often tied up in chains giving very limited movement.
- Concrete floors are harmful to their feet which are designed for the jungle.
- An unsuitable diet of grains when they should be fed bamboo and bananas.
- Separation from other elephants (in nature they are social animals).
The silver lining is that the Cambodian government and NGOs are putting a lot of effort into protecting and preserving endangered animals. It seems like the country, especially Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Forest Administration of Cambodia, are protecting the forests so that elephants can keep their habitats.
Additionally, it is cooperating with non-profit organizations (NGOs) in building and realizing projects for:
- Saving elephant species.
- Monitoring existing wild elephants.
- Fighting against poaching and illegal trade of animal parts.
During my time with the Bunong hill tribe, it was so fascinating to hear what Mr. Tree is doing to help save endangered animals. He is extremely passionate about the Mondulkiri Project. It is managed by one of the most important NGOs, the Cambodia Elephant Rescue Organization.
The Mondulkiri Project rents a large forest area in Sen Monorom in order to prevent logging and to start an elephant sanctuary. It improves the lives of the poor and preserves the special culture of the Bunong people. This culture is under threat as Mondulkiri Province becomes more connected with the wider world. The Mondulkiri Project creates jobs in the community which allow whole Bunong families to improve their living standards. Families are able to stay together and the older people do not have to work so hard.
Mr. Tree’s aim is to raise awareness about the Mondulkiri Project to tourists. Therefore he teaches his fellow tribesmen how to speak proper English so they can share their knowledge with visitors. He is doing such a profound job of developing the skills of the tribe. I am really impressed with his drive to find opportunities in the modern world to help save the rainforest he grew up in. Most of all he develops his own knowledge with regards to technology while helping the tribe to earn a more comfortable living.
“Life is very hard for the indigenous Bunong (hill tribe) people of this area. They must keep doing hard labouring work even when they are old and sick to provide food and money for themselves and their families. There are no pensions or Social Security schemes. In Cambodia families try to look after all their relatives. But the indigenous Bunong people are so poor that the whole family struggles to survive. Old people still have to farm the land, collect food from the jungle and sometimes walk more than 50 kilometres every day, just so that they don’t starve.
The local indigenous community needs to have an income. To make money they are cutting down the forest to sell the timber to Vietnam or to clear the forest to make small farms. As the population is growing, the need for more rice is also growing. So more and more forest is being cut down. I am really worried that soon all the forest in Mondulkiri Province will have been cut down. The thought of losing this special jungle area makes me very sad.”
The elephant sanctuary
Mr. Tree’s sanctuary has six elephants who roam freely around the forest. Their freedom is respected by the locals and the sanctuary. This means that they only ever participate in any activity on their own terms. It was so incredible to witness these amazing animals in the wild, doing what they enjoy best; rolling around in the mud, cooling off and playing in the river, eating lots of bamboos, and itching against trees in true Jungle Book style!
“When I was young we had 2 elephants in our village, but these days there are very few elephants left. In the sanctuaries and villages close to Sen Monorom there only 41 elephants and they are growing old. There are not many wild elephants left in Cambodia’s forests because of land clearing for timber and to make rubber plantations.” ~ Mr. Tree
Thankfully, visitors and staff are not allowed to ride the elephants or bother them. Instead, the elephants have all the care they need living in their natural habitat with the sanctuary observing their behavior and making sure they stay healthy. What I love most about this sanctuary (other than the absolutely stunning rainforest scenery, the warm climates and friendly and kind locals!) is that Mr. Tree has taken it upon himself to help save the jungle and the Cambodian elephants so that they do not become extinct. Mr. Tree is a local who grew up as part of an indigenous jungle tribe. I admire his drive and passion to help save the Cambodian Elephants for future generations to enjoy and observe.
“In the future we hope to start a natural breeding program to help with the long term survival of elephants in Cambodia. The elephants are very well cared for as they are part of the vision for a better life for all of the communities. Our elephant sanctuary is a place where elephants get to live long and happy lives.” ~ Mr. Tree
Help the elephants
Every individual can make a contribution to saving the elephant species no matter how big or small. For example, you can:
- Support by participating in these types of programs when you next travel.
- Talk about endangered species to increase social awareness of the problems we face.
- Share the knowledge by spreading the word in person or online.
- Sign relevant petitions.
- Organize and attend relevant marches.
- Volunteer in one of many organizations for saving elephants.
- Even a small contribution and donation is important for saving these magnificent animals.
Survival story: Princess and Comvine
These two elephants, Princess and Comvine, met after being released into the wild at the Mondulkiri Project. They used to fight a lot but now they’re inseparable friends. Click here to learn more about these two elephants. “One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood. The strong bond of friendship is not always a balanced equation; friendship is not always about giving and taking in equal shares. Instead, friendship is grounded in a feeling that you know exactly who will be there for you when you need something, no matter what or when.” PC: @Clicktivism
Help save Happy the Elephant
In 2017 the Mondulkiri project started renting ‘Happy’ the elephant to rescue her from her previous life. She had had one of the hardest lives imaginable for an elephant; every day she was used in the illegal logging industry taking very large logs across the border into Vietnam. Since being looked after my the project, Happy is slowly recovering and has gained weight from eating lots of sanctuary food. She is also spending more time with another elephant ‘Sophie’.
Unfortunately, her hill tribe owner now wants to sell her for $30,000. The Mondulkiri Project has almost raised the full amount, but they still need more donations. If the project cannot afford to buy Happy she will be sold to a tour company to be ridden around the temples of Angkor Wat.
The Mondulkiri project has a NEW FUNDRAISING CAMPAIGN so that you can help protect Happy so that she remains forever at the sanctuary. Check it out here and Donate!
It would be a BIG HELP if you would donate to this fundraiser! Every donation, no matter how small, will help the Mondulkiri project achieve their goal. Any extra money raised will be used for the next elephant rescue.
Book your visit to the elephant sanctuary
The Mondulkiri elephant sanctuary offers one or two-day elephant adventure and jungle trekking where you can meet the elephants up close and be lead by an expert guide to experience this adventure to the fullest.
- To book your visit to see the Cambodian elephants click here.
- Make sure you wear closed and waterproof walking boots for trekking.
- Take organic non-chemical mosquito spray.
- I recommend buying special mosquito-repellent sleeves to wear under a t-shirt.
- You are allowed to video and take photos of the elephants, but remove the flash so you do not startle the elephants.
Don’t forget to download the Printable Mindful Adult Colouring Book:
Connect with Vibrant Yogini and the Mondulkiri Project
- Do you have any questions for Mr. Tree? Feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to get them answered.
- Also, don’t forget to tag @Vibrant_Yogini and @MondulkiriProject in your elephant pics on Instagram!
- Alternatively, do you have any stories from your world travels and visiting elephants? I would love to hear!
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Wishing you exciting and mindful travels,
P.S. Due to many of you contacting me for travel advice, keep an eye out in the next couple of weeks where I will be posting an article with lots tips and the recommended tools I use when planning my world adventures! Furthermore, don’t forget to follow Vibrant Yogini on social media to be the first to know when I post future articles. Additionally, you can subscribe to receive exclusive freebies and promotions.
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