Tourists Enjoy a ‘Wild’ Time at Malaysian Elephant Sanctuary
Tucked at the edge of a pristine forest in the northeastern Pahang state in Malaysia is a 10-hectare refuge where humans and elephants share a good time.
Between 500 to 1,000 people, about a third of them foreign tourists, gather every day at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary to interact with the beasts of the wild.
“This is fascinating,” a German tourist said as she fed an elephant a sugar-coated biscuit. “I never thought I could be this close to an elephant.”
Britney, from Brisbane, was screaming with joy as she rode on the back of the elephant while it bathed at a nearby river.
“My mom would go crazy if she learned that I bathed with an elephant,” she said. “This is a one-of-a-kind experience.”
The origin of the sanctuary dates back to 1974, when elite wildlife rangers were tasked with rescuing elephants that strayed into palm oil plantations and village farms, wreaking havoc on the crops.
“These rangers took great risks — some of them were killed — to bring back these elephants to the forests where they could not run into conflict with humans,” said Rasli bin Othman, a volunteer interpreter who explains the different activities of elephants in the sanctuary.
Rasli, who has been working in the sanctuary for the past four years, said that as the forests got smaller due to human intrusion, conflicts between humans and elephants had increased. Baby elephants are orphaned while others are badly injured and need a place for recuperation and rehabilitation.
In 1989, the Malaysian government established the sanctuary to care for ageing, orphaned, injured and rogue elephants whose straying triggered conflicts with humans.
But it was only in 2000 that the sanctuary was opened to the public in a bid to raise people’s awareness of the need to protect Asian elephants, one of the most endangered among the elephant species with only 40,000 left in Asia, an estimated 1,200 of which are in Malaysia.
Rasli said that at present there were 26 pachyderms residing in the sanctuary. Three of them came from Myanmar, India and Thailand.
“The eldest of the elephants here is Loke Mala. She is a 74-year-old from Myanmar. She was once a working elephant, but has become too old to do her job so she was brought here,” Rasli said. “Our youngest residents are Pandan and Jelli. Both are 3-year-old male orphans.”
Fun at Kuala Gandah usually starts after lunch, which is also the feeding time. Visitors carrying sugar-coated biscuits, bananas and sugar canes are led to several enclosures where the elephants anxiously wait for their food.
Children and adults alike shriek as the elephants’ trunks reach out to the food. Other pachyderms prefer to open their mouths and wait for the visitors to throw the food inside. Sanctuary staff watch closely to ensure that only the right food and no plastic wrappers are fed to the elephants.
After about an hour, a group of five elephants are led to an open field where they show what they can do — spray water from their trunks, kneel and lie down. The highlights of these activities are riding on the elephants’ backs and bathing with them in the nearby river.
Some people have criticized the opening of the sanctuary to the public and have claimed the activities are unnatural for elephants. But a wildlife officer, who asked not to be named, said there was nothing unnatural about what the elephants are doing in the sanctuary, except that they were exposed to people.
“We don’t train our elephants to do carnival tricks,” he said. “What you see here are the regular everyday activities of the elephants.”
The officer said the elephants that were being exposed to people were those which had been tamed and trained to help in efforts to rescue and relocate wild elephants.