Activities,  Attractions,  Cambodia

Elephant Valley Project – E.L.I.E. – The Local Perspective

We had read a lot about the Elephant Valley Project, an Eco-Tourism Project by E.L.I.E (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment) in Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri, and um’d and ah’d whether to do it or not. At US$60 per person per day (US$30 if you volunteer – half day with elephants, half day building, or gardening etc.), this wasn’t cheap for us and tricky to justify and fit into our tight budget. We did a lot of online research and found only great reviews on Jack Highwood’s Elephant Valley Project. We had heard and read a lot about the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand and other countries, so it was a relief to read the excellent information provided about the Elephant Valley Project. The website is well designed and filled with feel good pictures and stories, painting a lovely picture of a safe heaven for these poor elephants that have been worked so hard by the locals in the past. Trip Advisor alone was almost enough to convince us that this is a good thing and that we wanted to participate. Emma loves elephants, so we decided to opt for the US$30 volunteering option and made the journey out to Sen Monorom.

We arrived in Sen Monorom during torrential rain and got on a motorbike taxi to our guest house. Wet and hungry we decided to browse the menu for food and much to our surprise found a page on the Elephant Valley Project in the menu. This was a very interesting read and put a new perspective on things. It was the locals’ opinions about the project. We spent the next half an hour trying to verify this information online, however were unable to find anything remotely negative about EVP. After dinner we decided to speak to the owner of the guest house about it. He was immediately very passionate and showed us a petition signed by about 250 local people. It seemed that they had translated all of EVP’s claims into Khmer, which the local people then read. They signed the petition because they do not agree with EVP’s claims. This guy also spoke a lot about how the project denies the livelihoods of locals by removing tourists and business from them. The locals are not able to defend themselves and explain their own practices in good English, nor are they able to manage a website or a Trip Advisor account, like the Elephant Valley Project.

Information about the EVP we found in a menu
Information about the EVP we found in a menu
One page from the petition against the EVP by the locals.
One page from the petition against the EVP by the locals.

The next day we spoke to another guest house owner and when we asked about the Elephant Valley Project, he immediately and passionately replied “Do you want the truth or not?”
“Yes, we do.”

He began to explain it to us very emotionally. All of what he told us was a far cry from the descriptions on Elephant Valley Project’s website. It seems a large majority of the Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri and native Bunong communities believe that the information provided by the Elephant Valley Project about the local Bunong people mistreating their elephants is untrue and a way of manipulating tourists. It was explained to us that their livelihoods have changed from hunting to tourism over the years due to deforestation, so the people actually rely on their elephants a lot more now than in the past. They couldn’t understand why the E.L.I.E Project claimed that they were mistreating and starving their own elephants, especially since the animals have recently grown paramount to their livelihoods. The guy we spoke to said that the jungle alone provides plenty of food for these elephants and mahouts (elephant handlers) as young as 12 years old can easily catch their elephant again after it has fed in the jungle naturally. This is obviously not by force, but because of the relationship the Bunong people form with their elephants. They are treated as family.

The people we spoke to were incredibly passionate, almost angry, and got very worked up when they started talking about the Elephant Valley Project. They don’t agree with the EVP, but at the same time feel they shouldn’t bombard tourists with information that they didn’t ask for, as they fear this would damage their own businesses. One of them claimed that the Elephant Valley Project is so popular that he estimates 85% of tourists to Mondulkiri come for the project only. Just like us.

They also told us that the Elephant Valley Project is a public community centre, and therefore, no donations are needed. Certainly not the US$60 per person fee charged by the EVP. One owner said that he has to pay the full fee to enter the valley even though it is his home. They also claim that hardly any of this money goes to the mahouts and the communities. Most interestingly, they claim that the EVP actually rents some of the elephants from the communities for about US$125 per month, while charging US$60 per person per day. One has to wonder where all that money is going. The locals believe EVP is a company driven by profits which exploits naive tourists who firmly believe they are doing something good for the indigenous Cambodian population and their elephants. We were also told that in 2011 the EVP was forced to shut down for six months because a petition of 100 local signatures sued the Elephant Valley Project. The company was able to reopen so soon by paying off government officials. Interestingly, Trip Advisor only has reviews from March 2013, however they have been operating since 2006/2007.

These are our findings and if you come to Sen Monorom we encourage you to talk to the locals and make up your own mind instead of just being a Trip Advisor and/or Lonely Planet zombie. It is also possible that the guesthouses are annoyed that some foreigner has come in and taken their business of organising elephant treks away from them. However, all of this has been very interesting, and we’re not so keen on funding a private business, and a private man’s retirement fund, if this is the case. We have therefore decided not to book a day with the Elephant Valley Project.


  • John

    Thank you Lionel for providing visitors to Mondulkiri some important information about the Elephant Valley Project. From my time talking to locals in Sen Monorom it sounds like the EVP is a business all about making money for its English owner. Elephant welfare comes second.

    If you look at their website you will see that three elephants have recently died there. Apparently these were young elephant, not old elephants. Locals told me these elephants were either not fed enough or were given the wrong medicine by untrained staff.

    As for people’s claims that Elephant Valley Project employs a lot of local people – EVP makes lots of money having Western volunteers pay to do farming, fence making, painting and other manual work. Why aren’t the local indigenous people paid to do this work? It is not responsible tourism if you miss this opportunity to empower the locals via employment and income.

    If you use a local guide or a local organisation to see elephants when you are in Mondulkiri you can be guaranteed the profits stay in Cambodia and do not go overseas. This not the case when you book with the Elephant Valley Project. Beware of businesses masquerading as ngo’s.

    • thailou

      It looks like you didn’t even consider what Jean Marie David posted. Not pleasing the local people doesn’t mean doing the wrong thing. Coexist within the community and its needs not always means coexist within the animals needs. Just get the chance to visit the place yourself before taking conclusions. The local culture allows the mahouts to do anything they think it’s better for the Elephants, which is far from what Elephants want. Carrying tourists on their back the whole day, being bitten hard if they react against their orders… Does that sound good to you?

  • Chris

    It’s really disturbing that even after looking into it, you decided to climb on the back of an elephant because some of the locals told you it was better for you to pay them instead of the animal welfare organization that you already knew to be reputable. They did get the predicted response from their page in the menu – ‘their cut’ of all the attention that EVP gets. This is exactly the kind of tourism that promotes animal mistreatment, over work, and abuse. I’m glad you didn’t have to witness any of this first hand, but tourists rarely see the devastating results that their stays have.

    • lionel

      A bit of research would educate you that the proper way to ride on an elephant is high on the neck with the legs tucked behind their ears, which is what I did for about 5 minutes. The rest of our trek consisted of walking behind the elephant, which stopped to eat and scratch at will. A flash online presence does not make an organisation reputable and often a little perspective away from behind the keyboard goes a long way.

      • thailou

        I have to agree with Chris. The simple act of climbing on the back of an Elephant shows how ‘remarkable’ man can be. It’s all about being on top, on power over something that moves. It looks so inoffensive, doesn’t it? It’s just 5min, right? Men will never be happy with just appreciation.

  • Jean-Marie David

    I just came back from a 2 weeks stay (NGO work) in Sen Monorom where i’ve been 4 times in 6 years. I know very well the EVP, i’ve been a volunteer 2 times and a visitor at least one more time.

    The situation is bit more complex than that. Sen Monorom is developing a tourism industry at a great pace, visitors are more and more to come in the Mondulkiri province and everybody here wants to benefit from it.
    Some of local tourist guides are actually angry with the work of EVP, but you did ask people in the guesthouses but not people who are actually working in the Project.

    The EVP employs now more than 60 to 80 Bunong people, as Mahouts, Managers, House attendants, Carpenters, Cookers…Not only does it pay wages and rice to these families but it supports a local healthcare program, training, and Bunong initiatives about forest properties (Bunong people livehood is based on forest resources and have to fight/gain official reconnaissance about this from the governement).

    The EVP is hosting domestic elephants and aims to own them, but since elephants owners are not keen to sell this asset, EVP is renting them so that the owner does not face any loss of income.
    The idea is to put the elephant in the valley and to let him do what it’s was created to do : make the elephant ; it’s mostly about wandering in the forest, eating leaves and fruits, selfcovering with mud, and certainly not carrying tourists on its back (100 to 250 kg) whole days.
    Some of the owners did understand this very well : they rent their asset to the EVP, wait for some months for the elephant to regain in health and energy, and claim them back for farm/tourist work…

    The EVP’s vision about elephant care does not match the shortsight vision of most wanabee-local-tourist-guide which consists of massively exploiting their elephants, even ill or injured in “jungle treks”. And that makes them angry about the EVP and say things on the paper you read.
    Btw EVP is renting the forest : around 11000 hectares (if I remember well), to the local community.

    So the money goes to the community (renting of valley and elephants, wages, health program) and to the elephants, not to personal profit.

    Last sunday I visited an elephant near Pu tang village (O Reang district, not far from Sen Monorom) with one of the EVP’s staff : the elephant was covered with tumors and fly bites, chained in the sun with no shadow (did you know that asian elephants are forest anilmals and can suffer sunburns?), without water/mud…
    If you’ve visited the valley or know a bit about elephants, you’d know that they spent a large amount of time to cover themselves with mud and/or dust, to protect them from sun and insects bites; which they cannot do when they carry tourists during a whole day, else they’d get tourists angry and got beaten, hard, by their mahout.

    Yes, local people manage elephants since ages, and don’t appreciate another point of view about elephant carring, especially when it does not match their business hopes.

    So nothing is as simple as black and white, but if you were right to not give full credits to internet and Tripadvisor, it appears that you missed a good talk with the managers and volunteers from the EVP; they could have give you their point of view.
    If you ever come back in Mondulkiri, please meet them, it’s worth the trip.

    • lionel

      Thanks Jean-Marie for the very insightful comment. It would have been nice for us to stay longer and experience both the EVP and the local treks to really compare. Unfortunately weather and time did not allow us to do this.

      We did meet two people that volunteered at EVP who really enjoyed their experiences.

      The elephant we walked with seemed in very good health. Of course we don’t know the full story, but our mahout seemed to really care for the elephant. At times it appeared that the elephant was more in control of the trek than the mahout!

    • Ming Ming

      Dear Jean Marie,
      Your comments are important as they emphasize the actual problem :

      1) you do not live in Mondulkiri yourself – and after your visits and volunteering at EVP you have such a negative view of locals and you are blindly repeating what you have heard at EVP. just a reminder to you – elephants get chained at EVP as well. Just look at Lionel’s photos – does this elephant look mistreated to you ?
      These accusations are the reason the NGO is slipping into trouble.

      2) All animals in Mondulkiri may suffer from infections and bites in the wet season – I have treated dogs, cats, cattle, people and elephants while working in Mondulkiri.
      Infestations and infections can easily develope from a minor scratch and elephants scratch vigorously – it does not mean the elephant had been abused as E.L.I.E often suggests.
      most abcesses and infections are easy to treat in animals with ivermac spray that costs R 6000. Treating an abcess on an elephant is basic and owners can do it themselve. I have read ELIE classify this basic home treatment as “vetrinary care”.

      3) An NGO should peacefully coexist within the communities and serve its so called aiding purpose. The reason for the protest is far from just jealousy of the local guides. The entire community of Sen Monorom, including the Bunong population has joined this protest because they are unhappy with this organisation. 5 stars on trip advisors will not resolve they’re local problems and this could unfortunately escalate.

      4) You mentioned the large staff and great kindness of the NGO- I personally think that EVP has greatly trained staff ( that earns less than %5 of the coordinator wage ) and that they are very able to run EVP on their own. Perhaps it’s time for them to become sustainable and lead their own community project without a master ?


    • thailou

      Thanks Jean Marie, for sharing the truth. Coexist within the local people’s needs does not mean to coexist within the animals needs. Locals let tourists climb on the back of the Elephants, for a whole day… That is for sure telling us how much they care (?)

  • Ming Ming

    You can trust the locals – Khmers love most NGOs and would not react this way unless there is a problem with them.
    for years they have been trying to tell us that the UN brought AIDS to Cambodia – people’s were laughing at them.. Oh, it can’t be – the UN still denies, but there it is : external link
    This is another inconvenient truth that foreigners have have to face – the reason the EVP gets great reviews is because visitors actually believe it is a cause and a rescue center – Well – They have been rescuing the same 5 elephants for 8 years. If you look at their website – you can see that they are currently raising $ 60000 to buy the same elephants that are already on the project… lol. You can enter Phnom Takmao for $ 5 but this Brit owned chrity scam is $ 60 The Khmers are extremely tolerant people – especially out in Mondulkiri…

    • lionel

      Thanks for your comment Ming Ming. There are always two sides to a story and by far not all NGOs are truly helpful. It is really a shame that innocent elephants are caught in the middle of it all.

    • Troy

      what a great summing up from a Cambodian point of view. I suggest reader go and read the link that was posted in the post also great insight into Cambodia

  • Loman

    Thank you for the true facts. I feel for the locals. Is that mean Emma does not get to see the elephants at all in this village?

  • Arougue Deread

    Love your work. NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATION is the new term for old Colonial Imperialism. Ever heard of the East India Company? The greatest NGO that ever was.

    How’s the elephantisias going Lionel?

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