While I visited the Elephant Sanctuary of the Mondulkiri Project I had the chance to interview Mr Tree, the lead guide here in the sanctuary. Mr Tree has been working with the project since it began and has a strong passion for preserving the natural habitat of the Elephants and rescuing them from human exploitation. In this interview he discusses the importance of the project and the aim to preserve Cambodia’s declining Elephant population.
Interview with Mr Tree, 20th December 2015
What makes you so passionate about this project?
I have been living in this community for many years and I understand that the tribal people have a lack of understanding for the importance of Elephants. I worry about the future of the Elephant population. The village people use the Elephants like machines to make money, they do not understand that they need to be looked after and protected.
How does the local community benefit from the Mondulkiri Project?
The Mondulkiri Project rents this area of forest from the tribal people and this helps to provide income for them, so that they will not cut down the trees in the forest to make room for farming and to sell the wood for money. Instead they get money from us. We also have more than 20 full and part time staff that work here, and we pay them a good wage so that they help us preserve the forest instead of working to destroy it.
What was the situation like for Elephants in the Mondulkiri province before the project was founded?
Elephants would live with their owners. During the daytime they would work, being used to transport heavy goods or being used for tourist rides. Many of the Elephants come here with scares on their skin and abscess’ on their backs from carrying too much weight. They also would not get enough food. They need 150 kilograms of food per day and owners cannot give this to them. At nighttime they would chain them in an area of the forest to ensure they would not leave. They do not want them to walk far away so they will be difficult to find again.
What is the situation like now for Elephants here at the sanctuary?
The Elephants are now able to be in their natural habitat. They have enough food each day and can roam through the forest as they wish. As they are domestic creatures they have gotten used to humans. At first they were scared of us but when they realised we wouldn’t hurt them and we gave them Bananas and fruit they began to understand that they no longer would be treated badly. They are happy to stay here so they stay here. We do not allow tourists to ride the Elephants, we do what the Elephants like to do, not what we like to do.
How does the Mondulkiri Project help to protect the forest?
Because we rent the forest off the local villagers this means that they will not be able to cut down any trees. Much of Mondulkiri has been logged and now only 30% of its forests remain. If we rent the forest for the Elephants it will stop the villagers from logging because they will receive money from our rent.
Do you believe without projects like these that the Asian Elephant in Cambodia will cease to exist?
I truly believe that projects like this are needed to keep the Elephant population in Cambodia. Too many Elephants have been killed for their tusks, so many have been taken into domestic trade and sent to work as tourist attractions in places like Siem Reap. There used to be 500 wild Elephants in Mondulkiri. There are now only 116. They have lost so much of their habitat. They need breeding programs and more forest to increase their numbers.
What are the Mondulkiri Project's plans for the future?
We hope to see an increase in funding from more tourists, and donations so that we can get more Elephants and start a breeding program. We currently have 5 Elephants that are all female and we are raising money to buy a male. This will cost a lot of money, over $40,000 US. We also want to try and stop the villagers from cutting down the trees by providing them with another income and educating them. Some families are starting to care more, which is a good sign. For now our main aim is to start the breeding program and to share the project with more people.
What can travellers do to help preserve the Asian Elephant in Cambodia?
If all the travellers in the world would stop riding on Elephants then there would be no reason for people to send the Elephants to places like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh for work. This can save the Elephant. We need to realise that the Elephant is important in Cambodia and understand the importance of their natural habitat as well.
If you would like to find out more about the Mondulkiri Project you can visit their website here.