The elephant in the river

If you’re patient, we’ll get to the part about being chased by floating elephant poo.


We spent the day with Rajah who was our guide to the Elephant Sanctuary. It’s about a two-hour drive out of KL to the Sanctuary and that gave us plenty of time to get a different perspective on Malaysian society and politics. Our guide the other day had confirmed much of what we’d read and learned about Malaysia over the years. Rajah had a different viewpoint.

It started with the idea that the reason the same government has been in power for 50 years was simply that everyone loves them. Sure there are some malcontents who give the country a bad reputation internationally, but every country has those, right? Then there were illegal immigrants who are apparently a problem. No worries though, Malaysia knows what to do with them. It puts them in a “10-star hotel” and feeds them pet food, they can fight, they can die they can do whatever they want until they get chucked out of the country. It went on like this.


Riding the elephant.

Every Malaysian road we’ve seen is dotted at regular intervals with numerous fruit stalls. They vary from a single table and umbrella through to little shops; all selling a variety of local fruits. We stopped along the way and bought some little bananas. Interesting but a little bland, perhaps.


Sadly much of the view as we drove along was of palm oil plantations. I’ve got nothing against palm oil per se, but what is not palm oil plantation was once jungle. Malaysia is an enormous producer of palm oil and something like 13 per cent of the land area is taken up with plantations. And those plantation leave a significantly reduced space for the local animals, such as elephants.


A visit to the Elephant Sanctuary begins with watching a video about re-settling elephants. These elephants are generally pitched as being a danger to humans, but it’s hard not to believe that they are more a danger to human economics than people. Elephants have very fixed paths along which they travel, must travel. Unfortunately, humans have a bad habit of sticking houses, roads, farms in the midst of the paths and then complaining when the elephants don’t recognise their right to do so.

When that happens there are basically two outcomes. The first and saddest is that people just take things into their own hands and kill the elephants. The second is that they call in a woefully under-resourced Government group tasked with relocating rogue elephants. The video shows how tough their job is – leaving both them and the elephants distraught. The elephants get relocated to a national park and the Elephant Sanctuary is in one corner of that park and exists to deal with orphaned elephants.



We’re still not sure of the overall morality of a Sanctuary that uses the elephants for a show and for rides. It beats the alternative if the alternative is becoming an umbrella stand, but it’s not great. The show is a bit sad and unedifying but ends with a chance for the audience to feed the elephants. I cannot deny that feeling the prehensile lips of the elephant’s trunk slide around your hand and pick a piece of fruit from it is special.

Riding on the elephant was equally morally questionable but we did it anyway. As a ride it’s a lot more comfortable than sitting on a  camel, elephants are remarkably stable. Their skin and tough hairs are like sandpaper on the skin of the rider’s legs.

The one part of the visit that was most fun and seemed least harmful to the elephant was bathing the baby elephants.


Washing the elephant photo.

So  you have to imagine that there is a group of us standing thigh-deep in a river. The day is hot so although the water is tepid it feels wonderfully refreshing.  Two baby elephants are led down into the water and evidently find it as refreshing as the waiting humans.

As the crowd grins and prepares to approach the elephants, the one on the right produces an absolutely enormous poo. It’s not mushy or round, this thing is about two-feet long and solid.

The crowd falls silent and watches as the river moves this poo towards us. It seems to wriggle and gather speed like something alive. There are gasps and groans and the crowd parts desperately, as anxious not to come in contact with this thing as we would be if it were really the serpent it resembles.

There’s a moment’s hesitation and then we get back to the main game. That game is helping wash the elephants and it is fun. The great thing is that the elephants seem to really enjoy the experience. And we get to get up close and personal with an elephant.

I’d like to think that if more people had experiences like this one then the Elephant Sanctuary would be less necessary. But at the end of the day I’m not convinced anything will be allowed to get in the way of the relentless progress that is palm oil and rubber plantations and cities and highways.

Leave a Reply