I lay still in the darkness, my eyes sleepy, my ears still awake listening to the unfamiliar sounds of the forest around me. Chirping, creaking and the rustling of leaves around the stilts of the hut. Occasionally the echoed sound of a lizard, “ggggecko” reverberated in my ear, the noise so close it could have been resting on my shoulder. The humming of the generator stopped and all had gone black so I knew it was after 10pm. In the corner of my little hut, enveloped by a pink mosquito net that encircled my bed, the night so quiet and black that it was almost too peaceful to sleep. Unable to make out much of what was in the room, I sat up wondering how close my face actually was to the mosquito net. I fumbled for my flashlight and the small beam of light revealed the tip of my nose almost brushing up against the netting. It was a night away from light pollution of the city, electricity of the houses around you and void of the comforts of noises, making you totally aware of how small we were in this massive forest surrounding us.
So what was I doing in this little hut in the middle of the forest in Cambodia? I was volunteering at The Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located only a few hours drive north from Siem Reap, but is worlds away. This conservation land spans over 1 million acres and I was staying and working in a 25,000 acre section which is being protected and preserved by the Save Elephant Foundation.
The elephants of Cambodia are intertwined with the history of the country. There are tired looking elephants giving rides to tourists at Angkor Thom temple and they are displayed on carvings that bare stories of warriors riding on elephants, the stones that depict the images the animals themselves carried when the temples were erected. In addition to the elephant, many of the wildlife in Cambodia is disappearing due to deforestation, hunting and domestication.
Their numbers are dwindling much like the forest where they used to call home. The Save Elephant Foundation project is designed to protect the land that is still left, replant indigenous trees to help restore the jungle back to it’s original state, create a better home for the animals who live in this area and eventually, create a haven for the elephants of Cambodia to return. There are currently two elephants at the sanctuary, both were used for logging and now they are getting the chance to live out the rest of their lives in the wild.
I’ve been involved with Elephant Nature Park the last several times I’ve been to Southeast Asia and each time I go back the experience is more and more rewarding than the last. It is amazing to have the chance to help foster a home for these animals and then get to see them happy, roaming free and behaving normally in the wild.
The staff are all residents of the area and better farming practices are taught to the local community to encourage people to grow their own food responsibly. We purchased anything we didn’t grow from villagers around us to ensure that the sanctuary supports local business. We had the chance to learn more about indigenous plants and gardening in the region, getting our hands dirty by planting seedlings.
The relationship fostered with the local community was amazing to see flourish. A tank full of drinking water that is always available for the locals at the gate of the property if they need it and the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary has been involved with several community projects to provide help in the area. We had the opportunity to go to a blessing of the new temple while we were there and everyone from the community welcomed us with open arms, providing dinner and inviting us to participate in the ceremony. The sun was setting, the participants of the ceremony picked up the donations that hung on large money trees and as the drums echoed, the crowd walked the trees in a circle around the old temple, for good fortune.
The week was full of chores, picking up fertilizer, gardening, cutting bins of fruit for snacks for the elephants, fire prevention, planting seedlings and scooping elephant poo. The hard work was well worth it, we had the chance throughout the week to walk with the elephants to their favorite watering hole, observing them play in the mud and dirt and enjoying time outside to confines of chains.
It was one of the more rewarding weeks I’ve spent giving back to a cause I really believed in. Being surrounded by nature, seeing gracious creatures and making new friends, the forest that seemed so massive and foreign to me quickly felt like home.