Gentle giants at play

It's feeding time at Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary

I STROKED his face and he stood there, savouring every moment. His coarse bristles pricked my palms and his mouth opened wide as if to smile. But it was feeding time and Lhasa was probably hoping for some juicy fruit.

Used to human company, Lhasa and his harem of female elephants were not bothered by the crowd and lined up to be hand-fed.

Wildlife rangers showed us how to hold the fruit in our hands so that the elephant could take it with its trunk. Or we could place the fruit into its open mouth. The latter was a bit scary at first, but after a few hesitant tries, we found it easy to put the fruit straight into the elephant’s mouth and watch the fruit disappear with a mighty gulp.

Scrub And Splash

Elephants love to roll in mud so before meeting visitors they were given a good wash in the stream. Armed with brushes, the mahouts walked the animals to the nearby stream for a soak and scrub. Trained to respond to its keeper, each elephant enjoyed a refreshing scrub before lunch.

Then three elephants were led to the riding ring where visitors had formed a queue to wait their turns for a ride on the bare backs. Without a basket to cushion my bum, I could feel every movement of the elephant’s undulating vertebrae as I hung onto the mahout for a brief but exciting ride.

When two baby elephants were led to the stream, excited visitors jumped in to play with them. The mahouts led a trained elephant to another section of the stream with a raised platform to let a few people climb on board.

We watched with bated breath as the beast lumbered back to the middle of the stream. Then, at the mahout’s loud command, the clever elephant sank into the water on its side, dunking the riders with a great splash! The crowd cheered and the dunked riders came out soaking wet but thrilled.

Pitiful Plight

After viewing Home Of The Wild, a video documenting issues that affected wild elephants, it was easy to understand how these majestic mammals were trying to survive in a disappearing habitat. As its tribe moved deeper into the steadily shrinking forest, a confused elephant may go astray and be forced to look for food in plantations.

“An elephant can destroy up to 300 trees in one night,” says ranger Ahmad Fitri Osman who adds that villagers would treat the displaced elephant as a rogue and drive it off or even try to kill it.

The highly experienced Elephant Relocation Team works hard to educate people not to take matters into their own hands but to instead let the team manage the elephant professionally. Working closely with the Forestry Department and local conservation teams, they used trained elephants to translocate at least two to three stray elephants to a suitable habitat each month.

Joy ride on the elephant's back

With less than 40,000 wild elephants in Asia and only about 1,200 left in Malaysia, it’s vital to protect the animals and so help safeguard thousands of other species.

That’s because when elephants move around in the forest, they knock down trees to create natural pathways and this allows smaller wildlife to feed. In fact, even its dung helps to disperse plant seeds!

Fast Facts

The Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre was established 20 years ago by the Department Of Wildlife And National Parks as the base for the Elephant Relocation Team which started its translocating programme in 1974. The centre is also home to trained elephants from Thailand and Myanmar, used for translocation exercises and several retired and orphaned elephants.

Visitors are dunked by the smart elephant!

To make your trip worthwhile, get there by midday to enjoy all the activities which start at 12.30pm. Bring a change of clothes and towel, if you wish to join in the water activities with the elephants.

It’s free of charge, so just come to experience the elephants and be educated to protect this critically endangered species. Notify the centre in advance so that groups can be accommodated.

Opening hours from Monday to Sunday are 8am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm. On Fridays, opening hours are from 8am to 12.15pm and 2.45pm to 5pm. Call Tel: 09-279 0391. Fax: 09-279 0398.

How To Get There

Kuala Gandah in Pahang is about three hours drive from Kuala Lumpur on the KL-Karak Highway before you exit at Lanchang toll gates. Follow the signage, turn right and drive on for another 20 minutes to get there.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 23 March 2009

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