The following blog is about the week Bobbi and I volunteered at the Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia (ESC). The Sanctuary is funded under Save Elephant Foundation based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. With the exception of the introduction the blog is in the form of a daily journal. The journal is a compilation of six days compressed into three days. The blog is a bit long, but there is much to say about the wonderful organization and all that it is trying to accomplish.
The ESC project expansion into Cambodia is fairly new. Building began in 2011. ESC is located about an hour and a half drive north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Siem Reap is famous for the Angkor Wat temple. The initial primary purpose of ESC, however, is not to rescue elephants. The primary purpose is to restore the forest. Only 3% of Cambodia’s forests remain. Much has been illegally logged and subject to slash and burn farming. With only 3% remaining, the remnant forests are nearly dead. The wildlife fled or was poached or burned.
ESC was allocated 25,000 acres of these forests by the Cambodian government and the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS). CWS is a non-profit organization that worked with the Cambodian government to create a one million acre sanctuary in the plundered forests. The ESC’s 25,000 acres is part of the sanctuary and the two organizations work in concert to achieve the common goal of restoring the forest, thereby creating elephant and wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, The one million acre sanctuary also has many land mines from Cambodia’s decade’s long war, and it also has many unexploded ordinance from when the United States attempted to bomb Cambodia into oblivion during the Vietnam War. Actually, the US was only trying to bomb the Ho Chi Min Trail to cut-off Viet Cong supplies, but our government gave generously and spread the love throughout Cambodia.
CWS/ESC hope to plant thousands of trees in the forest, many of which will bear fruit to provide food for wildlife. Once there is food and shelter the wildlife will return. Additionally, the rescued elephants will be able to graze their remaining days in a natural environment. It is a bold undertaking. It will take time and many volunteers. It is desperately needed and it is a last ditch effort to salvage a small corner of Cambodia’s wild.
The CWS/ESC project has dual dimensions involving one focal point….people. It is people who will either make or break the forest restoration. One dimension is to prove to the local people that restoring the forest will bring more economic prosperity than stripping it away. ESC already hires local villagers to work at ESC and ESC buys crops and fertilizer from the villagers. ESC is currently run by managers from the Thailand organization, but they are training the Cambodians to eventually take over the site. ESC hopes to prove to the local villagers that tourists will come if the forest is restored. The second dimension is to attract the tourists; initially through boots-on-the ground volunteers. It takes many hands to plant trees. But, getting volunteers to pay $400 per week to restore a forest is no easy matter. Forests simply do not tug on people’s heart strings; abused elephants, however, do.
The elephants are the ambassadors. ESC acquired two elephants and would like to acquire more, but elephants are costly. Both elephants at ESC are from Cambodia. Both had been used for logging. One is blind. A week at ESC gives volunteers the opportunity to feed, walk with, and bathe the elephants. It gives volunteers the opportunity to see elephants in their natural habitat. This is much more rewarding than going for a 20 minute ride on a poorly treated elephant in a tourist destination. Volunteers spend their days creating elephant habitat while interacting with the gentle giants. It is proving to be a successful recipe; albeit Cambodia is not yet on the main tourist circuit.
The refuge also has a monkey enclosure. There are twenty monkeys who were rescued from villages where they were pets, abandoned, or destined for the pot. The refuge also has a small gaggle of geese. These too were rescued from “market.” There are four dogs that serve as watch dogs, pets, and general nuisances to the elephants.
On another note, we are fortunate to be volunteering at ESC just at the moment when the government is meeting with the people of the village. It seems the village is not legitimate. One hundred and thirty families have been squatting on government land. Because the country has been in such upheaval this is probably fairly common in the rural countryside. Regardless, during the week we were at ESC the government legitimized the village. They gave each family a plot of land to build a house and to farm. The government will require that the people build 300 meters back from the highway and the government is requiring that they plant trees in the 300 meter space.
The people of the village will have to pay to have a central well dug. Wells cost about $1,500, if they can even find a well digger. It is an astronomical amount for people who only make $6/day. They will join the ranks of many other villages that lack a water source. In the meantime the people will have to haul water and catch rainwater. This is the stark reality of developing nations.
On a final note, the village will now be able to build a school. ESC plans to contribute to the school project. Most of the people in the village have probably never had the opportunity to attend school.
- 11:00 am: We arrive at the refuge. The sanctuary is managed by two Thai fellows, Wes and Chet. Chet showed us our bungalow. The thatched roof bungalow walls are made with roughhewn 1×8 hardwood planks hung vertically. The wood seems to be mahogany; yes, mahogany. It was a plentiful wood in the forest and it is one of the reasons the forest is being stripped. The bungalows, however, were built from wood left lying on the ground when illegal loggers cut and ran.
The bungalows are built around the edge of a quadrangle. In the center is the ablution block. It has bathrooms and showers and sinks for washing clothes. The facilities are functional and simple. The showers have a spigot at waist height and it fills a large bucket. One bathes by dipping a handled pot into the bucket and pouring water over one’s head. The toilets do not have attached tanks; rather they have an open cement tank off to one side that is filled by a spigot that sticks out of the wall. To flush the toilet, one dips a handled pot in the tank and then pours it into the toilet. A couple of full pots flushes the toilet; simple, eh?
The main building is a large two story rectangular structure. It has half walls and no windows. Downstairs is the kitchen and dining hall and upstairs are the managers’ offices. Beyond the end of the main building is a vegetable garden, and behind that a tree nursery. Between June-August of 2014, ESC had already planted 2,500 trees that were grown from seedlings in the nursery.
Behind the nursery are military barracks. The military agreed to deploy a small team of soldiers to patrol the sanctuary for illegal logging and poaching. The soldiers are paid by the government, but CWS/ESC built their barracks and provides them with motorcycles for patrolling. The soldiers serve for a one year period. The one year period allows ESC to educate the soldiers about the importance of wildlife conservation, and serves as a small educational vein that flows back to the politicians and military commanders.
- 1:00 pm: Work commences. But, it is not really work. We walk one of the elephants, Arun Ria, into the forest for a bath at a small swimming hole. We each carry a bucket with bananas to lure her along. Once the buckets are empty they are used to splash water onto her back. Word is out among the forest fauna about the swimming hole because we saw several large spiders doing the breast stroke on the surface. But the five inch arachnids move out of the elephant’s way, as well as ours. We are most glad the spiders do not view us as a port in a storm.
- 2:30pm: It’s off to the local village in the back of a pick-up to buy ten sticks of sugarcane for the elephants’ afternoon snack. We are each given a machete and shown which stalks to whack. We carry them back to the truck and its home again where we chop the stalks into eight inch sticks of elephant candy.
- 3:30 pm: We carry a basket of chopped cane over to the elephant shelter. The shelter does not have walls. The elephants spend the day with their handlers (mahoots) and roam freely in the forest. The elephants see us and trot towards us. Seeing two massive grey pachyderms bearing down on you is downright unnerving…we try to appear calm. Lo and behold they stop in front of us, but it is our basket of sweets that has their attention. Like children reaching into a cookie jar, the elephants’ trunks go for the basket. An elephant trunk has over 42,000 muscles. The end of the trunk has a small nubbin of amazing dexterity. The elephant uses it as a finger to grasp and clutch things such as sugarcane.
- 8:00 pm: The still night air is sweltering. Chet offers us a fan to take back to our bungalow. We use it until 10pm when the generator shuts off. The generator only runs from 6-10pm every night. There are not any refrigerators. The facility utilizes ice boxes, and receives shipments of ice every few days; not that there is much that needs refrigeration.
- 8:00 am: Work begins with three ladies from the local village. Chet takes us to the tree nursery where we move 100 saplings from outside the nursery to the inside. We then spend the rest of the morning weeding the nursery. We take a short break and I down my entire quart water bottle.
- 9:00 am: We follow the ladies to take a cutting from an old banana tree so that we can plant the cutting. We were informed that banana trees only produce fruit once, and then they die. But, while the main trunk is dying new trunks sprout around its base. It’s these new trunks that we cut away and plant. We plant six banana trees in a semi-circle where the kitchen sink grey water drains. The banana trees will soak up the water and cleanse it. This is a great practice as it recycles the water and alleviates the need for extensive plumbing.
- 11:00 am: We break. Our clothes are drenched with sweat. Meanwhile, the three ladies wear two layers of clothes; usually a turtleneck and a dress shirt. They wear long pants. They look at Bobbi and try to ask why she is wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. We try to ask why they wear two layers. Bobbi pantomimes that it is hot. The ladies respond by pointing to their two layers. Do they know something? We are too hot to find out. We wash our clothes and hang them to dry.
- 11:30 am: Lunch is wholesome goodness from the vegetable gardens: a green curry dish with rice and cold slaw. Chilled chopped fruit is dessert.
- 1:00 pm: Bobbi is off to feed a quarantined monkey while I make small-talk with Nan the chef. She points at the cooking pot, then points at one of the black dogs that hang around ESC. “Dog,” she says. I nod nonchalantly as if seeing a pot of dog stew is as normal as a pot of steamed rice. It’s not until I relay the story to Bobbi that we realize the beautiful blond dog we’ve made friends with hasn’t been around since the previous evening…hmm.
- 2:00 pm: We go to the tree nursery and collect 30-40 tamarisk saplings. The trees are good for elephant digestion. The new soft leaves have a strong tangy flavor and would be good in a salad.
- 2:30 pm: We scoop elephant manure at the shelter and dump it on the gardens. It is fertilizer. Everything at ESC is used and cycled and recycled where possible. We then plant pumpkin seeds and water the garden for the next hour. Chet has me chop down a dying banana trunk as food for the elephants. My tool is a machete. It works wonders.
- 3:30 pm: We chop sugarcane for the elephants’ afternoon snack. Bobbi wields her cleaver with chilling deftness. We are blessed with cool afternoon rains while we feed the elephants.
7:00 am: Breakfast is fried eggs, rice vermicelli and corn flakes. The eggs were fried 30 minutes prior so they are cold, but mixed with the rice everything goes down easily. Our bodies are crying for calories. We learn that hot eggs in the morning is a western concept. Eggs are eggs to the Cambodians.
- 8:00 am: Time for work. We follow Nan out to the monkey enclosure for their breakfast. Nan has cut cucumbers, green beans and papaya; all from the various gardens at ESC. Most of the monkeys bare their teeth at me. Nan tells me that the monkeys don’t like men. It makes me wonder about their past. One monkey swings down off its branch and sniffs my arm. I thought the monkey was going to bite, but it only sniffed and then deliberately spun around and stuck its derriere in my face. Sadly, I failed monkey greeting etiquette and I didn’t respond in kind.
Nan invites me to join her in one of the huge cages. This particular monkey had bared its teeth at me before, so I am leery. Once inside everything is dandy until the small monkey launches itself onto my shoulders. I let out a manly squeal….OK there is nothing manly about squealing, but it wasn’t a full-on squeal and besides who wouldn’t. Being raised in a germ-a-phobic country I have thoughts of nasty monkey bite infections running through my head, but Nan swats the monkey away only to have it launch a second time for my lower legs. I pull a quick back step and the monkey misses, but it recovers quickly and hugs both of my legs and looks like it is about to bite, but between Nan and myself we swat it away again and I head to the door. Dashed are my hopes of being Dr. Doolittle.
(*At lunch I go back with Nan to feed the monkeys their lunch. I feel the need to make peace with this monkey. I don’t go into the cage this time, but stand outside the chain link fencing. The monkey comes over and bares its teeth…as usual. Except this time I place my arm against the fence. The monkey merely grooms my arm, baring its teeth only to nibble. We are buddies. The monkey is simply hungry for physical contact. My heart goes out to it.)
- 1:00 pm: We walk Arun Ria to the bathing hole. Along the way we tie strips of orange sheets around various trees. The sheets have been blessed by monks. The villagers believe that bad karma will befall anyone who chops down a tree that has been blessed by a monk. Every tactic is used to stop the deforestation.
As we stride into the dense undergrowth of the jungle forest it is fun to watch an elephant go wherever it feels like. While Bobbi and I are stooping under drooping branches and stepping over tangles of vines, Arun Ria simply plows right through. At one point a rather large branch stretches across the path at chest height. I try in vain to lift it out of the way for her. The mahoot and everyone else just smiles knowingly as Arun Ria flexes the branch out of the way like it was an elastic band….it’s good to be an elephant. We bathe Arun Ria for the last time. She enjoys it, but keeps snorfling around hoping we have more bananas. After a while she is ready to get out and does; because who was going to stop her? She heads over to her favorite mud hole and commences to spray sandy mud all over her body. It helps to keep her both cool and free of insects.
- 2:00 pm: We take tree saplings 1/2 mile down the road and plant them next to an abandoned squatter’s house. We sort through all the squatter’s garbage and collect the plastic bottles for recycling. We put the garbage in a burn pile. The squatter’s wood house will be dismantled and the wood will be used to build a lookout tower for the Sanctuary. We find a fairly well-oiled chainsaw chain (evidence of illegal logging?)
- 4:30pm: We finished the day watering the sizeable gardens.
Our work was done. Bobbi and I went back to our bungalow feeling as though we contributed in a small way to a very big project. With great relief, we saw the blond dog trot into camp greeted by the other dogs with much sniffing and playing. They, too, seemed glad it wasn’t him in the pot. In retrospect, we’re optimistic that Nan only meant to point out that she was cooking the dogs’ food in the pot. After all, this is an organization that even saves geese from ending up on the dinner table…lucky geese.