Thud. Flopping his cumbersome body onto the cement floor of his enclosure, Lanchang tries desperately to fight the onset of sleepiness that threatens to spoil his plans for a midday frolic. The baby elephant, the more boisterous of the resident pachyderms, is being decidedly petulant, refusing to take his afternoon nap.
Instead of winding down for the afternoon, he’s up to mischief; sneakily trying to make a grab for a mama elephant’s tail in the next enclosure or making a ruckus rattling the padlock attached to the fence.
And in between, his little leg would give way and he’d find himself in a pile on the floor, a comical vision as he furiously attempts to get up again. But get up he does and groggily lumbers over to where I’m standing, on the other side, observing his antics with his keeper, his eyes narrowing, presumably plotting what else to do to disturb the calm of this sizzling afternoon at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary in Pahang.
“Jangan dekat sangat (don’t get too close). Lanchang can get quite ‘wild’,” warns his mahout or keeper as he continues to cajole the 2-year-old to take his siesta. “Dia mengantuk tapi masih buat gagah (he’s actually sleepy but simply pretending to be strong),” he adds, pursing his lips in mock displeasure at his charge’s defiant stance against slumber.
The male baby elephant was found about 10km away from the sanctuary in a place called Lanchang, hence his name, explains the keeper. He’d been left behind by his group and was brought here. “He was still suckling so we have to ensure that he gets his high calcium milk. Elephants need to drink (milk) at least up to the age of two, which means that Lanchang can soon be weaned off and start eating soft food.”
The regal mama elephant with the kindly eyes in the next enclosure whose tail Lanchang had persistently tried to pull all afternoon is called Siput. And surprise, surprise, she was discovered in a place called Sg Siput in Perak.
In the spacious enclosure next to Siput’s, another elephant is holding court, capturing the attention of the young visitors who’ve come for an up close experience with these gentle giants. This particular elephant is causing a stir for a different reason — it’s her prosthetic leg. Despite having to hobble like a wounded hobbit, she’s in good spirit, her trunk furling and unfurling as she plays with a puddle of water in her enclosure.
“That’s Selendang. Her foot got caught in a trap when she was three years old so we had to create a prosthetic leg for her. She’s now 14 but she still finds it a challenge to get used to this artificial leg,” explains the keeper, his eyes trained on the creature as it attempts to dislodge its ‘shoe’.
Selendang’s feet, he adds, are growing so every six months the mould needs to be changed. “And every time she gets a new ‘shoe’, she has to learn to adjust again because obviously the weight would be different.”
Pointing to Selendang’s right leg, the keeper brings my attention to the fact that it’s starting to be ‘bent’ due to the immense weight that’s being transferred to that side (of the leg) to support the weaker left. “And her body looks hunched. We don’t know how long she can survive although at 14-years-of-age, she’s still considered quite young.” Elephants, adds the keeper, are similar to humans in many ways and can live up to a ripe old age. Here, the oldest pachyderm is a 78-year-old which was imported from India during the early days of the sanctuary’s opening.
THE A TEAM
The Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary (National Elephant Conservation Centre), located near Lanchang and established by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) in 1989, is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team.
The only one of its kind in the country, the team, which started with the elephant translocation programme back in 1974, is dedicated to locating, subduing and subsequently translocating problem elephants from areas where their habitats are constantly being encroached by plantations to other more suitable habitats throughout the Peninsular, which also includes Taman Negara National Park.
Aside from being the ‘team’s home and that of a herd of resident elephants, the Sanctuary also carries out a lot of public awareness activities aimed at educating visitors about the importance of the species and habitat protection. It also supports research activities in elephant translocation and conservation.
“There are four units here — the main ones being the elephant husbandry unit and the elephant translocation unit,” begins Zulkifli Ayob, an assistant wildlife officer that I manage to corner as he’s making his rounds checking on the elephants. I’m curious about the works carried out here, I tell him, patting the ‘bench’ in front of Selendang’s enclosure for him to sit on. He obliges, wiping the beads of sweat that’s already forming on his forehead. It’s a hot day.
For any translocation programme, which could take weeks, they need to ensure that the team heading out is adequate, begins Zulkifli. “We must have one tracker, someone who’ll shoot the tranquiliser dart, and two other personnel who will act as cover for the shooter in case the elephant starts to charge. A doctor must also be available to check on whether the elephant is healthy enough to be moved. Elephant tracking and translocation wouldn’t be conducted without the right number of personnel on hand.” In addition, two ‘translocation’ elephants, known as ‘gajah denak’, which have been tamed and trained specifically for this exercise, would be utilised.
Says Zulkifli: “These elephants are used to guide and mother their wild counterparts, coaxing them to cooperate. Sometimes the latter, which have been left behind by their group are feeling isolated and stressed. So it’s the responsibility of the ‘gajah denak’ to ‘communicate’ with them so they can help to minimise the trauma.”
Without the help of these ‘gajah denak’, it’d be a huge challenge to get these groggy and generally uncooperative wild elephants out of the jungle and into the waiting vehicle. The two ‘tamed’ elephants would position themselves on either side of the captured elephant while the team attaches chains around its heaving shoulders.
The latter would then be slowly guided onto the truck and taken by road, and then sometimes by barge, to one of a number of protected natural areas where it’ll be set free. “Since the 1970s, we’ve managed to successfully translocate more than 800 wild elephants to areas that are better for them,” shares Zulkifli.
Elephant calf which are found, either having been separated from the group or are in strife are brought to the Sanctuary to ensure their continued survival. Here, they’re monitored around the clock and cared for by loving keepers.
There are 24 elephants here at the moment, according to Zulkifli, together with the ‘gajah denak’. Ideally, there should only be a maximum of 30 in total at any one time. Each elephant will have two mahout to itself, someone that the elephant would end up forging a very close relationship with.
“We work very long hours here,” shares Zulkifli. “Elephant timing is very different from humans. They need to nap in the afternoon because they’re nocturnal. They spend only four hours for sleep and that’s quite a challenge for us.”
The idea is to not keep the elephants here for longer than necessary, adds Zulkifli. “We want to release them back into their rightful habitat in the jungle so we help them to acclimatise. It’s not a long process unless your intention is to train them into ‘gajah denak’, which takes longer. A really well trained one would need to be ‘schooled’ for at least two years.”
The young elephants are taught to ‘adopt’ the behaviours of their species. “Because they’ve been abandoned by the group, they need to ‘relearn’ how to be an elephant — from humans and the other elephants here.”
For example, they’re taught how to reach for their food that may be located high on a tree. They may know the basics, says Zulkifli, but there’s still a need to refine their skills. “Sometimes, we’ll get them to climb on a tree trunk or a boulder and physically hold their trunk and direct it to their food supply. And we continue with the training until they can do it by themselves. Some babies learn fast, others not so.”
Here, the elephants are fed three times a day. Once they’re moved to an area designated as ‘partial wild’, the frequency of their feed would be decreased to just one or two times a day.
Elaborates Zulkifli: “Over time, we teach the elephant to become wild elephants. Once we feel they’re ready, i.e. they can be independent, are in good health and able to socialise easily, we’ll open the gates for them to return to their natural habitat.”
Despite their fearsome size, elephants, says Zulkifli, are docile and humble creatures that take easily to commands and are fast learners. “And elephants have great memories. Their brain weighs just over 5kg which means they can retain a lot of memories,” adds Zulkifli. Well, when the largest brain is that of the sperm whale at 8kg, the elephant is certainly not far behind.
The elephant doesn’t use its strength to hurt humans unless under duress. Meanwhile, their calf, adds Zulkifli, are just like human children. “If they want something, they don’t think long. They don’t know how to convey their needs so what will happen is that they’ll start acting up, hitting their trainer with their trunk for attention.”
When the adult elephant is being naughty, he’ll tease by using his trunk to annoy us, or maybe pushing his head in a head-butt. “There are also elephants who’d happily do a side or back kick when the mahout isn’t looking,” says Zulkifli, chuckling heartily.
And if you want to know whether the elephant is angry? “Look at his eyes, which would dilate. And his ears would be erect and widened. Not in a fanning motion — that’s the elephant trying to cool himself. When his ears are erect and he emits a high pitch sound, he’s angry. If he starts folding his trunk that means his temperature is rising. When you see the tail erect, that’s it. You’d better watch out. He’s ready to pounce!”
You have been warned!
Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, Kuala Gandah, Lanchang, Pahang.