Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary

Trip to Kuala Gandah: November 20, 2013

Elephants, What makes them so magical?  I don’t know entirely a lot about these animals but I know one thing for sure, for being so massive, I find them to be all too adorable.   Before heading to Malaysia, I did some research and found out that there is an Elephant Conservation Center a few hours away from Kuala Lumpur. More Information about the Sanctuary can be found  here. When I found about this Sanctuary I wanted to do more than just visit, I wanted to volunteer.  Upon searching the web I ended up following a forum thread on TripAdvisor about a volunteer program that would provide transportation to the facility and also show us his day to day tasks.  I found his email and decided to contact him.  His name is Zali and has been a volunteer for several years.  He charged a fee which covered the transportation cost, personal guide, and lunch.  Roughly 280RM per person.  At the time I thought, “Hey, that’s quite a bit of money,” but after the entire day with the Elephants I think it was worth every RM. Unfortunately, photos of the behind the scenes weren’t allowed such as the areas where they held the rescued baby elephants or rehabilitating elephant with a bad leg.  The reasons for the no photography rule is simply that people may misconstrue the photos to be abuse or holding the animals captive. In reality, the sanctuary is where volunteers take-in and rehabilitate elephants that get caught in bear traps while wandering onto a farmers’ lands. The farmers set out these traps to protect their crops.  Instead of the farmer trying to take the elephant’s life they contact the sanctuary, which then takes them in and re-locates them to a reserve.

The day started by meeting at the pick-up location at the Titiwangsa Station.  It was a five minute rail ride on the LRT, and I noticed Zali and company right away with a great sigh of relief. It wasn’t as difficult to find him as I had imagined.  We drove a few miles on our way and brief introductions were given.  Zali gave us his impressive background.  He has dedicated 20 years volunteering with the sanctuary and wild elephant rescue operations since 1990.  Zali isn’t a stranger to the jungle as he was a jungle warfare specialist in the late 1970s till early 1990s.

Zali talked about what type of behavior, sounds, and movements of the elephants would mean while looking at them.  He also showed us a documentary which shows the damage elephants do to plant life and local farm lands.  It also showed the steps the elephant sanctuary takes in order to manage the conflict. As we arrived near Kuala Gandah, we stopped by a local store and bought out every loaf of bread they had with some powdered milk to make a type of formula for the baby elephants. Then we were on our final leg to the sanctuary.  We arrived around 11:30 and went straight to the welcome center to register.  Since the sanctuary is run by the Malaysian government, there is no fee to visit.  They just need visitors to check-in and fill out some quick info about where visitors come from. After we check-in, we were given a tour around the sanctuary.  We met two baby elephants that they had rescued. They were kept in a separate paddock away from public access  They were caught with traps the farmers set out to protect their land.  We were also shown the training facilities and the nearby waterhole, mud area, and the temporary grazing area.

A little pass noon we were provided lunch by the Women’s’ Association.  Zali helped generate a small income for the ranger’s wives by hiring them to make a traditional Malaysian meal. After the meal, our group split up. A few of us prepared lunch for the elephants by chopping papayas and sugar cane while another group carried and distributed the Napier grass for the elephants in the paddocks.  I was with the group that separated the Napier grass.  And oh boy, that was tough work.  The grass was heavy and long with ants and other bugs crawling over it.  The blades of grass had sharp edges.  I’m surprise the elephants enjoy eating these. Zali introduced us to the mid size elephants which were in the paddocks. One with an amputated leg Zali called Ms Tripod. She was caught in a bear trap a farmer laid out to protect his crops.  Zali had found a doctor to donate a prosthetic leg for her. Unfortunately, the elephant was an adolescent, and the prosthesis had to be refitted and taken to the doctor’s office to be re-calibrated.

The adolescent elephants were held in paddocks that allowed visitors to feed them sugar cane treats. We took a break when the Sanctuary opens to the public around 2pm.  This is when the larger elephants and their trainers marched down and were given brief introductions.  This is where the chopped up papaya comes into play.  The group chopped enough papaya for the entire public to feed the elephants.  Soon after they led the elephants into the river for a bathing demonstration.  Usually they allow visitors to participate with the bathing, but since it was monsoon season the river was swollen and it was too risky to have people other than the trainers out in the river.

Around 4 pm the park starts clearing out we started feeding the elephants the Napier grass we set up earlier.  We actually brought them into the paddocks with Zali.  The elephants listened to his every command, and I felt very safe wandering into the paddocks to feed them.  They loved the grass!  After the feeding of course came the clean up.  We were handed shovels and we took turned picking up the paddocks, Zali made sure the elephants were out of the way while we cleaned up. After the grass feeding we started making formula for the baby elephants The formula mixture has powdered milk, a few loafs of bread, and molasses.  These all had to be hand mixed and ground down so the bread can fit through a siphon that was attached to a bottle- think large baby bottle. We distributed the milk to the growing small elephants while teaching them how to use their trunks to extend – curl – sniff – suck – pull – hold and blow their trunks containing milk into their mouths.  Also teaching them to wait their turn for some milk. We created more formula for the smallest elephants.  They knew we were fixing formula for them and they were making these loud noises.  They needed extra attention so Zali taught us how to help calm them down.  He asked us to let them suckle our thumbs.  It sounds so odd,but it worked!  No, they didn’t chomp them off!  It just felt like a giant baby sucking your thumb it was the cutest thing I’ve ever done. After this we washed up and started heading back to KL.  The day was long and hot but the experience was wonderful.  I’m so glad I was able to help out even for just a day.  Zali was happy to have us, and we were all so grateful to be there.

Below are a few photographs of the sanctuary. This is the area where the visitors can feed the elephants.  The huts are also available to use to escape the sun.  The facility also sells peanuts and sugar cane they can feed the elephants.

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DSC_0239  DSC_0240 Zali  is so well known there that each elephant loves him.  This one below likes to get tickled by him.   He started with a tone in his voice then adds rubs in the end the elephant ends up on his side from being tickled.DSC_0233

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This is Ms Tripod, as Zali refers to her.

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Bathing Session

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The Papayas the troops cut up

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Below are photos are of when the Sanctuary and we got a more personal experience with the elephants.
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Fed them the last of the Napier grass

This is the back area where the trainers and their families live.  Simple bungalows behind the visitor area. DSC_0303

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This is the area where the let the elephants graze, and back in the distant is what looks like a giant puddle. In actuality it is a deep hole where the elephants take a dip to cool off.

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Lunch was provided! Fried rice with eggs veggies and grilled chicken

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No Pain No Gain! this is all from the Napier Grass.

and finally a last good bye from this little one!

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