Where Elephants Roam Free
I spent two days at the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, an elephant sanctuary that has both elephants and local people at heart.
Places have a strange way of communicating to those who explore them. Sometimes a single detail, a glimpse, a smell is all it takes for our mind to see. Sometimes years are not enough, and we inevitably surrender to the fact that we are not meant to grasp the truth below the surface.
As the road turns to dust, this is all I can think about. What is it about this place that is making my muscles less tense and my mind so light? Why do I feel at ease sitting uncomfortably in the back of a white pick-up truck headed to a forest I know nothing about, in a part of the world that is far from everything that I consider familiar? I hold onto the backpack between my legs as the car drives fast on red dust and dry terrain. We pass a small village, food stalls, children walking to school, skinny cows grazing dry grass on the side of the road. We stop only when there is nobody in sight anymore and the sun-dried plain opens up to the forest. Tall trees are awaiting, I can see them, I can feel them. But it’s not time yet, for me to meet them. I jump off the pick-up truck and my fingers automatically run through my hair trying to untangle what the wind has so carelessly combed into a million, little knots. I give up. I take my backpack, and follow the group of people that are gathering below what looks like the gate to a different world.
The Elephant Valley Project is an elephant sanctuary in the heart of Mondulkiri province, Cambodia. Their goal, as simple as it sounds, is to just let elephants be elephants in a stress-free environment. No riding the elephants, bathing with them, or feeding them.
The organization that runs the sanctuary, the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment, was founded in 2006 to provide veterinary care and education to the families and communities that owned captive elephants throughout the province. Fourteen years later, the sanctuary hosts ten beautiful elephants and the organization has established itself in the area, helping a number of elephant owners take better care of their animals and of the environment that they both depend on.
It’s the simplicity of their message that caught my attention as I was researching different sanctuaries across the country, but it’s their involvement with the local community that really convinced me to choose this project over many others.
The young Bunong man standing in front of us, talking to us about elephant care under a tall mango tree, is proof that I made a good decision. He speaks English with a strong, but clear accent and he makes jokes as he talks that amuse the group. When he finally leads the way to the forest, I keep looking back as if to say goodbye. It’s time for me to meet the trees and the majestic creatures that live by them. Those who say that forests are silent, peaceful places, have clearly never been here. The buzzing, chirping, yelping, shrieking doesn’t stop, even when our group of ten chatty tourists walks by. Behind every leaf, there are countless tiny worlds.
I look up, I feel small. I can’t see the sky anymore, if not for small patches of blue against the bright green of the trees. I am walking, but the muscles in my body have never felt so relaxed. Even my neck, where tension has accumulated over the years, is finally free to stretch up. Our guide has been telling us about the elephants that live in the forest, their diet, their stories and the stories of their Mahout — their owners. Every once in a while, he points at trees and calls them by name. Some trees have beautiful symbols carved on their trunks: “If you see a beehive, you carve your name on the tree,” explains our guide. “So the rest of the community knows that they can come to you for honey.”
According to the Bunong, the indigenous community living in the province of Mondulkiri, actions in the forest are governed by religious rules that keep man and nature in balance. They believe that nature is populated by spirits, both good and bad, and that these must be obeyed and appeased. For centuries, elephants were central to Bunong’s culture, but the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge disrupted the harmony between man and nature leading to a sharp decline in the elephant population and a significant loss in traditional knowledge. The Elephant Valley Project is, for many Bunong, the chance to reconnect to their roots, to restore the lost balance and to find their way back to the forest.
Our guide walks us to the banks of a sleepy river, where we stop, drink some water, and wait. As two elephants emerge slowly from the forest, their wrinkled backs, grey, pink-ish ears, and deep, dark eyes are the first things I see. It takes a few moments for my mind to register what I am witnessing, the beauty and elegance of creatures that I almost feel should be from another world. We, for sure, don’t deserve them.
They move around in their forest-kingdom like gentle souls, their trunks reach out for wild ginger, of which they are gluttonous, and their tails slowly sway. A small, female elephant of around 50 years old soon becomes my favorite. Ruby, that’s her name, is sensibly smaller than the other elephants, but she has the confidence of a real leader and she always keeps an eye on us as she protects her herd. By looking at her, you wouldn’t tell that she worked in logging her entire life. “When she first arrived at the Elephant Valley Project, she used to cower to the ground every time someone held a stick or branch,” recalls our guide. “But she has fully recovered now, mentally and physically.”
It’s hard to describe what I’m feeling looking at her roaming in the forest, but it’s somewhat similar to a deep, inconceivable gratitude — for the world, the universe, this moment in time. By the end of the day, when we walk back to basecamp where we are spending the night, my eyes are full and my mind is calm.
The camp is composed of several wooden huts and a main, slightly elevated cabin with a simple kitchen and a dining room. At the top of the cabin, a large terrace-like platform overlooks the forest. I sit back and watch the sun set behind the trees. Suddenly the sky turns pink, orange, red, dark blue and finally black. The night envelops everything and yet the forest is still not silent. Different sounds and noises are up now, I listen carefully to each one trying to imagine what creatures they belong to. I go to sleep an hour after sunset, with what I feel is the whole universe around me, and I wake up at sunrise with the croaking of a big bird outside my window. I lay in bed for a few long minutes, slowly waking up every cell in my body. There is something extremely natural and definitely primordial in falling asleep and waking up with the rhythm of the Earth, and yet I cannot think of the last time I did it.
We spend the day volunteering around the camp, building the roof of a small plant nursery. Replanting autoctone species serves multiple purposes, including providing the elephants with the right plants to feed from: bananas, tamarind, wild ginger…
As I help nail down metal sheets to the wooden structure that will soon become the nursery, I cannot help but go back to the questions I asked myself on the back of the pick-up truck.
If there are indeed places that speak to those who explore them, this corner of the world has made itself loud and clear to me. I feel like every single particle in this forest has spoken to me in a non-verbal language, a secret whispering that has filled me with warmth and gratitude. I try to put it into words, but I already know that I won’t be able to. And perhaps that’s just how it should be, that’s how the secret whispering doesn’t get lost in the noise of the world, how it survives the world itself, how others get to experience it — untouched and unspoken.