Elephant Expert in Cambodia

March 2, 2015 by | Filed Under: Cambodia, News, Responsible Tourism, Special Interest

The following interview is with Jack Highwood, founder and Planning Officer/Program Manager of Elephants Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE) and founder of Elephant Valley Project (EVP) in Cambodia’s eastern province of Mondulkiri. Jack discusses elephants and the influence of the tourism industry to be an effective force for change to promote sustainability in the care of Asian elephants and their forest ecosystem.

Expert interview - Jack Highwood

Can you please introduce yourself to our agents?

I am Jack Highwood from Kent, England. I am 32 years old and started working with elephants in Thailand when I was 20. I then moved to Mondulkiri, Cambodia and founded Elephants, Livelihood, Initiative, Environment (ELIE), a small charity that works to improve the welfare and working conditions of elephants in Cambodia.

What is the Elephant Valley Project?

I founded the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), an elephant sanctuary, in 2007. When working to develop a veterinary program in Mondulkiri before, we saw that treating elephants at their place of work was counterproductive as the elephants were unable to rest during treatment. At EVP, working elephants have a chance to rest and be treated by a veterinarian. This elephant sanctuary is also home for nine elephants from around Cambodia and supplies education and health care to three major villages. EVP contributes funds for the conservation of the Seima Protection Forest, the home range of Cambodia’s largest wild elephant population and a habitat to protect the amazing biodiversity of plants and animals found in Southeast Asia.

Our mantra over time always remains that the sustainability of the local communities and the forest ecosystem alike should benefit from our visitors’ presence. This is clearly seen by the fact that our forest is still standing, while much around us has already gone.

How can visitors interact with elephants at the EVP?

The EVP is very different to other elephant sanctuaries as we do not ride the elephants and encourage very little interaction between them and our international visitors. This is because we are working to rehabilitate them back into the forest and have found that they are much happier being themselves. Instead we focus on having excellent interpretative guides who explain what the elephants are thinking and doing. We involve visitors in the daily running of the sanctuary through volunteering on our farms and at our basecamp.

It is easier than ever to visit our elephant sanctuary as we now have new roads from Phnom Penh and Banglung in Ratanakiri. Visitors can do a loop to see Phnom Penh, Kratie’s Irawaddy dolphins, Banlung’s indigenous people and then on Mondulkiri to visit us before returning to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap.

What does the wildlife in Mondulkiri look like?

Mondulkiri is still a vast, uninhabited province with over 1.5 million hectares of standing forest that supports one of southern Indochina’s richest ecosystems. However much of this is also under threat from rampant logging, deforestation and hunting of some endangered species at great risk of extinction. There are many threatened and endangered species living in Mondulkiri but also healthy populations of Asian elephants, clouded leopards, crested gibbons, otters, black-shanked douc langurs, banteng and hornbills. It is not easy to do wildlife tours in the area due to lack of roads and human settlement.

What other wildlife viewing options in Southeast Asia do you think are doing a great job in conservation work combined with tourism and why?

I am not a fan of zoos or rescue centers but I see their value when they put wildlife back into their native habitat where and when they can. The Phnom Tamao Rescue Centre, a 30-minute drive outside of Phnom Penh, is a shining example of this as they rescue several thousand animals, birds and reptiles a year while also returning great numbers back into safer habitats. They struggle (as we all do) on a very limited budget, but their dedication and good results are clear for all to see. Recently they have been able to successfully reintroduce gibbons back into the forest surrounding Angkor Wat and this is a significant achievement.

things to do for checking on an elephant - Cambodia

What tips do you have for travel agents when “selling” wildlife/animal products to their travelers?

I recommend using and trusting well-known and respected travel companies to take travelers to locations that look after the animals under their care. No visitor to Southeast Asia wants to partake in activities that are harmful to animals such as elephants, so I think it is the responsibility of tourism companies to make sure that they are visiting locations that place the highest priority on the welfare of the animals in their care.

Elephant sanctuary owners listen closely to their corporate partners in the tourism industry. The buying power of these travel companies can be used effectively to greatly influence the standard of care at any given elephant sanctuary. The market in the west is currently changing towards a much more liberal approach to elephant interaction and I strongly advise travel companies to engage with their partners to improve the standards of care and remove negative elements that are detrimental to proper care.

As I am sure many readers of this article are aware, the market is changing and it is time to keep ahead of this curve. Doing so can have incredibly positive benefits for elephants with better working practices, healthier diets and protecting forest habitat without hindering the all important profit margin.

What kind of support would you like from the travel industry?

Recently, the use of elephants to entertain tourists has become an increasingly controversial issue in social media and even the headline news. Tourism companies are actively involved in employing elephants in many different ways and it is important to determine that these animals are being looked after in a sensible and sustainable way.

I would like to see the tourism industry take the lead to improve the welfare condition of elephants that it employs and from which the tourism industry profits. Better food, living conditions, treatment and access to proper veterinary care would go a long way to increasing the sustainability of elephants in tourism.

While many would call for an outright ban in the use of elephants, the reality of the matter is that there are just too many elephants already involved and there is no support structure to care for them if there was a dramatic decline in their employment. We have already seen this happening due to the ban on logging and restrictions against elephant begging on the streets. However, as the old saying goes: “the customer is always right,” I believe that the tourism industry in particular underestimates the power of its influence to do good in the matter of elephant sustainability.

For more information about the Elephant Valley Project, Jackh Highwood, and the welfare of elephants and other wildlife in Cambodia, please leave your contact information in the form below.