Monday, 25 June 2012

Baby Elephant Walk

I can lift my leg if I need medical attention
It isn't often a kid from Texas and a woman from Saskatchewan have a chance to get up close and personal with orphaned elephants in the jungle of Malaysia but that is what I managed to find for my guest while in Kuala Lumpur. There is an elephant wild life sanctuary about two hours from the city that deals with injured and orphaned animals or elephants that are causing destruction to the farmers and must be relocated.

Hundreds of elephants work in Jaipur
I wanted to find more than the typical pachyderm ride and the ubiquitous photo op you find in Asia. I have ridden elephants in Langkawi and also in Jaipur, India. Both experiences left me ashamed that I had contributed to the abuse of these magnificent animals. In India, the elephants are forced to carry thousands of tourists uphill to Fort Amber on a narrow, steep passage, often in the blazing sun. They are painted and decorated in bright colours to make you think it is a joyous experience. The elephant handlers are rough, and in my opinion, cruel to the elephants to keep them under control in such tight, crowded conditions. I am not certain if I was the only one on that trek that was sickened while seeing the elephants struck repeatedly on the head with a takaw. I promised myself I would never do something that causes the elephants distress, but my fascination with the beast remains.

Fer and Elephant Man
After much research and several calls I found a person they call "The Elephant Man."  He is a volunteer with the Kuala Gandah Elephant Orphanage Sanctuary for the past 25 years. I sent him a message about educating R2's son, Fernando and I on elephant behaviour. He agreed to take us to the sanctuary the next day but we had to be prepared to work, get dirty and fall in love with the orphans. 

I can't feed her fast enough
The Elephant Man wanted no credit in this story, he only wanted me to spread the word about the work from the Kuala Gandah Sanctuary that runs on a shoestring budget with 55 local employees. My goal is to tell more tourists know about this place, explain the difference between elephant abuse and elephant rehabilitation (which, to some may seem like exploitation), and hope people that read this story have the means to donate much needed equipment or goods to the elephants' plight.

We didn't know what to expect when we got off the monorail in an area far removed from the Petronas Towers in KL. We tried to look inconspicuous but something tells me we were a spectacle in that neighbourhood. A man pulled up with a car that had various elephant stickers adorning the flaking paint. R2 asked if I was nervous to jump in a stranger's car but how can you go wrong with a man that has "Real Men Love Elephants" on his windshield.

After a quick stop for petrol and to buy the elephants eight loaves of bread we headed up the mountain towards the sanctuary. The countryside was breathtaking as we watched the mist rise over the jungle.  When we arrived Elephant Man introduced me to a number of the staff and explained what Fer and I were doing. He wasted to time getting us acquainted with the orphans. 

We grabbed bananas to feed to the babies and made out way to the huge, corralled area that keeps the elephants in their natural environment. You could see the injured orphans loved the Elephant Man. The tiny herd responded to his voice and looked forward to his attention. What a thrill it was to watch these gentle giants react to him. Each elephant had a unique personality, and each elephant had its share of medical problems.

Missing part of her leg from a trap
One of the animals had her tail amputated and lasting scars on her tiny body from a vicious tiger attack. Another elephant had a disabled leg so she will never be released in the wild, and then there was Miss Tripod; an orphan with a portion of her leg missing. The Elephant Man explained they were hoping someone could design a prosthetic leg for her, and the staff could be taught to build one due to the expense of such a device. One such prosthetic was used on a elephant in Thailand with no success due to the advanced age of the elephant but the Sanctuary thinks with Miss Tripod is young enough to get used to to a prosthetic leg. If there are any Mechanical engineers or creative geniuses that want to  make a difference to this elephant, the Sanctuary will listen to all ideas.

There were six orphans but only one we were not allowed to touch, speak or approach.  He was a recently rescued male and he was not accustomed to having strangers near him. We spent over an hour in the corral observing the movements, fears and destruction elephants cause unknowingly to the local farmers. Even these tiny orphans cause much damage to the trees by stripping the bark and pushing on the trees.  A herd can flatten and trample an entire grove of trees as they move from one area to the next searching for food to satisfy their daily 250 kg eating need. 

This orphan has no tail and uses a switch to rid flies
With the devastation of the rain forest in Malaysia, and the Palm Oil plantations taking over what used to be untouched land, the elephants are losing their homes. The sanctuary understands the circumstances of the elephants but also is sympathetic to the local farmer who is able to grow palms for income to feed and clothe his family. The rain forests are dwindling rapidly and the elephant numbers are declining along with the forests.

The sanctuary is trying to desperately educate the locals to not shoot an elephant on site when they start causing damage to their crops. The creatures don't mean to cause destruction, they are looking for food and shelter that is rapidly decreasing. Often elephants will end up in banana groves or durian plantations and farmers will shoot to scare or stop the elephants from destroying their crops.

In the 25 years of volunteering The Elephant Man says 600 elephants have been rescued, relocated or sent to zoos for protection. It is no easy feat to capture an elephant. Often the brave men are in the jungle two weeks tracking a herd to move them to safer ground. Once the elephant is found, the real job begins. An elephant must be shot with a dart from close range. It will be shackled and then given a drug to revive it.  The men must remain close to make certain the elephant doesn't injure himself trying to escape and often a drugged elephant will charge out of fright. One Ranger was trampled to death, trying to save an elephant. The elephants are moved via trucks and boats to a nature reserve but at times, have died from the stress of the long move. There is no easy answer on how to safely and quickly move these 5,500 kg beasts. Some of the elephants are tracked with devices but they are costly and the centre doesn't have the funds to track them all.

$100 Ringitt per day to feed her
We continued our day preparing the milk for the babies. We put our hands in a huge pail of milk, palm sugar and bread, squeezing the bread between our fingers to make the mixture drinkable through a bottle. Fernando was going to feed the orphans when all of the tourists were finished taking photos, watching the show and queuing for their ride.

The mature elephants are paraded out for a tourist performance but the show isn't what you would expect. The elephants are showing stunts they must learn to receive medical attention or jobs they do in the rescue of other elephants. The mature elephants are working elephants and help in the rescue and recovery of the wild elephants, providing comfort and guidance to the newcomers.

The centre lets the tourists have a quick ride but not in a basket. You are riding bareback which is more natural. If you really want to get down and dirty with the elephants, the handlers let you wade into the river and play with the elephants, scrubbing and getting splashed.  It was great hilarity to see everyone having so much fun. The elephant seemed to enjoy the attention and the cooling of the water.  For me, I kept my distance because I know how much elephant dung was in the river!

As soon as the show was over, the tourist buses were packed and on the road. That left Fernando to clean elephant dung and to prepare the bottles for the orphans; once these babies get the hang of eating, there is no stopping them. We were covered in milk, dirt and flies so we quickly grabbed a shower at the facility and went to a local eatery to have fried bananas, ice lemongrass tea and watch the local girls cast shy glances our way.

It was a once in a lifetime event for both Fer and I.  We were hot, sweaty and dirty but we couldn't stop smiling. Elephants have been brutalized over the years from circuses, movies, zoos and working in logging camps.  While tourists (like me) think it is fun to take their photos or ride on the elephants, there are very few places in the world that are trying to save them and not benefit from the money they bring.   Granted, there are many destitute people that wouldn't survive without using the elephants as their only means of income.

Having fun splashing the tourists
As a tourist, it is your duty to look at the facilities and make a conscious decision to do the right thing. If you see something that doesn't look right to you, it probably isn't. Come on people, how often do you think an elephant wants to imitate Picasso and paint a self portrait? He has been beaten repeatedly and humiliated to learn to paint for your amusement and dollars.

If you are able to volunteer or contribute equipment such as milk, bread, waterproof cameras (so the rescue can be documented the entire way), prosthetics, food or anything the centre is in need of, please contact the number below, or email. The Sanctuary, while it won't turn away money, prefers tangible goods as money must go through hoops before it reaches the elephants.

Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre,
Jabatan PERHILITAN, Kuala Gandah
Pahang Darul Makmur, Malaysia

Telephone:  09-279 0391


  1. Beautiful story Layna. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I hope people understand. I still can't get the babies out of my mind.

  2. A very sad story - another beautiful creature on the road to extinction. It must have been amazing to feed and love these giant animals - here's hoping for a happy ending for them. Hugs, sista!

    1. There is so much more to this story but I could only write so much. So many animals face horrible existence's to merely pleasure tourists. I am honoured that I was able to get up close and personal with these orphans.

  3. your best ever...


    1. Thank you Sir....I hope it makes at least one ounce of difference.

  4. Hey Layna, amazing post. I can only imagine how this experience must have made you feel I was choking up for the poor creatures just reading it. I'll definitely share on fb so my friends can think twice about the elephants and maybe someone can help.

    1. Thanks for sharing E. The more people that read, the more will visit the Sanctuary and hopefully donate to keep the work all these men do continuing.

  5. Thanks for doing this, Layna!! This truly is your mission in life -- you were meant to draw attention to these injustices. Good luck and all the best!

    1. The real heros of this story are the men that volunteer and risk their lives to save these elephants and educate the locals to the plight of the elephants. They do all this work and get no credit or glory. They just quietly help the elephants for no other purpose or monetary gain. God bless them all!

  6. Such a good story mama I like that you took a chance and ventured away from the regula style of writing this was amazing I know you love dem elephants so much you are the best!


    1. Thank you wonderful son of mine. I wish you could have been here to see the orphans - both you and Rikki. She would have cried and wanted to stay forever. I was never so happy to be full of elephant snot. the baby kept rubbing me with her trunk and Elephant Man told me to gently blow in her trunk to gain her trust. It was amazing.

  7. Loved this one Layna, sounds like an amazing experience for you and Fer - good on you!

    1. Good on you for reading. Thanks and please spread the word!

  8. such a good sstory my fav so far.

    1. Thank you for reading and enjoying the orphans.

  9. what a great job this would be to do this!

    1. It would be a great job to VOLUNTEER at this, but it is so difficult. It is 2 hours from Kuala Lumpur so long drive. The men that track and either rescue the babies or relocate the older elephants have the hardest job - so dangerous and often they are in the jungle up to two weeks at a time. Trying to rescue an elephant that doesn't want to be rescued or is hurt is a treacherous job. The people I met that worked at the centre had been there for many years - they were so dedicated to the animals. My hats off to the people that risk their lives working with these wild animals.

  10. i like the pictures1 is this one being sent to moose jaw times herald?!

    1. Thanks. This story will run to about 40,000 on Saturday in the Times Herald. I am not certain which photos they will use. It is a long story so they might have to use only a few photos but the photos make the story.

  11. I want to come and see them!! That would be such an amazing experience!!!

  12. Elephants are great. Smart, gentle, but decreasing in numbers. It's good to see sanctuaries helping the population.

    1. That is a perfect way to describe them Steve - Gentle. Gentle Giants. That is why I don't understand why anyone would hurt such a magnificent animal. Thank you for reading my blog.

  13. .....and we finally fixed a prosthetic limb onto Miss Tripod's left leg on Monday - let me worry about the costs :-) I will figure out how we can continuously get this prosthetic limb for her as elephants - given quality medicare and quality psychological care....will live very long!!!
    Ohhh...Miss Tripod loves her new limb..... email me - and I will email you some short videos of her with her new limb...

    1. Zali, I would love to see the footage and write another blog. I will email you directly...just returned from another trip to Malaysia and picked up this message from you. I am so happy to read about Miss Tripod! How exciting. this blog has been so popular and picked up many places. I hope it helps in some way.

  14. I can't wait to visit at the end of the month. What is being done sounds amazing! Thank you for this blog post, it has really given an insight into what the sanctuary does and the pictures are stunning.

  15. thank you Sonia - I will try to email you directly to give you some tips on your trip. Thank you for reading.


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