Earlier this year I wrote about partnering with Tinggly- a fun, new travel-themed company offering travel gift boxes; opportunities and experiences for the impossible to shop for travel addict. Fast forward a few months and they asked me to test out one of their latest additions in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia: Swim with an Elephant.
Being a huge supporter of animal rights and welfare, I knew I needed to be aware of what kind of elephant activity it was. But since it said it was to support a conservation charity I agreed and quickly set up a date with the Tinggly team.
The event included the experience with the elephants, pick up and drop off at my hostel, and lunch. As promised, I was picked up by my guide, Mathieu, at 11:30am in a clean, safe vehicle and we made our way to the jungle and Malaysia’s Elephant Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre.
It’s about 1.5 hours (traffic depending) to the centre. Along the way Mathieu filled me in about the centre, why the elephants were rescued, and a little bit about what I could expect for our day.
The Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, established in 1989, is the home base for the elephant relocation unit which began translocating elephants in the 1970s. As humans began taking over the jungle for palm oil plantations, the wild Malaysian elephants found themselves with limited places to go, and as such, are known to invade the plantations. Farmers, who see the elephants as pests, have been known to poison the animals. In fact last year, a herd of 20 were poisoned and killed.
Thankfully, many farmers know they can contact the elephant relocation unit to come take care of the situation. Upon arrival to the sanctuary I had the opportunity to watch an informative video about the rescue and relocation; how they do it, the difficulties and risks. I’m not going to lie; it was depressing. Since the team can only relocate one elephant, or maybe two, at a time there is a chance that the herd will be separated. Even though they get dropped off at the same point. Of course, being wild elephants, the event is also traumatic and has, on rare occasion, been stressful enough to cause death. However, the teams are both professional and compassionate, and what they are doing is much better than the alternative of the elephants being poisoned.
When the video finished I found Mathieu outside with some bad news. The river was too high to bathe the baby elephant. It’s something that can happen during the rainy season and given the tremendous storms and downpours I had experiences over the past couple of days, I wasn’t really surprised. It was definitely a letdown, since that was the main event, but I was grateful that the sanctuary’s main concern was that of the elephant, not for the money or for the visitor’s happiness.
While the baby elephant bathing was cancelled, the show wasn’t. Again, I worried at the concept of a ‘show’ and started to rethink my decision, especially when I saw some elephants penned, and another group of elephants come out with mahouts on their necks. However my fears vanished as light sprinklers were turned on to keep the elephants cool, and the elephants were not made to perform, but rather were introduced the crowd. We learned their names, their ages, and how they came to be at the sanctuary. One was missing a tail, while others were scarred. We were given papaya to feed the elephants, and with the mahouts at their side making sure no one got out of line, the elephants happily ate their treats.
Next they went down to the water, where we watched them swim and play. The Mahouts laughed and rubbed the elephants backs as they playfully sprayed themselves. There was definitely a bond to be seen between human and elephant in this interaction. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but smile and laugh.
After bath time the elephants said goodbye and were taken back to the jungle. In the meantime a baby elephant was brought out and introduced while a worker fed her from a massive bottle. Sugar cane was also for sale and available for anyone who wanted to feed the penned elephants.
At this point, I lucked in huge. As a frequent visitor, Mathieu is friends with one of the staff members who was working that day, and took me behind the scenes. Leaving the families and other tourists, I was taken to the back of the pens and introduced to the elephants. I learned their names and stories, rubbed their backs, and gave them ‘elephant kisses’ (when they give you their trunk and you blow down it and they blow back). These elephants were the sicker ones; one lost a leg in a tiger trap, one had a bad back, and a couple of them were just too young.
Mathieu’s friend told me about the relationships between the elephants. How these males had to be separated (hence the penning) because they were aggressive with each other. And how two of the females were best friends and always had to be together; apparently they put up quite the fuss if separated.
It was amazing to learn more about the elephants, and the rescue centre itself, away from the crowd. I learned more about how they are rescued; that the healthy and older ones are re-released into the safer jungle while the centre only keeps the sick and injured or young. Once they are better or old enough, they will be released. Those that can’t be safely released are used for education ie: in the activities I saw previously for visitors, or to help rescue other elephants. A tame elephant is a huge advantage when rescuing a wild elephants and can quickly make the wild elephant more comfortable and less likely to panic.
As our day wound down and the centre got ready to close I said goodbye to my new elephant friends. Given the change in plan and the time, the restaurant had also closed so we went somewhere different for traditional Malaysian food before heading back to the city.
It was an incredible day, and although not quite what I originally had in mind for elephant conservation, seeing how much love and affection the staff had for the elephants, and knowing all the hard work and compassion that goes into keeping them healthy and safe, I can only applaud the organization for all their efforts.
I say this because I have already had a couple of comments on a photo showing a mahout sitting on an elephant in the background and I’ve received criticism that this isn’t animal rehabilitation and restoration. While the concept itself isn’t necessarily up to what I, as a westerner, thought would be the perfect situation, we need to realize that this is NOT the western world. This is a country using incredibly limited resources to save and protect elephants however they can. Elephant tourism in Malaysia is significantly smaller than in the neighbouring countries of Laos and Thailand because you can’t ride an elephant anywhere in the country. Because of this they do not have the same amounts of money to invest in creating the perfect program. In the end, what I believe it should come down to is the following: if internationally accredited foundations such as the WWF support this foundation and everything they are doing, then we probably should too.
Check out this amazing wildlife experience and more with Tinggly!
Huge thank you to Tingly for allowing me to test this experience, and to my guide Mathieu for such an incredible day.