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The Mondulkiri Project is an elephant sanctuary in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia, providing a preserved forest area to protect the forest and the locals who depend on it, and an area for rescued elephants to live in peace and safety.
Along with EARS Asia, I visited to find out about their ambitious plans to conserve the last of Cambodia's lush forest and the Cambodian elephant, and one very easy way you can help them today.
We start early at the project's lodge as Mr. Tree, a local Cambodian who owns and runs the project, is busy preparing breakfast for the visitors. We are met by co-founder Lee Hudson who helped set up the Mondulkiri Project.
The Tree Lodge is surrounded by beautiful forest but there is a big patch of brown not too far away, where the trees have been levelled. We ask about the missing patch of forest. "That just happened last week." says Lee, "Out here, trees are just money standing up in the ground."
Our group for the day piles into a truck and we head off to the forest. We arrive at the top of a hill overlooking the forest and Mr. Tree shows the expanse of forest ahead of us, an area of land rented from local village families, each for a 30 year lease. All that forest is safe, but the rest of it is still up for grabs. He points to a nearby rubber plantation that has just opened, swapping lush natural forest for eerily aligned rubber trees.
Everyone pitches in and helps to carry the food for both humans and elephants as we walk down the muddy hillside (very carefully, after the previous night's rain). Mr. Tree is a very passionate speaker and quite the character, having experienced a lot throughout his life. The forest and the animals are obviously very close to his heart, and his passion, hope and frustration are obvious as he explains to why they are saving elephants and how focused the Mondulkiri Project is on improving the way of life for local people.
The project rents the forest, providing money to the local community whilst protecting it from being sold or illegally logged. The same goes for the elephants, providing income for the owners so that the elephants don't need to be worked, and they have huge areas of forest in which to roam. They also only employ local people, building their skills and helping their livelihoods, ensuring all the money stays in the local community.
When I visited, there were three elephants at the project, Sophie, Princess and Lucky. They are obviously the main draw to the sanctuary, but in many ways they are a means to an end; the more elephants there are here, the more of the forest can be protected.
Sophie, says Mr. Tree, is "the biggest elephant in Cambodia." And she is very large for a female. She is also very friendly and good friends with the second elephant at the Mondulkiri Project, Princess meanwhile is described as "nice, but lazy". She prefers food to be placed in her mouth and doesn't use her trunk to take it from guests, although this could be resulting from some old trauma, trunk abuse is something often seen in elephant camps to stop elephants from being too inquisitive.
Lucky had been at the project for around 2 months, and was working and so not used to tourists. She was still very careful of people and the other elephants. She generally didn't approach, and instead was allowed to wander around on her own. She is "lucky" because the project was able to stop her being taken to Siem Reap along with some other Mondulkiri elephants to be used for rides at Angkor Wat.
Reasons are needed to move elephants between provinces. According to Mr. Tree, the reason the owners gave for moving the elephants to work at the temples, was because there was not enough food for the elephants in Mondulkiri. "Look around," he said, glancing around at the forest, "does it look like elephants have no food?"
The Mondulkiri Project is very open about its goals for the local people and community of Sen Monorom and the surrounding villages. All of the employees are local people, and Mr. Tree speaks passionately about the benefits and eco-tourism income from the (mostly Western) visitors staying in the region and benefiting the town. The project also provides healthcare and schooling to local villages, as well as supplementary food if needed during difficult times.
The mahouts and guides clearly love their elephants and the forest very much. Walking to find the elephants, it was very interesting to be able to learn just a small part of what they know about their surroundings, and the resources the forest in Cambodia is used for by animals and humans, both legally and illegally.
Local people, some of whom previously lived off the forest harvesting wild resources, are employed to guide the tourists on the trips through the forest. This provides employment for them and education for the visitors, but also allows them to practice English, another benefit for their livelihoods.
As we walk, we learn about the incredible biodiversity. We learn which resources are commonly used and sold, like this block cut from a tree to produce resin.
Critically, the location of the land, rented for 30 years from the village elders, cuts off the only access to the forest by road. Loggers would fell trees and chop up the wood on site to make it easier to carry away on motorbikes or carts. Lee tells us "you could hear the chainsaws in the forest as you walked, but now they just can't get here."
Just a couple of years old, the Mondulkiri Project is still in its infancy with a long road to achieve it's ambitious goals. For now, without the ability to receive donations online, Mr. Tree tells people how they can help:
"Now you all have Internet, Facebook, Trip Advisor, friends and families, so if you want to donate, just donate your sharing, talk to people about Mondulkiri Project, talk to people about the forest and the elephants. This is the real way you can help us today."