EVP Blog – Wild Ele Escapades at EVP

May 2020

So…Friday was International Endangered Species Day? Whoops, just missed that, however there is actually not a day that goes by that we do not think about elephants – the endangered mega-fauna we have devoted our lives to, and the many other species they share the ecosystem with them out in the EVP forest!

We have been pretty much MIA the last couple weeks, but there is a reason why. This is the first time I have had a chance to sit and catch up. So here goes….. I want you to think about the most insanely crazy busy day or week you have had and then add a huge, aggressive, wild male elephant running around willy nilly into the mix and you might just start picture what I am reflecting on today 😮

Working with elephants is actually an insane idea – they are wild animals, they are huge, they eat constantly, they can uproot a tree or crush a motorbike because they have an itchy spot – but after a while working with them becomes a little like an obsession and we do everything we can for them. We wake up and the latest elephant problem crosses our mind, we get up and brush up our teeth and drink coffee with elephants on our minds. We head to work with piles of feed and volunteers keen to learn, we look at the elephants and think how can we make these animals lives better everyday. There is not a day that doesn’t go by that we wish we could just sit down and have an honest verbal conversation with them, but alas we can not. We are all incredibly invested in our eles and to be honest Covid19 has not made working with them any easier, but instead has put great strain on all of us professionally, personally and financially. We are running on fumes, paying our staff bits and bobs when we can and wondering when this will be over and we can return to a more ‘normal’ way of life.

However this is Cambodia, this is Mondulkiri, a place which loves to throw some extra chaos into the mix just for shits and giggles.

The Elephant Valley Project sits on the boundary of the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary (KSWS) where there are an estimated 120 wild elephants. There are an estimated 41,000 – 52,000 globally (ICUN) and around 15,000 in captivity, with some countries having very small populations remaining including Cambodia which only has an estimated 250-600 left in total.

For more than 13 years or so we have only seen wild elephants a handful of times, like when a herd of 11 wild elephants fell into a mud pit and we were called in for a rescue mission or on camera trap footage from 12/15/20kms away. Now while it is possible a wild elephant could have wandered over this way before, it has never happened….until a few weeks ago when….it….did.

Wild bull behind Pearl

Wild bull to the left, Pearl following

Out of the blue, a big, strong, young bull elephant wandered out of the core of the protected area, raided a couple of farms and then found our group of ‘heaven’ elephants (Ning Wan, Mae Nang, Pearl and GeeChreng) at their night spot behind the village.

Our staff didn’t know this when they arrived for work in the morning and found a big bull with the girls, which started what can be only described as a few days of chaos and panic. Mahouts got stuck up trees and we had to call in support. The local government, staff from the Ministry of Environment and KSWS park management and rangers, fellow elephant researchers, local law enforcement and many community members all came to work alongside our mahouts and vet team. The bull was most interested in Pearl, the youngest of the EVP herd, and in the chaos that ensued she ran off with him into the forest! Things happened fast, but we managed to repeatedly distract him so we could move our old ladies (Ning Wan and Mae Nang) away, however it took another 2 more days to move GeeChreng, as the bull kept coming backwards and forwards and was showing an interest in her as well.

Eventually Ning Wan, Mae Nang and GeeChreng were reunited and moved to a valley on the opposite side of the village. However little Pearl continued to follow this bull elephant in and around the forest, raiding community farms, coming close to neighbouring villages during the nights and generally having a merry old time and was clearly not interested in coming home.

Each day the combined team came together and the goal was simple; how do we get a handle on the situation. We started to go out each day tracking the bull and slowly relocating all of our elephants as far away in the opposite direction from where the wild bull was.

GeeChreng reuniting with Ning Wan

After a few days we thought we were making headway and we starting to ponder if Pearl was going to live in the wild with her new BFF could be qualified as a successful release project but when the bull changed tactics and direction and headed into another river system and found Easy Rider and Genial, our problems resumed. For reasons unknown he took an instant dislike to Genial and attacked her and sent her mahouts climbing up trees for safety. The mahouts managed to call for help, but as we were making our way toward their location and as night was setting, the bull moved about 100m away (with Pearl in tow) and our amazing Sophea risked his life to jump down and help Genial back up and away from that area and move her closer to Easy for the night. The mahouts then made it back to the village safely, though were severely shaken up. Staff of the year award to these guys!

At times like this you struggle to draw priorities and gain perspective but I can write from experience that nights like that are the longest. How are our elephants? How are our staff? Will our injured elephant survive the night? Will this wild bull attack people next?

With much trepidation we headed out the next morning with the combined team and again assessed the situation, saw no sign of the bull close by, so were able to slowly walk Easy and Genial back into another valley area and started treating Genial for the many cuts and bruises she sustained. The old girl is moving slowly and has a few bruises that are taking longer to heal, but she is on the mend. It will be some time till she is ok but we are confident of a full recovery.

Another few days passed and by now this was becoming a bit like a waking nightmare, where you start thinking that maybe this is the new norm. However it was a huge strain on the community as well, and why Endangered Species Day is a good day to talk about this. We need to live alongside our wildlife, protect all wildlife. However sometimes they don’t know how to live alongside us, though no fault of their own, they are just wandering and eating and the threat their presence poses to our neighbours farms is in turn their greatest danger. As human spaces expand and wild spaces shrink, it’s the eles instinct to eat anything sugary and nutritious, which has now been planted in their migratory paths and territories. Simply put; humans and wild elephants are struggling to coexist in rapidly decreasing spaces and this is an increasing problem across many parts of Asia, one that many people and organisations are trying to find solutions for.

With no sign of the bull wanting to move on to return to the deeper wild forest, the decision was made to attempt to reclaim Pearl and move her away from the bull, hoping he would move on. The community as well as other surrounding villages, were becoming increasingly angry with the crop raiding and blaming it on Pearl for continuing to hang around in this area. Serious threats were made, threats we had to take seriously in this increasingly complex situation.

The next day the situation escalated when in the morning the pair came close to our village again, seriously scaring some families. However some of our mahout team are some incredibly brave people and managed to act quickly and secure Pearl to a tree after distracting the bull. As the bull seemed to not want to leave her, he stopped harassing homes and that night people could sleep a little easier.

After another couple of days the bull was becoming increasingly frustrated and was taking his frustration out on Pearl by knocking her down and attacking her. Things had again taken a serious turn. As I mentioned previously we are all incredibly emotionally, financially, physically and completely devoted to these amazing animals and after a blur of days the people you care about are safe but the elephant who you treasure is under attack. What do we do? How do we move her? Which direction do we move?

After more discussion, that even ended up on the desks of the very top of the Cambodian Government, we worked together with the government, team of rangers and researchers again and it was decided we had to intervene and recover Pearl. After a massive two day effort, with all possibilities planned including potentially having to dart the bull, we managed to quietly move Pearl away from the wild bull as he went off foraging in the middle of a very hot day.

Injured and exhausted and quite shaken, we have been treating Pearl carefully this week. She unfortunately has a few bruises and scrapes, from where she took a hit or two, but mainly we are treating injuries to one of her legs. We believe as she is relatively young she should recover quickly with lots of TLC. She is now spending her days with her new bodyguard; Mr Hen (EVP’s resident bull elephant), rather than returning to the old girls crew of Ning Wan and Mae Nang. This is mainly just in case the wild bull returns.

However, the bull seems to have moved on. We have tracked and had teams out monitoring that side of the forest, but he seems to have headed off to carry along his migratory routes. The community has now done welcoming ceremonies with Pearl, showing their love and care for these elephants who now call the forest of their community home.

It was such a random event that just added so much stress and noise, on top of an already intense period with Covid, that only now he is gone can I sit down and write about it. Thankfully nobody was injured and while three of the eles are a bit banged up, they are essentially ok.

This is such a difficult situation and one that we must be open and honest about because simply put; managing captive elephants in their natural habitat is difficult. We need to spend some of our precious time and hard earned funds looking and planning for a future of more wild elephants in this area.

Over the past 13 years, we have strived to find the best way to look after these elephants and giving them 1500+ hectares of beautiful forest they can call home is it, but we realize they are still in captivity. This means their days are generally full of grazing, mudding and swimming, however they are still tethered on their long chains in their natural habitat away from humans at night time. They move to a nice fresh location every night, enabling them to get the best opportunity we have been able to give them to forage throughout the day and the night, without raiding the communities farms themselves and making their presence here a hindrance rather than a benefit for the local communities.

However they do share this forest with other animals, and wild elephants. This is the first time we are dealing with a problem such as this, but as this larger forest environment is under enormous pressure over the last few years, we do anticipate more instances of Human-Elephant Conflict developing in this region. How do we react when this or another wild elephant comes back again? How do we prepare local villagers for further future incidents?

We also have to keep in mind that this young bull elephant was just being himself – a wild male elephant in search of food and females, but is having to roam further due to a loss of habitat. He himself probably had a grand old time, however we do need to protect our elephants as the older ones particularly can not handle a big rambunctious male pushing them around.

Many questions at the moment. Not many answers.

So, as we thought we were just getting into a groove of the new daily routine of a sanctuary without guests, we have actually been the busiest we have been in a long time over the last couple of weeks. There were tears, sleepless nights and many many hours of running around trying to protect all our eles, while trying to support the local community and local government to work together to help them solve this problem.

We will keep you updated on our girls and how they are doing. I want to thank all our supporters, sponsors, donors, family and friends, you all keep us going during times like these.

Jemma Bullock
ELIE/EVP Manager