Jack Highwood is helping to protect Cambodia’s dwindling elephant population. Marissa Carruthers heads into the Mondulkiri jungle to find out more about the Brit’s work. Photography by Zeeshan Haider.

A deafening trumpet sounds in a plain of grass edged by thick forest. Heavy thuds soon reverberate through the ground as trees dance in the distance and small saplings snap underfoot. Within minutes, a trio of giant elephants emerge from the Mondulkiri jungle.

Rhythmic stomping sets the beat for swaying trunks as the beasts lumber towards a river that slices through the landscape. They spend the next few hours frolicking in the water, using their trunks to toss mud onto their backs before basking in the sun.

But life hasn’t always been so carefree. If you look closely, many of the beasts bear the scars of hardship and pain. With Cambodian elephants often used in the tourism and logging industries, some were reportedly worked close to breaking point before being offered respite at the Elephant Valley Project (EVP), set near the provincial capital of Sen Monorom.

“Elephants are essentially wild animals but are, however, considered to be domestic,” says Englishman Jack Highwood, who set up the project. “They’re not designed to do the work that is required of them and often suffer as a result.”

The 30-year-old Brit first began working with elephants when a friend recommended that he visit a sanctuary while travelling in Thailand, an experience he calls “love at first sight”. Though he had no professional background in caring for beasts, Highwood believes his upbringing helped him forge an instant bond with the mammals. “I grew up on a farm, where common sense rules… Elephants are much the same, their care is all about common sense,” he says.

After visiting and working at various Thai sanctuaries, he went on to launch his own in Cambodia in 2007. Using his savings together with some small donations, EVP was started and Highwood’s passion for the animals continues to grow every day.

“If you watch an elephant, you can see when it’s concentrating,” he says. “Normally, they flap [their ears] gently when they’re relaxed and faster when they’re excited. However, when an elephant looks at you in the eye and pins its ears back and spends time to concentrate and examine you up close, you really feel a connection and realise, for a moment, just how intelligent they are.”

It’s this admiration for the animals, and his ability to connect with them, that has enabled Highwood to develop the successful centre. EVP provides rest and recuperation for working elephants, while offering compensation — either financial or in the form of rice — to their owners or mahouts. Many of the elephants take a year’s respite before being returned, while those who are unable to return to work will live out the rest of their lives at the centre. Over time, it has become a haven for elephants, with a total of 14 animals now cared for in a vibrant valley full of bamboo and other delicacies suited to a pachyderm’s palate.

Onion is just one elephant at the centre that carries the weight of a sorry story. Grueling days pulling large logs to a saw-mill took its toll on the animal, and one day she refused to work. Unable to afford the financial loss, her owners made a hole in her forehead where they inserted a hook in order to control her. Eventually, she was brought to the project in need of urgent medical treatment for the infected wound. It has now healed and Onion lives a relaxing life in the jungle. At one point she found love with fellow pachyderm Bob, until he unexpectedly died in August.

And while each elephant carries its own life experience, Highwood has an innate ability to build up relationships with the genial giants as they come and go. Like any bond, it can be a painful process. “I used to have a favourite elephant called Princess but unfortunately she died suddenly and in the process broke my heart,” he says, emphasising that each beast has its own personality, shaped by the conditions it has been kept in. “After that I decided I wouldn’t allow myself to have a favourite as I couldn’t go through the pain again.”

With an estimated population of 250 to 260 elephants left in the Cambodian wild, and 85 to 90 elephants in captivity — 54 of which live in Mondilkiri province — the work carried out by EVP is vital in helping keep the rapidly dwindling population in good health.

Louise Rogerson, founder of elephant rescue foundation EARS, says that such projects play a vital role in highlighting the importance of protecting the animals. “A project of this kind gives visitors the opportunity to enjoy elephants in their natural habitat instead of exploiting them by visiting elephant camps,” she says, adding that the eco-tourism aspect of the project is equally beneficial, providing employment to locals and educating visitors.

EVP runs a volunteer scheme where visitors can spend a day, a week or even months helping out at the sanctuary. This involves immersing themselves in the daily lives of the elephants, helping them with their daily wash in the river and clearing parts of the valley and planting bamboo to feed them. They are also expected to contribute to a series of projects, including digging trenches, building water towers and weeding. Volunteers are also given the chance to observe the elephants in their natural habitat as they tear down trees, cool down in the river, splash themselves with mud and stomp through the forest.

“We’ve seen aggressive elephants become gentle, and brave elephants become fun and playful in the face of living in a herd again,” says Highwood. “It’s a privilege to work towards them having a better future and I just hope that the work is making enough of a difference for their future.”

For more information on EVP, visit: www.elephantvalleyproject.org.