Tea growing near Pu Mat National Park at Con Cuong, Vietnam.
Where are Kevin and Ruth now? Con Cuong (Pu Mat National Park), Vietnam.

Where are Kevin and Ruth going next? Ninh Binh, Vietnam.

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

A day learning about the elephants!

On Tuesday, we did the first part of a two day tour here in eastern Cambodia. Day one was a visit to an elephant sanctuary. It's actually called The Elephant Community Project. 

Interesting story behind how it all works. The guy running it was hired in 2015 to do a study about how many "domestic" elephants there were in Mondulkiri province. He visited all of the small towns and villages and farms and at the time of his research, the final tally was 64 elephants. 

Most of these elephants are owned by a group of families. It costs upwards of $30,000 USD to buy your own elephant (although it is technically illegal) here in Cambodia, and of course they have to be fed and maintained. So the elephant's responsibilities and costs will usually be shared by several families. 

Cambodia elephants.

And the elephant is of course used to earn income, which might involve farming, illegal logging, or giving rides to tourists.

There are many indigenous communities here in eastern Cambodia. The one we went to is in the region of the Bunong tribe.  The elephant is very important to the culture of the Bunong people, and it has been used for centuries as both community companion and workmate.

But of course some elephants are not well looked after. And as they age, they do not perform as much work.

And due to the fact that the elephant has been protected since 1997, they can no longer poach a new elephant from the wild. (There are still protected areas in Cambodia that contain between 400 to 600 wild elephants). And since the Bunong people believe that a baby elephant angers the spirits, they do not allow them to reproduce.

And of course elephants die of old age, so the number of domestic elephants in Modulkiri province has dropped from 64 in 2015 to less than 40 today.

The van picked us up at 8:20am.

And we made two more stops to pick up other people.

We parked at the top of this hill, and walked the rest of the way.

Hiking down hill.

Along the way, we passed by a cashew nut orchard.
We have never seen cashew nuts growing!

The nut actually grows into an edible fruit.
A bit sour, but definitely edible.

Down into the valley by the river, where we heard some rustling in the bush, and a huge head came around the corner!

Ruth, saying hello to Princess.

There are four elephants living here. Three females, and one male. The male is currently separated from the females as he is going through musk, which can last between 1.5 to 3 months. So we would only meet the females. 

Princess is 45 years old. Happy-Lucky is 55, and Chibang is a young 36. 

Happy-Lucky and Chibang are from the same village and are best friends. Happy-Lucky treats Chibang as her younger sister. Princess is an outsider and is pretty much ignored by the other two.

Princess and me!

The elephants are allowed to wander freely in the 300 hectares leased property.

They are not fenced in at all, but rarely wander since they are with their mahout (trainer) most of the time anyhow. He stays in the jungle with them. The forest is leased by the sanctuary from the Bunong tribe.

So, here's how the economics work...

As I said, the elephants would typically be used to earn an income for the families who own it. The sanctuary can't afford to buy the elephants, so they lease the elephants from the owners so that the owners continue to earn an income from the elephants. And the Bunong tribe also gets an income from the lease of the forest land, with no incentive to cut down the forest (this is a whole other problem) which means that the elephants have a natural place to live and eat. The tourists come and pay to interact with the elephants in their natural environment, supplying the sanctuary the necessary income to pay the leases for the land and animals. 

Everybody wins.

During Covid, the sanctuary had no income, and therefor no choice but to give the elephants back to their owners. They re-opened the sanctuary as soon as the tourists started returning, but numbers are still way down from 2019.

Our guide Mr. Ton, trying to call the elephants back to this side of the river.


Me, feeding bananas!

I forget which elephant is which.

They are such interesting creatures!

For the next hour or so, we just wandered through the forest with the elephants.

Notice the elephant's tail.

If you click on the photo to make it full size, then click again to zoom in, you can see the detail of the tail and the hairs at the end. I tried to get a closer up photo, but it was always moving!

Happy-Lucky and Chibang.
Notice their mahout in the background. 



They went down to the river to have a drink.

Then across the river to the other side.

We didn't follow them across the river!

Time for lunch!

We hiked up river a little ways to a big shelter where we would be having lunch.

Notice the hammocks by the river on the right side of the photo.

I'm always a sucker for a hammock, so I headed right over there and sat down in one. There were some small flowers that had dropped into the hammock from the tree above, so I stood up to shook out the stuff that had dropped. As I did so, a big tarantula fell to the ground and scurried off under a nearby tree root!

Staff getting our lunch ready.

Lunch is served!

We relaxed after lunch and Mr. Ton sat us all around and answered questions about the elephants and the project. Interesting stuff. 

Then it was time for the elephants bath. They are led to a deep part of the river where they enjoy playing in the water and the mud. And you are allowed to join them!

I'm allergic to cold water, but Ruth went in to splash around with them.

The two elephants and their mahout.

Ruth, swimming with the elephants.



They definitely seem to enjoy being around people and the water.

I took a video for you...


Time to get out.

They get out of the water, and the first thing they do is to get dirty again!

They stand by the shore and use their feet and trunk to stir up some mud by the shore, then they fling the mud up onto their back to protect the skin from the hot sun. Then they go to the sand and dirt and use their trunk to spread dirt all over their body.

You need to stand back while they're doing this!

Then they decided to go back and play in the mud for while.


It was so interesting just to stand back and watch them do their thing for an hour. I took a three minute video of them for you. They like to scratch themselves up against a tree. Watch right towards the end where I decided to just stand my ground as she approached me. Normally, it's human nature to step aside or back up when one of these huge creatures comes towards you, but I wanted to see what happens if I didn't. She came right up to me, about a foot away and just looked at me. It was quite something!


We said goodbye to the elephants, hiked back up the steep hill to the van, and drove over to the indigenous village of Putang.

Putang village has changed a lot in the last 15 years as the Bunong tribe has quickly entered "civilization". This part of Cambodia was rarely visited before 2010 when the rough track was improved and paved. It used to take all day to travel the 134 kms (83 miles) from Snoul, but it is now done in about two hours. This has brought money and development, and the Bunong have sold off chucks of land to investment and resorts. So there are many new homes and vehicles in the village.

Newer homes in the village.

There are a lot of farm animals just wandering around.
And dogs and cats. And lots of children!

Chickens and a pig.

This pig and puppy look like they are friends.

Ruth, with some more puppies.

Putang village.

Village children.

We also visited an older woman in her original old style home. I didn't get any worthwhile photos, because it was quite dark inside. But it was interesting to see how they used to live compared to today.

Then, Ruth and I said goodbye to the group and were dropped off at our homestay accommodation for the night with a local Bunong family. Our trekking guide Tee joined us for the evening. The local family spoke no English, but Tee's English is really good.

This is where we stayed for the night.

It's a rural property on the outskirts of the village. Owned by a young couple, it's not connected to electricity, but they have a big battery being fed by a not large enough solar panel. Still, they can do basic lights in the evening, and the charge controller has a USB port where they can charge their phones.

Our host Chae was there, but her husband was farming in another village so he was away. They have a daughter Riya (7) and son Cad (2).

She was preparing dinner for us.

They use only wood for cooking.

Ruth is always attracted to the animals, and vice versa!

This is where we're sleeping for the night.

Dinner is served.

The facilities!
Basic, but very clean.

What a great day we had. Stay tuned... part two coming up next... jungle trekking to waterfalls.

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4 comments:

  1. Love the pictures and videos of the elephants. The zoom function on the pics allows one to get in close and see their eyes. The eyes show such intelligence . It is a shame they arent allowed to reproduce in that area to help grow the diversity. Truly beautiful animals.

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    1. We are so glad that you enjoyed the post along with the pictures and videos. Yes, they are very intelligent creatures, we really loved spending the day with them and learning so much more about them, their behaviors and how life was for them and the people that worked them. It is nice to see that they can live back in nature more or less as they should be. Out of these three elephants, Chibang is the only one now that would be able to have a baby the other two are too old for babies. The elephants that live in the national parks where they are still wild, can and do have babies.

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  2. Absolutely gorgeous photos, and the videos were great. Elephants are such strange and fascinating beings. I am in awe of them and that you got to see them up close for so long. What a special day you'll never forget. Not sure about the bed on the floor, but I guess that would be worth it to get to mingle with elephants!

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    1. Thank you! It was an amazing experience to see these elephants up close and personal like that and to just stand back and watch them go through their day to day life.

      The bed on the floor was actually quite comfortable, we had a mattress under us and we each had a pillow, it was all the dog barking that made our sleep that night pretty miserable.

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