After spending an afternoon in the forest with the elephants, Elemotion Foundation sat down with Jack Highwood, founder of ELIE and EVP. He spoke to us about his unique project. We were intrigued to hear about how he has combined elephant welfare, community development, and elephant conservation. Interview, June 2012
>Why did you choose to start an elephant project in Mondulkiri?
Well, I’ve been through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia… But, I liked it here. This province has half of the wild elephants (in Cambodia) and a majority of the captive elephants. Because it is an important spot, I wanted to start something for elephants here.
>How did you start ELIE (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment)?
In the beginning, I started doing veterinary care, treating the elephants in the villages, and doing research.
There was an elephant in one of the villages which had a huge back abscess threatening the spine. This is very dangerous. The infection can eat down into the back, closer to the spine, and kill the elephant. Ten of the families which owned the elephant agreed to stop working it and allowed me to treat it. The treatment was going very well. The abscess was healing and the infection was almost gone. Then, the 11th family, who only cared about working the elephant, took it away to log and it died.
That is the problem here. And, that is the problem with tourism in general here. The tradition of elephant catching, taking elephants from the wild, means that when an elephant dies, they can just go get another one from the wild. Of course, this is illegal now, but the mentality remains the same. The elephant is not valued like it should be. So, if the elephant gets sick, they just carry on working it. And it goes downhill. And, that is the problem with tourism. Huge pressure from the guesthouses and tour companies is put on the elephant owners to make sure the elephants are ready to work, regardless of their wellbeing.
>So, what did you do?
I wanted to rethink the method we were using. Going to the elephants was clearly not working; no matter the condition, the elephants were still being worked. We were trying to treat them, but they just kept going downhill. So instead, I decided to make a place where elephants could rest. I changed track and I changed direction.
>So you created Elephant Valley Project (EVP). Please tell me about the start of EVP?
At the beginning, I had a very Thai idea of an elephant camp in mind. We did offer riding, no seat, just sitting on the neck or some mahout training. But, then we started to think more about the elephant. What did the elephant want, not what did the tourist want? And from the very first day we stopped riding the elephant, it was so clear that the elephant was better off. So we thought, how do we get the elephants back in the forest again? How do we get the people connected back to conservation? How do you encourage people to stop hunting? How do you get them good income? How do you support what they need in the community?
Now, we have 650 hectares of natural elephant habitat. We have tropical forest, dry forest, old farmlands, bamboo, and many kinds of grasses. We can let the elephant graze around on this. We have 11 elephants with a capacity of 30. So now we have a circle forming. People are coming to experience the elephants in their natural habitat which brings income. Part of this income can then be used to benefit the villagers.
>How do ELIE and EVP benefit the local people?
First, you have to have the trust of the local people. By building the sanctuary here, we create jobs; looking after elephants, looking after guesthouses, working on construction, maintaining the land. We have 36 full-time local staff. We provide jobs with a regular salary and we are also flexible for those who want short-term or part time work.
We also help with healthcare. From our income, we spend about 20,000$ US dollars to pay healthcare coverage for over 500 adults and 1000 children. Before we came here, there was a 50% child mortality rate for children under 5 years old. Since we started healthcare coverage, only 3 children have died in the last five and a half years. We also spend about 25,000$ on land rights and human rights. The locals have healthcare coverage, translators for doctor visits (villagers speak the local Bunong language), income, food, clean water, and now we are also starting to sponsor law enforcement. This will help protect their lands and resources. And all of this is due to the elephants. Their lives are better because there are elephants here. They now have a reason to keep this forest for the elephants.