I have been to Thailand and some other parts of Asia and these big elephant tours are no longer a stranger to me. As much as I would like to do it, I am kind of hesitant because of the way the tours are run or the way the programs seem to be done. Having been based myself in Asia for the last two years and having seen these unethical tours have made me become more aware and a more responsible traveler. I do not support nor fancy participating in these tours that hold activities that involve animal abuses (or in any way that exploits the animals) and activities that disturb the wildlife. Elephant riding? Holding sea turtles? Tiger petting? JUST A BIG NO. I do my best to adhere to best practices when it comes to responsible tourism – volunteering to worthy projects, supporting local people and community enterprises and simply respecting the culture and the traditions of the destination I am in.
When I decided to embark on an elephant volunteering, I researched a lot as to where to do it. To be honest, Mondulkiri was not in my original plans. Luang Prabang in Laos, Chiang Mai in Thailand and Chitwan in Nepal were on my list. However, I ended up doing it in this place which is a rising destination for nature and eco-tourism in Cambodia. I owed it to a friend who introduced me to Mondulkiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary.
Facts: Mondulkiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary
Mondulkiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary is a project by L.E.A.F (LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS FOUNDATION) which is a local non-profit organization in Sen Monorom province situated in the East of Cambodia. The project focuses on wildlife conservation and providing a true sanctuary for the Cambodian elephants. The organization is partnered with a Cambodian hill tribe called Bunong tribe, local authorities and residents in the area. The Mondulkiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary by L.E.A.F Cambodia is one of the only two registered NGOs/projects in the region so far which I think a great factor when planning to do elephant tours in Mondulkiri province.
L.E.A.F’s Mondulkiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the organization’s developing projects. This project currently sponsors the release and welfare of six ex-working elephants which are now free from heavy farm work and commercial tourist rides. These elephants are given the chance to be as what they are supposed to be – that is to live freely in their natural habitat and JUST BE ELEPHANTS.
The contributions raised from this eco-tourism program directly go to the community. The feeding and veterinary costs as well as the income for the indigenous families who own these elephants are just some of the things this project supports.
If you are planning to do elephant tours in Mondulkiri, Mondukiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the best choices since they combine conservation with education to the visiting tourists and does not even do entertainment acts with the elephants like playing soccer and painting. Elephant riding is also not allowed. What they rather offer you is to spend a day with these massive yet gentle animals, feed them, trek with them and wash them in the elephant pools.
About the Asian Elephants
Asian elephants play important role in the country’s culture and religion. They also play a critical role in maintaining the region’s forests; however, these Asian elephants are now endangered. In Cambodia, the elephants are used in the logging industry and/or heavy farm work. Some are also killed or hunted by poachers. Asian elephants are generally smaller and have shorter ears than their African counterparts.
Volunteering with Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary
Volunteering for the Cambodian elephants in Mondulkiri is one of the best experiences I have had so far. To be able to have a close encounter with them and to just simply see them roaming freely around their natural habitat made this experience worth remembering – In fact, it has already been embedded in my memories. I spent several days at the sanctuary which gave me the opportunity to do some labor work (which I had never done, honestly. I do online work, that is why), learn more about the projects, immerse myself in the Bunong culture and traditions, interact with the elephants, discover the hidden treasures kept within the lush Cambodian jungles and get along with the friendly locals.
I was with Chris, a volunteer from England during my entire elephant volunteering experience at the wildlife sanctuary. You can check his photos through his Instagram account here to give you some inspiration. Chris also decided to volunteer for the project and according to him it is the highlight of his trip to Cambodia.
As volunteers, we did the following tasks which you may also do if you decide to do elephant volunteering for the elephant and wildlife project.
Immersed Ourselves in the Bunong Culture and Traditions
Our accommodation at the sanctuary was pretty basic. We stayed in a traditional Bunong hut, a low, oval-shaped hut built from wood, bamboo and rattan. As what they always say, for you to fully immerse yourself in the culture, YOU HAVE TO LIVE LIKE A LOCAL. The Bunong have been living in Mondulkiri for hundreds of years. They are traditional mountain or hill tribe people, with cultural practices and traditions very different from typical Cambodians. In fact, they speak a completely different language and many of them still need to learn the ‘Khmer language‘. Though there was really a language barrier, I really enjoyed my time with them. They were just welcoming and always had the biggest smiles plastered on their faces.
Planted fruit trees on a 30-hectare land
A portrait of Thom who is from the Bunong tribe and works as one of the sanctuary’s guides. Thom just has a very pleasant personality and you can see how passionate he is about his job. He educated us on the Bunong culture and traditions and their ways of living.
Did some light construction work such as construction of bamboo railings and maintaining pathways to provide safe access to the elephant pools
My parents would be so proud of me by the time they see these photos. To be truly honest, I had never done construction work before and it was just an achievement to be able to use the tools and help construct railings and pathways at the sanctuary – Well, laptop and camera have always been my buddies for the last 5 years. Achievement unlocked, eh? Anyway, as you can see in the photo, there was this little monkey (a baby macaque) sitting pretty while Chris was doing his work. The little monkey is called Koh Niek, an orphan at the sanctuary that still needs to be cared for. She lost her parents when she was still newly born and the sanctuary has been her loving home since then.
Worked on the Elephant Pools
Chris and I were tasked to remove the stones that might cause inconvenience for the elephants and visiting tourists making their way through the pools. We actually battled it out since the water was ice cold plus the stones were a bit challenging to pull off.
Fed the Animals at the Rescue Center
When we were volunteering at the wildlife sanctuary, there were two monkeys being taken good care of. These monkeys were rescued and were given medical help and recovery due to shock, stress & malnutrition. At the Mondulkiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary, trafficked and illegally captive animals that have been rescued are given the opportunity to be treated and to recover. Eventually, when these animals have recovered, they will be released into the wild.
Helped to Feed the Elephants and Clean Them in the Elephant Pools
We got the chance to get up close to the gentle giants, hand feed them and even wash them in the elephant pools! The elephants in Mondulkiri mostly feed on grasses, bananas and banana trunks. We went to the farm where we harvested banana trunks and carried them all the way to the sanctuary. We cut the trunks into pieces, so the elephants would be able to munch on them easily. After that, we walked the elephants through the elephant pool to give them some bath!
In addition to that, we were able to experience one of the tours the project caters for the visiting tourists, The Elephant Trek.
The Elephant Trek
The Elephant Trek gave us the opportunity to experience and really scramble around the rich flora and fauna of the Cambodian jungles and be with the gentle giants. We started the journey with a visit to a sacred spirit forest which gave us stunning views from the top.
Royce who is one of the team members of the project was our guide and provided us information about the forests, jungles and about the Bunong culture and traditions. After a few hours of trekking through the hills, we then made our way to the place where the elephants were roaming around. We brought some delicious snacks for them – of course, their all time favorite, bananas.
Feeding the Elephants
I could not contain my happiness when I finally saw the gentle giants we would meet on that day. We first met Chellot who is a 48 year-old elephant. She actually came to us when she saw us making our way up there. We had the chance to touch her, take some photos with her, feed her with the bananas we brought and walk with her around the hill.
Soon after, we went up to see two more gentle giants that were much bigger. We also had the opportunity to feed them and take some photos with them.
Trekking with the Gentle Giants
After giving them with some treats, Royce told us that it was time to walk the elephants around. We had to make the elephants move and walk through the elephant pool so we could bathe them there. This involved walking them through the grasslands, jungles and then eventually arriving in the elephant pools (river).
Bathing and Washing the Elephants
Royce told us how important it was to bathe the elephants everyday. Elephants are highly dependent on water, not only for drinking but also for their skin and general hygiene. I was lucky to have experienced bathing these big yet gentle creatures. It was a dream come true for me. I must say that this was the part of the day that I best enjoyed.
The Over-all Elephant Volunteering & Wildlife Experience
I am very thankful that I found out about Mondulkiri Elephant &Wildlife Sanctuary because this was such a meaningful experience for me, especially getting up close with such gentle and heart-warming creatures.
Another goal has been ticked off my list. My elephant volunteering with Mondulkiri Elephant & Wildlife Sanctuary is definitely one of the best adventures I have ever had. As I am writing this, I am starting to miss the experience, the people I lived with and the friendships I made through my volunteering journey. I will absolutely be back and hope to see the same team or even more team members and of course, the gentle giants.
My elephant volunteering with this worthy project did not end when I left the wildlife sanctuary. In fact, it was just the beginning as I would be putting my marketing background to good use by helping the project with social media and digital marketing. I hope you can help us create awareness for this project and encourage more people/visiting tourists to support this eco-tourism project in Mondulkiri, Cambodia.
Would you also be interested in elephant volunteering in Mondulkiri, Cambodia? How about extending your help by supporting the project? You can read more here.
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I have always been passionate about getting involved in charities which have something to do with humanities, wildlife conservation and eco-tourism. I'm happy to have supported a developing project in #Mondulkiri, Cambodia called #LEAF which has a strong focus on wildlife conservation and providing a true sanctuary for ex-working Asian elephants. Since I have offered my help to them when it comes to digital marketing, yes, I'll be working on that side of the project, I hope that you can also support me/ the organization to create awareness for their initiatives and to promote ethical tourism in the region. Will keep everyone updated as to how to participate/help support this worthy project. #EastofCambodia #volunteering #elephants #savetheElephants #ecotourism #responsibletourism