Captive elephants often lead difficult lives. In tourism, logging and roadbuilding, they put in long hours in hazardous conditions that cause injuries. But since 2006, the Elephant Valley Project has worked to provide a home for retired elephants. On more than 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) in eastern Cambodia, the elephants can roam, socializing, feeding and playing under the protective watch of their keepers, known as mahouts.
Many of those mahouts are Bunong, an Indigenous group that has long kept elephants to work in the fields. Often, the elephants are seen as members of Bunong families. Since its inception, the project, supported by ecotourism, has provided employment and funds for health care and education for local communities, the project’s leaders say. It’s also been an incentive to keep the forest intact — particularly important as it sits along the edge of Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, which has more documented species than any other protected area in Cambodia.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, disrupted the flow of tourists and their dollars to the site, and that has left the project looking for alternative sources of funding. One possibility, said the project’s deputy director, Jemma Bullock, is the REDD+ project that works with communities around Keo Seima.