ELE-FUN-TASTIC day at Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary in Malaysia
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I killed an elephant. Okay, I wasn’t the one that shot her but I watched her die. Well, maybe not in real life– it was on TV, a movie called Tyke: Elephant Outlaw. It is very sad. And being human I feel partly responsible for her murder.
I wrote this is for you Tyke. I hope you are surrounded by crunchy peanuts in Elephant Heaven.
It is a very human thing to want to subdue a magnificent beast and have it do your bidding. There are even statues in Thailand of the bygone times when people would ride an ostentatiously decorated elephant into battle. But taking an animal away from nature- its habitat and home, is a very convoluted thing to do. Mahouts or elephant tamers call this process as “breaking the elephant.” To catch an elephant, poachers must create traps that endanger an elephant’s life. For instance, using trap holes that can injure their ankles as they fall. Then they use long bullhooks that can pierce an elephant’s skin to have them do what they want. After, the elephants are transported in cramped trucks, with barely any room to move nor air to breathe. They are destined to be circus animals or worse, as part of a thriving industry that capitalizes on well meaning tourists that want to help rescued elephants.
Other travelers have warned me against this, especially about those tour operators that offer elephant rides. When we drove our rented scooter to the Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya– advertised as a retreat center where volunteers are invited to stay a minimum of three nights to spend time with an elephant or two. The elephants were bound in rusty chains with barely any room to move, right next to their feces. They were visibly distressed and can only sway back and forth. In the 5 minutes we spent in that institute we did not see them with any food nearby. Some elephants were chained in the open field at noon with no shade to hide in when the heat gets unbearable. There is no security in that rescue center. We were able to go inside without any guards asking about our intent or accosting us to a ticket booth to pay. It was in the news a few years ago about one elephant stolen from this facility and killed for his tusk.
The sadness we felt in Ayutthaya was made worse by the memory of the happy elephants we swam with just a week ago. Located only an hour and a half from the very modern Kuala Lumpur, sits a large sanctuary that seeks to educate people about the difficulties and importance of protecting elephants from poachers. I first came to know about the Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary through Tinggly, a fun site where you can gift loved ones, (or yourself) an unforgettable experience. The website offers a lot of activities to choose from, but since I know that in the searing Malaysian heat, there is absolutely nothing better to do than soaking in a cool river with a sweet baby elephant, I happily chose this experience.
In what could only be described as a perfectly sunny Sunday, a very nice Monsieur named Mathieu Castel picked us up from our hotel in Bukit Bintang. He not only chauffeured us to Kuala Gandah, he also became our very knowledgeable guide. In between interesting factoids about the elephants, he also shared amusing anecdotes about himself and what he does. My favourite story from him though, is elephant related. He said that elephants are very intelligent creatures. A couple of them actually figured out how to unlock their gates, and get to the food hut- where they spent the night munching on molasses and treats, only to come back to their pen and lock the gates again. It was the tell-tale signs from the sugar covering their mouths that were seen by the bemused guards the next day.
There were plenty of people in the sanctuary, it was a Sunday after all, but it did not feel crowded. Having Mathieu there made the trip so much better. He knows where the best viewing spots are and why the elephants do what they do. Like why they wave their ears so much. Not because they want to fly like Dumbo, but as a cooling mechanism. The ears are the thinnest and most sensitive part of an elephant’s body, so when they flap it, the blood cools, and as it circulates so does the rest of their body. Mathieu is also friendly with the people working there, such as Amira, the lady who helped us while waiting in line for the best part of the day– Swimming with a baby elephant!
You can really feel how happy an elephant is in the water. Their eyes show that glint of delight. Sometimes they splash and spray people with water. They poop too, and it’s funny to see. You can scrub their skin with sand, and a guide will tell you to scrub until their skin turns white. Don’t believe him. In the cold river water with a relaxed elephant, you can hug her to say thank you for letting me share this experience with you. The elephant is peaceful. She’s content. She will chew the celery you feed her and you’ll feel how big and slippery her tongue is. Soon after, before you’re even ready, it will be time to leave. She won’t want to get out of the water, but eventually, slowly she will rise. She’s okay with that because she knows tomorrow she’ll get to play again. She knows she is safe there.
The afternoon was beautifully spent. I didn’t feel like I missed out because I didn’t get to to ride an elephant. I never wanted to anyway. The elephants are not there to serve as tools for my amusement. But I’ve always wanted to hug them, and I am beyond ecstatic that I did. I wish that all elephants could roam free without the threat of poachers and being killed from the ivory trade. I hope that education will increase the demand for sustainable touristic activities. As we saw in a billboard at the Batu caves:
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum, 1968.)
The whole world knows that we are a long way from there but for now, I’m content that at least there’s places like the Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary that cares for the preservation of these wonderful beings.
My wonderful, amazing, splendid day with elephants was made possible by Tinggly, a gift-giving service that lets you pick from hundreds of adventures from all around the globe.