Mondulkiri, in eastern Cambodia, is the most sparsely populated province of one of the poorest countries in Asia – yet even here, organisations and communities are feeling the harsh effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The Elephant Sanctuary Volunteer Project in Mondulkiri is unfortunately no exception. Set in a vast area of natural beauty, one of the largest remaining forests in Cambodia, the project is a 1,500 hectare natural jungle reserve, home to 10 retired elephants.
Encouraging local owners to retire elephants to the sanctuary in exchange for monthly compensation, the project also supports local communities, and educates them about protecting their natural resources. Like most of our partner organisations, its business model relies on ecotourism to inject the project with much needed funds, and for the daily maintenance of the sanctuary and its facilities.
We spoke to Jemma, Programme Manager at the Elephant Sanctuary Volunteer Project, to hear more about how the lockdown is affecting their conservation work – and to find out how we can continue to support it from afar.
“We are only starting to come to terms with the long term impact this will have on the elephants, forest and community under our care. With events changing rapidly, even here in the remote Cambodian province of Mondulkiri, we decided to close the project to visitors and volunteers until the crisis passes and it’s safe to return. We are assessing the situation monthly, but as long as the Cambodian borders are closed and international travel is restricted, the chances of tourists coming back are next to impossible. Simply put; we have to put the health and safety of our staff, their families and vulnerable members of the community first. But in doing so, we have shut off our primary source of funding via ecotourism, at an already difficult time of year.”
From May to September, the rainy season arrives in Mondulkiri – temperatures reach 40+ degrees, and the jungle becomes increasingly difficult to manage. At this time of year, more than ever, volunteers are fundamental to the project’s survival.
“Without volunteers, we are down to just a few local staff, and our forest and site coordinator, to keep most of our forest rehabilitation project and site going… we have had to basically halt our invasive species removal, and as rains come back, the weeds will too. All building projects were immediately halted; the elephant foods farms are getting overrun by weeds.”
A skeleton team are continuing with the most vital work at the sanctuary; “the few remaining staff we have are mainly focused on the elephants, and trying to not let the jungle take over the base camp while we have no guests, volunteers and a full team of staff.”
Unfortunately, as Jemma told us, even this reduced conservation work will become increasingly unsustainable without funds, which are usually raised by volunteers.
“Our dedicated team of mahouts will still continue to work closely with their elephants each and every single day. However, this requires a salary. Injured elephants will still continue to receive treatment to their ongoing issues – but we will need medicine for that. Our elderly residents rely on daily food supplements -banana trees, sugarcane, fruit, tamarind and rice – all purchased from markets in the community and town. At the same time, we still need to support the community to protect the forest home of the elephants; as well as recognising the community’s land, livelihoods and support systems also depend on this forest. All of this requires a steady stream of funding over the coming months.”
In this respect, at least, members of the WorkingAbroad community are able to support the project in its time of need, from behind closed borders. For those who believe in the sanctuary’s tireless work, we would encourage those able to do so to make a donation – ensuring that their doors will remain open to welcome volunteers in years to come.
Written by WorkingAbroad blog writer, Ellie Harkness
To make a donation to any of our project partners, please click here to donate under PayPal – and remember to write in your reference which project you would like the donation to be given to. It should be the project name so e.g. Elephant Project, Cambodia. Or make a donation directly to the project via their Elephant Crisis fund here.
If you are able to join the project as a volunteer later this year or in 2021, then we would love to see your application! The volunteer project runs throughout the year, and we have made volunteer dates available all the way till August 2021. You can find more info via the project page and if you are ready to join already, you can fill in the online application form by clicking on APPLY NOW.