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Do you dream of riding an elephant on your Southeast Asia vacation? Have you always wanted to get close to one of these noble beasts, outside of a zoo setting? Do you just want to see cute baby elephants do tricks? According to some experts, you shouldn't. Especially in Cambodia.
Asian elephants are compelling beasts, but they are often sorely mistreated in the tourism industry. The training that's required to make them safe around people is often akin to torture, as demonstrated by the traditional Thai "phajaan" or "crush," where young animals spirits are systematically broken through torture and social isolation. And don't be fooled when attractions swear up and down that they use humane training techniques: when incomes are on the line, humane, slow-moving training techniques often go out the window.
Health is another major issues for tourism industry elephants in Southeast Asia, who are often overworked, underfed and beaten if they fail to perform properly. This combination of poor care and equally poor treatment often makes these intelligent, sensitive animals go off the deep end: repetitive swaying and nervous tics are trademark behaviours of depressed elephants -- as well as occasional violent outbursts.
All these considerations don't seem to carry much weight in the Southeast Asian tourist scene, where elephant attractions are both popular and profitable, cashing in on visitors' romantic ideas of an exotic Southeast Asia holiday. Thankfully, there are ways to get up close and personal with elephants in Southeast Asia without contributing to animal cruelty.
The Elephant Valley Project, an elephant sanctuary located in the northeastern Cambodian province of Mondulkiri, is run by the energetic Jack Highwood, who started his charity in 2006, and the Elephant Valley Program in 2007. The Mondulkiri facility now has 12 rescued elephants, obtained from locals. Owners will often will accompany the elephant to the sanctuary as its personal "mahout," or handler.