The 3rd BUILD' Experiences episode brings you in the North of Cambodia, meeting the Bunong ethnicity of the Mondulkiri region. This place is known by many foreigners because, thanks to Bunongs, tourists can do there one of the most sought-after and striking experience in South Asia for western people: encounter elephants. We also wanted to experiment that, but in a responsible way for animals and humans, with Bunong Elephant sanctuary.
It is not so surprising the biggest animal living on earth feeds so much curiosity and admiration. Elephants are very complex animals and proved a very high level of intelligence and memory. People who spent time with elephants often say that they all have specific personalities with feelings such as compassion or altruism. Some social behaviors like friend relationships and group organization, no reproduction with relatives or even adoption have been observed. They are also able to recognized and identify each other during their whole 70-90 years life. For all these reasons and many others, the elephant is symbol of wisdom in Asian culture.
Unfortunately, this animal is also subject of many fears and worries. In addition to the fragmentation of its natural habitat due to agricultural expansion on virgin lands and the modification of these areas by climate change, poaching is also a major threat for this species, which is now at risk of extinction. This illegal hunting for ivory mostly affects African elephants, those from Asia having smaller tusks, and is mainly used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Despite the 2016 ban on ivory trade in China, which accounts for 70% of global demand, poaching remains a current problem. In 2014, a new government regulation allows using elephant skin and boosts the creation of a new online market. A new type of poaching for the skin thus appears to meet a growing demand, resulting since in an intensification of barbarous wild elephant killings, observed especially in Myanmar. This situation was recently denounced by the NGO Elephant Family (link) in their report 04/24/2018 : « Skinned, the growing appetite for Asian Elephants" and warns about a laxity of the authorities to control these poaching networks.
For the specific case of current situation of Mondulkiri's elephants, it is important to understand the links with Bunong people history. Elephants became very important for the Bunong community because thanks to them they could move into other villages for trade and also work in the mountains. The villages development was facilitated and the work conditions of people highly improved.
The wild elephants were originally captured from the jungle and used to help humans in hard works. Most of time, only young females are caught to make the dressage process easier. This one consists in domestication by annihilation and torture and aims to break off the spirit of the animal. During this ritual of 4 to 6 days, the elephants are most of time beaten, starved and deprived of sleep. At the end, the half of animal die, some are killed because gone crazy and unusable with the trauma, the others come out submissive and are used for work.
Usually, an elephant is owned by a whole community because several families participated in the dangerous hunt. That is why the animal is gone from one family to another and has to always work. This is a very hard situation for the health of elephants because they cannot spend enough time to eat. Elephants should eat a varied diet during 20 hours on 24 and swallow everyday 200kg of food, or 10% of their own weight, because their digestion cycle and stomach are very shorts. Furthermore, the reproduction cycle is threatened in these conditions because of many reasons. Elephants choose their unique life partner only in comfortable situations. If the two partners agree, just a couple of days in a year are possible for the sexual act. After this one, there is the second longest gestation time in the earth: 2 years, added to 8 years of education, which lead to one child every 10 years because elephants can only have on kid at the time. That is for all these reasons people usually do not have captivity born elephants.
With the increase of international tourism and the constant interest for these animals, local people took the opportunity to earn more money in organizing ride and trek on elephants. Nevertheless, more and more tourists were aware of elephant life conditions and started to change their expectations for more respectful tours. Today there is 4 elephant sanctuaries in the Mondulkiri, and two are foreigners created by NGOs one decade ago. The one we visited is Bunong Elephant Sanctuary and has two main objectives: of course, preserve the elephants, but also the Bunong minority. This ethnicity had to change radically their way of considering the elephants and also replace his work force by machines: it is a real life style change. They need to understand why they have to protect the elephants and see this responsible tourism as a new source of income.
Elephant sanctuaries might be a solution to protect and preserve these animals from poaching and bad treatments, and in the same time to not impose a too brutal transition for local people from back riding to sanctuaries. Tourists has a real weight to push local people change the way elephants are treated. But they must also be aware of bad or false sanctuaries, too much developed in Cambodia or Thailand for example. Some questions still have to be raised concerning wild elephants: Should we resign ourselves to accept their disappearance? If not, how to ensure their protection and their follow-up in these wild areas?