The man standing in front of me with two small children in tow looked desperate. The three of them — along with more than 100 other people — were waiting in line for the elephant ride, but when the attendant asked him for his tickets, he shrugged.
“We came here to ride these elephants and now they have eaten our tickets,” he repeated. “When we were feeding them fruit just before, one of them grabbed the tickets with her trunk and now they are gone.”
The assistant at the National Elephant Conservation Center in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia (about 100 kilometers northeast of Kuala Lumpur) nodded sympathetically. She had heard his story, or some variation thereof, many times before. “That is unfortunate, sir, but I am sorry. Without tickets you cannot ride.”
Riding an Asian elephant is one of the reasons people come to center, also known as the Elephant Orphanage Sanctuary. Other attractions are the opportunity to feed and pet the center’s several resident elephants and to splash with them in the nearby river. Zoos and safari parks may give you the opportunity to see elephants up close, but rarely do you have the chance to pet, feed and play with them, much less bathe next to them.
When the center first opened its doors to the public in 1990, it hosted about 2,000 visitors a year, with no formal promotion. Still, word of mouth brought increasing attendance, mostly foreigners at first but a growing number of locals. Two decades later there were almost 200,000 visitors, and more than one million total in the first 20 years of operation. These days (pre-Covid) more than 80 percent of guests have been Malaysian.
“Today we have more problems managing the visitors than managing the elephants,” admitted Nasharuddin Bin Othman, who was director when I interviewed him. In recent years, the center has built a new reception area, gift shop, outdoor cafeteria, and restrooms to cope with the crowds. The compensating advantage is that there is more public support for elephant conservation. “At first the locals thought of the elephants here as circus animals,” Nasharuddin recalls. “They would ask skeptically, ‘When is the circus act?’ But now they know our mission is to educate the public about Asian elephants.”
The basis for this mission took shape about half a century ago, when the government was encouraging landowners to establish large rubber tree plantations, and villagers to clear the jungle for crops. This set the stage for growing confrontation between the farmers and plantation owners on the one hand, and the peninsula’s dwindling Asian elephant population on the other.
In the 1960s, about 120 elephants were killed to ensure the safety of villagers, according to Nasharuddin. This represented 10 percent of the estimated population at that time, and drew international criticism. So in 1972, the government passed Wildlife Act 76, and two years later, created the Elephant Capture & Translocation Unit (ECTU). The mandate of the ECTU was to save and manage the by-now-endangered pachyderms by relocating them from areas of potential conflict to one of three jungle reserves and national parks in Malaysia. ECTU staff includes mahouts, wildlife scouts and trackers, and specialists in elephant behavior.
In 1989, the government decided to bring together this staff and several adult female elephants they had trained to help in relocation efforts. The location chosen lies within the Krau Game Reserve, 62,000 hectares of virgin forest that have enjoyed protected status since 1932.
Gradually the center also became a place to bring orphan baby elephants, since babies cannot survive by themselves in the jungle.
When I visited, the center was hosting four adult females, two babies (under two years old), a juvenile male, and two semi-retired workers. One of the latter was Nasharuddin’s favorite, Chek Mek, a 65-year-old who came to Kuala Gandah from Thailand when she was a youngster. “She is special because she has helped us relocate more than 400 elephants and has trained many of our younger workers. She communicates very well with the wild ones. Sometimes she acts as a scolding mother to them,” he chuckled.
The sanctuary is open to the public every afternoon but Friday (the day of rest in this Muslim country). Entrance is free, but donations are appreciated. The first 120 visitors receive coveted tickets for riding on and bathing with the elephants, so it’s a good idea to arrive in time for the official opening at 1 pm. At 1:30, the sanctuary screens a 1998 documentary called “Return to the Wild: The Homeless Elephant” about its work in relocation. National Geographic made the film and it is no vanity piece; the problems encountered and the animal deaths resulting from the center’s activities are openly discussed.
At 2 pm the live show begins. The resident elephants are brought to the holding area for a grooming and feeding session. The fruit or nuts you are given to offer the animals have been pre-selected by the sanctuary staff, but it’s up to you to proffer them to the bank of waving trunks. In this part of the program, the elephants are in barred pens, possibly more for their protection than ours, since several hundred outstretched hands attached to pushing, shoving bodies with squealing children in between can be confusing.
The program continues with a demonstration of some elephantine attributes — intelligence, strength, gentility, and playfulness. This display smacks of the “circus” Nasharuddin professes to abhor, but is presumably designed to engage the children, the center’s most enthusiastic visitors. Happy children ensure parental visits, and the more visits, the more revenue.
At 2.40, the elephant rides begin. You sit bareback on pebbly but pleasant grey skin, and stay on by wrapping your arms around the mahout sitting in front of you. He does the actual steering. I didn’t interview any elephants privately out of range of their mahouts, but the animals didn’t seem thrilled with this part of the program. (Or any part, actually, aside the feeding).
Then it’s time for pink-eared elephants on parade (literally: Asian elephants develop pink pigmentation on ears, trunk, and other parts of their body with age). A couple of elephants come down to the river for a bath, splashing, trunk spraying, and cooling-off fun. Visitors who don’t mind water are invited to join them. (Women must wear modest clothing or t-shirts over their bathing suits.) Splashing in the shallows with these playful behemoths is definitely an experience, but don’t expect to emerge clean from the mud-brown water. The elephants use it for everything, if you catch my drift.
By the time the visitor program ends at 4 pm, most people have donated to the center, says Nasharuddin. “We are earmarking this money for larger enclosures for the elephants. They need bigger ones than they have now.”
In the early days, the elephants were chained at night, resulting in psychological and behavioral issues that the staff realized were not helpful in creating a positive image for the government’s program internationally (i.e., not good for raising money). The chains have not entirely disappeared and even today the enclosures are small and spartan compared to a wild elephant’s habitat.
Money is also needed for a monitoring program to follow the elephants released into the national parks. Without such data, it is hard to evaluate the success of the relocation program long-term. A few elephants were monitored in the 1990s, with support from the Smithsonian Institute, but the program was discontinued when financing disappeared.
Fortunately, Malaysia’s elephants have not disappeared. Their numbers dipped to a low of 500 some years ago, but, thanks to government intervention, international interest, and growing sensitivity to the plight of the pachyderms (in part a result of the center’s educational efforts), they have rebounded to about 1,500 as of 2020.
So a visit to the Elephant Orphanage Sanctuary can be fun, maybe not for these elephants but for the future well-being of Malaysia’s elephants overall. Provided, of course, you feed them fruit and not tickets.