“Elephants are not meant to walk on concrete,” stated Deputy Director at the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment and the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), Jemma Bullock.

The Elephant Valley Project established in eastern Cambodia had developed a self-sustaining elephant sanctuary, where aging elephants could live out the rest of their days. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic that ran through the world in 2020, tourists stopped going, abandoning the project to fend for itself. The sanctuary had provided jobs, education and health care support, and key protection for mature forests along the Keo Seima—setting to be Cambodia’s most biodiverse wildlife sanctuary.

British archaeology student, Jack Highwood and member of the local Bunong Indigenous community, Chhaeul Plouk, created the project back in 2006, and began taking in elephants a year later. Today, the project provides a home for the elephants and protection to the high-quality forest sitting adjacent to the sanctuary. By 2019, the project took to new heights with conservation and preservation efforts, not only within the sanctuary but to those in relation. They invested in scholarships and health care for the Pu Trom villages, and funded community patrols that helped deter illegal poaching and logging. It sits as a destination for tourists that want to see the flourishing of elephants in their natural habitats. But the pandemic left the leaders struggling to find means of support, and pressure on both the elephants and communities increased. Fortunately, visitors have started to return and the project now employs 58 people as cooks, cleaners, tour guides, and mahouts, or someone who tends to an elephant (a companion). Many of the elephants are owned by local individuals or communities that help fund to keep them there.

The elephants within the EVP site, all but one, were rescued from the turmoils mankind has made in their natural habitat. These elephants find solace wandering about the dense and blanketed forest, living within peace. Sambo, one of the 12 elephants, came into the sanctuary as a “worst-case scenario,” with rotted teeth, abscessed feet, and a debilitating fear of water. The streets of Phnom Penh stripped her natural instincts away and had left her with severe trauma. In hopes to revive her native-self, she was given a mahout. Many Southeast Asian groups keep elephants in their communities as a cultural tradition, adopting them into their family. Each mahout accompanies their elephants throughout their day, through the forest to graze and socialize. Unfortunately, due to the forces and upheavals of global change, the pressures of these changes are felt on the ties that link the human cultural connection to any mammal within the elephant family, or pachyderm.