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Elephants in Cambodia By Prof. Dan Rohlf

Posted by: | April 16, 2014 Comments Off on Elephants in Cambodia By Prof. Dan Rohlf |

In 1970, 70% of Cambodia was covered by tropical forest. Today only about 3% of the country retains its primary forest cover. At least as far as I could see from the road, which the map indicated ran nearly through the wildlife sanctuary’s center, there was no remaining forest whatsoever. One still sees an ocean of trees, but most of them are spindly new rubber trees planted by multinational corporations with the official or unofficial blessing – and no doubt the economic involvement – of the Cambodian government (or at least high government officials).

Later, our “jungle trek” in the hillier terrain around Sen Monorom got us into the forest, but provided an up-close look at the patchiness of the tropical forests that remain. We’d hike through an area of towering trees, only to soon emerge into large areas where the forest had been cut down and burned for planting both cash crops – such as cashew trees – and agricultural crops such as upland rice and cassava. We walked through several areas where blackened trees littering the ground were almost still smoldering. Such fragmentation renders even the remaining forest remnants virtually useless for wide-ranging animals such as elephants.

Like much of the wildlife in Asia, remaining wild elephants are also hunted relentlessly, of course in the case of elephants for their ivory. With markets such as China, Japan, and Viet Nam nearby, even elephants in the largest remaining forested areas of Cambodia are at high risk of being killed by sophisticated criminal poaching rings.

There are probably more elephants in captivity in Cambodia than remaining in the wild. People in southeast Asia domesticated elephants long ago and have used them for many tasks – hauling things, logging, and agricultural work are the most common. Historically, elephants toted royalty around, including a white elephant that served the previous Cambodian king. The animals were also the tanks of ancient warfare; sandstone bas relief carvings on temples in the Angkor complex depict elephants in opposing armies fighting with each other while the soldiers in the saddles mounted on their backs do battle as well.

Today in Cambodia there are relatively few elephants in captivity, in part because there are now few elephants to take from the wild and in part because the Bunong people (a minority group in northeastern Cambodia who traditionally use elephants) are reluctant to breed them because the culture’s beliefs dictate a costly series of sacrifices when elephants are bred, when a baby is born, and when an animal first carries people. Plus it is now illegal to take wild elephants, though making something against the law in Cambodia is not necessarily not a big deterrent to the practice in question.

Today the Bunong people have realized that they can generally make much more money with their elephants by giving rides to tourists. And everyone else knows that tourist activities centered on elephants and forests are virtually the only drivers for tourism by Americans and Europeans to Mondulkiri. So like everything in Cambodia ranging from restaurants to massage places, much of the effort to encourage tourists’ patronage takes a “green” or socially conscience marketing approach. In the case of the rural areas of northeast Cambodia, the pitch goes something like this: Come to Mondulkiri and see [the elephants/the jungle/the minority Bulong people] and your money will help save them!

At some level this marketing strategy has validity. In a very poor developing country like Cambodia, most people will do whatever brings in the most money. Often in Mondulkuri that is illegal logging or cutting down the forest to plant cash crops. However, if intact jungle or villages with traditional housing and practices can generate revenue, there will be at least some economic incentive to protect these resources. This is classic “ecotourism” that many people point to as an important driver of sustainable development.

However, there are also a variety of potential problems with this model. First, greenwashing seems to be rampant in Cambodia. For example, there are so many massage places giving “blind” masseurs a better life that either the country needs to take a serious look at its epidemic of ocular ills or some massage places are fudging facts. Similarly, virtually every guesthouse or even restaurant in Sen Monorom is happy to book an elephant excursion, Bunong village visit, or jungle trek for visitors, but how much of the fee goes to the booking agent and how much is actually getting to the elephant mahout, the villagers, or the guide?

Additionally, ecotourism requires tourist infrastructure. This is pretty sparse in Sen Monorom. Getting to the town requires a rough road trip of at least five hours from Phnom Penh, and the town itself has very little in the way of tourist amenities with the exception of a decent Khmer restaurant. Without going into the details, our guesthouse was also not up to the standards most Western tourists would want (though since our son was a lizard fanatic as a kid, we enjoyed the foot-long barking tokay gecko with whom we shared our room!). Clearly having caught the ecotourism fever, the general manager of our guesthouse took us to a plot of land he had purchased near town for his own guesthouse. Our host excitedly pointed out his favorite parts of the site, but we silently thought mostly about the huge cost and daunting logistics of building – not to mention filling – an attractive hotel at the end of a rutted dirt road three kilometers outside of a small town in rural Cambodia.

Infrastructure includes human capital as well. We always stressed to people who booked out trips as well as our guides that we were mostly interested in seeing birds and wild animals. However, few guides speak English, and none of the guides knew anything about local flora and fauna. An NGO conservation organization does tours to Mondulkuri, but it brings both guests as well as guides to the area from the other side of the country in Siem Reap.

Finally, an essential part of ecotourism is the “eco.” Our travels in Sen Monorom served mainly as a primer in the progress of deforestation. Moreover, in an interesting example of modern global influences, the Bunong people are losing both their culture and language at a rapid rate. In addition to the government assisting multinational corporations take Bunong land for enterprises such as rubber plantations, it turns out that young Bunong kids are less than eager to live in grass huts and do subsistence agriculture for the rest of their lives. Even their parents use cell phones, and most young Bunong people speak better Khmer than Bunong, prefer T shirts and backpacks rather than carrying things in traditional woven baskets, and want a moto like everyone else.

Courting Western tourists as part of an economic development strategy has also brought along scrutiny of local practices based on the values of the target market. Most people in developed countries have become increasingly concerned about animal rights, particularly for charismatic captive animals such as elephants. And here things again get complicated in Mondulkuri.

It is probably fair to say that over hundreds of years of domesticating and using elephants, people in southeast Asia have employed and still employ practices that many people in the United States or Europe would view as cruel or unduly painful. And like many things in Cambodia, this concern presents potential opportunity. Enter an apparently well-meaning Brit in 2005, who founded an organization called the “Elephant Valley Project” and based it near Sen Monorom. The project takes in “sick and mistreated” domestic elephants, then allows visitors and “volunteers” – most of whom are essentially tourists – to interact with the animals. EVP does not allow visitors to ride the elephants as local Bunong elephant owners do, but merely has visitors and volunteers walk along with the elephants. For this, plus the privilege of doing a variety of chores related to elephant keeping, visitors pay $70 per day (a small fortune in Mondulkiri) and “volunteers” who live at the facility for a few days or even weeks pay significantly more. Lots of tourists sympathetic to elephants are quite willing to part with these funds.

Since my wife thought walking with elephants in the jungle sounded great, we had initially signed up for a day experience at EVP – which is mostly what pointed us toward Mondulkiri in the first place. However, we started hearing negative things from people in Cambodia, including our hotel’s manager, a very educated Cambodian who before his hotel stint worked for years with international NGO. We also read negative stories in the Phnom Penh newspaper, on the web, and even in a community letter posted in a posted in the most popular ecotourism lodge in Sen Monorom. The gist of the criticism is that EVP inaccurately demonizes local people’s treatment of their elephants and takes for itself the majority of dollars from foreign tourists. Some sources also suggest that EVP knowingly “rents” sick or injured elephants from local people, who may be less likely to properly care for their animals because they can simply ship them off to the Elephant Valley Project for a respite and treatment and still make money from the animals even in their absence.

The information we accumulated was enough to convince us to cancel our visit to EVP. Instead, we booked a trip through the most popular local ecotourist guesthouse called “Nature Lodge,” which stresses that at least half the proceeds from the $38 per person fee goes to local people, as well as the fact that it is much easier for elephants to give tourists rides in the jungle than doing the work they formerly carried out.

We therefore found ourselves (together with three German tourists) meeting in a forest clearing three tiny Bunong mahouts and their elephants. We took turns riding the elephants sitting only on a woven mat on the animals’ backs, the mahout sitting in front of us almost on the elephant’s head. It was kind of fun, and the elephants seemed pretty content as they walked slowly along a well-established trail, pulling branches off trees to munch on along the way.

However, we noted with disappointment that the mahouts carried bullhooks. These are staffs with a metal hook and point at one end, often used for training elephants (animal groups in the U.S. sued the Ringling Brothers circus in part for using bulhooks in its elephant training). Though my ride was pretty uneventful, my wife’s elephant strayed off the trail a few times, to which the mahout responded by gouging the animal behind its ears with the bullhook, drawing blood and clearly not being gentle with the elephant. The mahout’s actions dampened our enthusiasm for the whole expedition, and we and the Germans eventually asked our accompanying guide to cut the trip short.

Elephants are a huge draw for Western tourists in Mondulkiri, but our experiences left us both frustrated and with a lot of questions. We were not enthusiastic about an organization run by foreigners that diverted to itself a significant portion of the region’s tourist dollars with little evidence that any of that money went back into the community. Moreover, while EVP apparently treats elephants well, is the group really just using at least some of those animals for the short term as tourist draws, knowing that elephants may once again face different treatment standards when they leave the facility and go back to their owners? On the other hand, we wanted to support local people and guides, but we were uncomfortable with the way at least the Bunong people we paid for an elephant outing treated their animals. Is it fair to hold tribal people in southeast Asia to modern Western notions of animal rights? But if people in Cambodia want tourist dollars, shouldn’t their treatment of animals be consistent with what visitors want to see? Was there a way to spend our dollars in a way that helped local people and the environment while encouraging better treatment of elephants as well? Would domestic elephants in Cambodia be better or worse off if no tourists went to Mondulkiri?

Lots of questions, no clear answers. Ecotourism sounds like a win/win solution to environmental ills and animal mistreatment, but reality is not always so tidy.



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under: General, International, Natural Resources

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