Sanctuary Ethos and Facts
These days there are many imitation “elephant sanctuaries”
Anyone can claim they have the elephant’s best interest in mind… but do they really? We are here to help.
Our key motivation over the past 14 years in developing the Elephant Valley Project has been to set an example for how to look after and treat elephants. Being a highly endangered animal our main goal is to give the elephants back their independence, natural behavior and dignity.
Our goal is to simply let the elephants just be elephants in a stress free natural habitat.
Finding out how to actually achieve this has played a major part in how we do what we do at our elephant sanctuary. The process has been a real journey, but this is how we arrived at developing our elephants’ routine treatment and the program with which our volunteers and visitors interact with elephants in a responsible way, down to a fine art.
From a visitor’s point of view this implies that ‘putting the elephants first’ also means that we don’t do many of the activities that you can find elsewhere (feeding, swimming, riding) and in turn we feel that this difference has come to define why we are a True Sanctuary for captive elephants.
It is estimated that 60-75% of wildlife tourist attractions have negative welfare impacts on individual animals and their conservation status. Furthermore, 80% of tourists visiting a wildlife attraction will NOT respond to the welfare status of these animals. (Moorhouse, et al. 2015)
With thousands of elephants globally involved in tourism, it is imperative you make sure you’re supporting projects with responsible animal welfare.
The EVP sanctuary is key to the elephants’ future as our elephants represent the living breathing real elephant herds that are in the forest and as we see the rest of the forest slowly disappear outside of our sanctuary we are are investing in protecting that forest and Cambodia’s last wild elephant populations.
An elephant sanctuary, by its very definition, is a safe place for elephants to live. It is a place that allows elephants to stop working, retire and slowly become real elephants again in their natural habitat. It is a place where the elephants’ best interests always come first and not the visitors’ desires. Where the elephants make the choice of what they want to do on a daily basis. It is a place where they can live with a higher degree of freedom and dignity that they have not before experienced, in a space that never before seemed possible.
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst – Access to appropriate food and clean water.
2. Freedom from discomfort- Appropriate environment with ease and freedom of movement.
3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease – Regular health checks for rapid diagnosis and treatment
4. Freedom to express natural behavior – Providing sufficient space, facilities, and social company.
5. Freedom from fear and distress- Ability to seek privacy and absence of human initiated contact.
Just because a facility or camp has the word “project” or “sanctuary” in the name does not mean they adhere to these policies or have the elephants best interest in mind over profits or tourist numbers. Ask as many questions as possible before you decide to visit, evaluate the answers you receive, if you do not not feel comfortable with the answers you receive do not visit. It is that simple.
“The questions you should ask any tourism operator, however, regardless of the wildlife in their care, are the same. As responsible travelers, you want to make sure that you are not contributing to the mistreatment of animals, but often, what you see or hear on a one-day trip is considerably different than what’s happening behind the scenes. Ask questions and evaluate the answers you receive.
Here are some questions you should think about asking when deciding whether or not you want to give a particular facility your business:
Elephants, for instance, live relatively stable social lives in the wild because they live in female-led kin groups. In captivity where space is always limited, this is usually not replicable and unrelated animals may fight with one another. Thus, the relationships between seasoned handlers and the animals they care for are an important part of managing the daily social lives of animals in captivity.
When you’re on vacation, you don’t want to have to worry that your family’s experience could be hurting wildlife. The best traveler is an informed one. Therefore, ask questions and get answers that you’re satisfied with. If an answer sounds like an excuse or if your question is dismissed, you should wonder whether what you’re doing is helping or hurting the local wildlife.”
– Joshua Plotnik, Ph.D. and Thitibon Plotnik, D.V.M., Think Elephants
Across Asia some elephants living in captivity, especially in camps, face horrendous living conditions such as: Constant chaining with very limited movement, limited diet, isolation from other elephants, little or no veterinary care, unsuitable ground such as concrete (which is harmful to their feet), and bright sunlight where it may be up to 40 degrees with limited shade.
There are estimated 70 captive elephants in Cambodia of which an estimated 39 live in Mondulkiri Province. This is a tiny number compared to the rest of Asia.
Elephants in Cambodia have faced many challenges for centuries from war to overwork. As times changed elephants moved from traditional lifestyles of farm work to much more demanding careers like logging, construction, and tourism.
The Asian Elephant is an important part of the Bunong (the indigenous people here in the Mondulkiri highlands) people’s culture and belief system. They are an important connection to the spirits that the Bunong believe live in the forests, mountains, and houses in the villages.
At EVP we have a high level of respect and reverence for Bunong cultural practices and we incorporate this in much of what we do.
We work with elephant owners so that elephants do not have to work and the Bunong people can still own their elephants and earn an income from them. From the elephant’s point of view, the greatest bonus is that they can live again with other elephants in their natural habitat and spend their days eating grass and bamboo in our sanctuary.
As a cultural tenant of the Bunong animist beliefs breeding elephants in captivity is bad luck and is not practiced. Therefore the captive population of Cambodia is for the most part middle aged and will most likely be the last remaining captive elephants in Cambodian history.
Here at the Elephant Valley Project our goal is to advocate and care for this remaining captive population the best we can. We want to offer those elephants that do come to live here the best remaining years of their life in a stress free, natural, dignified habitat.
Here at ELIE we believe elephants never really belonged in captivity, they belong in the wild. They are wild animals that need vast tracts of grassland and forest to roam across and exist in. Catching an elephant in the wild is enormously destructive to their existence as a rare, unique and highly endangered species.
Asian elephants are highly endangered (as classified by the IUCN) and their habitat across Asia has been seriously depleted. They can only now be found in fragmented habitats, which can prevent them from crossing borders and being able to breed freely. The risk is that on the current rate of decline, Asian elephants could become extinct within three generations.
Across Cambodia there are approximately 400-600 elephants still living in the wild of those numbers an estimated 250 reside in the vast protected areas in Mondulkiri Province. This again is a very small number compared with the rest of Asia.
The elephants are under great threat or poaching, snaring, and habitat loss. As more and more people spread into the highlands of Cambodia and the forest is cut down the elephants are pushed into less than ideal habitat and have many more problems with human/elephant conflict.
It is imperative that we focus on wild elephant conservation through protection habitats, support the government to patrol and protect these forests and support local communities who are the tradition custodians of the forests surrounding these areas.
This is not something we support nor offer at EVP.
Popular across much of Asia, giving tourists rides on their elephants is a relatively easy way for an elephant owner (don’t forget that an elephant is an expensive creature to care for and their owners have to find a means to pay for this) to earn an income.
Done correctly, for example one person bareback on the neck without the big basket, it does not harm the elephant.
Done incorrectly, it can be one of the worst methods of working an elephant, which unfortunately is the case for most elephants working this way at the moment.
An elephant sanctuary however is a place where an elephant gets the chance to live a more natural existence and there is no place for such an activity. When we first started the EVP, for the first 6 months, we actually rode the elephants bareback when they went to graze, but soon found that it is far more interesting to actually observe the elephant being an elephant.
Needless to say it is also better for the elephant as they can freely dust or throw mud on themselves. Morally speaking, it is also odd to think that it is ‘OK’ to ride an elephant that is so rare and not acceptable to ride another animal of equivalent endangered status such as a panda, tiger, giraffe or hippo.
Activities such as riding go hand in hand with painting, dancing, and any other sort of exploitative practice that keep elephants in detrimental living and working conditions.
At EVP the only people you may see riding an elephant would be that elephants highly trained professional mahout. These individuals have a deep relationship with each elephant and have gained that respect level. This is not detrimental to the elephant and is only done in situations of function or safety.
This is not something we support nor offer at EVP.
Also popular with visitors throughout South East Asia is “bathing” with elephants.
Many people while on an elephant trek are invited to strip down to bikinis/shorts and jump in a river or pool and ‘swim with an elephant’. Apart from the fact that this is often culturally insensitive to the local population (as they are quite conservative in comparison to our western ways and rarely show much skin or body shape), this is also inherently unnatural for an elephant and has no place in a true elephant sanctuary.
For example, you would never be invited to go and swim with wild elephants in a river, so why would you jump into a river with a captive elephant? The elephants would never choose for visitors to join them; they prefer to lie down, kick around and enjoy themselves. But when carrying people or having a group of visitors surround them in the water they are forced to stay still and it becomes just another performance.
Swimming may be “fun” for tourists but this is stressful and not enjoyable for an elephant.
Also, swimming with elephants is NOT SAFE for various reasons. Asian elephants can weigh three to four tons and can move through water far quicker than a human. There are also serious concerns about the transmission of tropical infections, both from and to humans such as tuberculosis. Even more likely is the very real risk of bacterial infections being passed to tourists due to the urine and fecal matter in the water used by elephants.
The only individuals you will see in water with elephants at The Elephant Valley Project will be our trained mahout staff. Highly trained and practiced in proper washing techniques these individuals provide excellent bathing care for the elephants. They will often mount the elephants to examine their skin and properly scrub and care for each area of the elephants. The elephants are not bothered by this as these are their daily companions and you will see them step back afterward and the elephants exhibit natural bathing behavior.
From our 14 years of research the vast majority (with the exception of only a few) elephants in Cambodia are first generation caught from the wild. When bred in captivity or caught from the wild, elephants need to be ‘broken’ to accept human control.
Breeding in captivity is often promoted as a conservation activity that helps prevent poaching, but this may not necessarily be the case if done for commercial purposes.
Elephants don’t breed in captivity easily and they have a very long gestation period (22 months), so the number that can be bred in captivity is very low.
This means there will continue to be a demand for elephants to be taken from the wild while there is an interest from close contact tourism.
The breeding of a few in captivity, combined with animals poached from the wild, helps to cover up the illegal trafficking of elephants (as with other endangered species.)
A captive bred animal is highly unlikely to be introduced into the wild successfully and without habitat protection and scientific management of the breeding process, the captive bred animal may be inbred and of lower genetic quality.
The Bunong due to their beliefs do not breed their elephants in captivity. They believe this practice upsets the elephant spirit in the forest and can bring illness and bad luck upon themselves and those around them.
At EVP we worry very much that this new push or developing trend by elephant operations in the region promoting plans for breeding programs will grow to be a large problem down the road. Possibly hiding illegal wildlife trafficking and trade.
Many of these camps claiming to be developing captive breeding programs in the region lack the facilities or even the basic know how to accomplish this process safely and successfully. Do not be fooled.
The future of Cambodia’s elephants is in the wild not more babies born into captivity.
Elephants are NOT domesticated.
Cows, horses, dogs etc. have been domesticated – a process which is done through selective, human-guided breeding over at least 10 generations or more of an animal.
You cannot domesticate an individual animal during its lifespan. Even though elephants have been kept by humans for around 3,000 years, they have been, on the whole, poached directly from the wild, with perhaps one generation (or rarely two) being bred in captivity.
Domestication is a breeding process where you select the characteristics you want and breed the animals with those characteristics over many generations. This has never been done with elephants.
Because all captive elephants are not domesticated animals, for them to be kept in captivity with close human interaction conditions can often involve:
– Constant restraint
– Vulnerability to sudden outbursts of human targeted aggression leading to injuries and fatalities
– Cruel and painful process to break the elephants to accept human control
– Development of health and behavioral problems
ELIE partners with the Department of Environment, the Department of Agriculture and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), here in Mondulkiri Cambodia to support elephants in captivity and protect the wild elephant habitat.
Recent surveys have put the wild elephant population in the protected area of Keo Siema Wildlife Sanctuary (KSWS) that EVP borders at 120-140 head, making it one of the largest in Cambodia and consequently one of the most important to protect. To help protect the species these wild elephants and their habitat protection is the key!
ELIE contributes to the protection of this forest by supporting teams of local rangers and community rangers to patrol the KSWS and the local community forest around the EVP. We also run reforestation and forest management programs within the borders of the sanctuary and with the local community.
Patrols are attempting to reduce illegal activities such as illegal logging, hunting, trapping and land clearance.
ELIE also provides emergency response to any wild / captive elephant situation in the region. Bringing our expertise and trained staff and vets to assist in each unique situation.
• Share your understanding of appropriate elephant welfare. Talk, blog, post, write, video, all the above!
• Keep in mind the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare when visiting a venue with wild animals of any kind.
• Ask questions and do your research before you visit.
• Don’t ride elephants or patronize shows where the elephants are clearly made to perform unnatural or human-like activities. Remember if you have doubts DO NOT VISIT.
• If wanting to help elephants or experience them at close range, please support a ‘commendable venue’ or at least a venue that clearly prioritizes the elephant’s welfare.
• Before and during your travels learn about local cultures and their connections to local wildlife. Act with respect.
• Set up petitions, organize marches, lobby politicians, and spread the word.
• Volunteer if you have the time, volunteering directly is a great way to contribute to the cause. See our volunteer page for more info!
• Donate directly to programs you support who are supporting elephants. You can find our donations page here to keep up with all our current fundraising efforts.