Learning Our Lesson At An Asian Elephant Sanctuary

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Kuala Gandah Sanctuary is on a mission to save the Asian elephant. They’ve literally rescued more than 700 from certain death. The sanctuary is located about 90 minutes away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We visited on an easy day trip from KL. We had a blast meeting and learning about the Asian elephant.

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Kuala Lumpur Asian Elephant Day Trip – Elephant Rides Are Bad?

Asian Elephant getting ready to eat.

The toughest lesson of the day was about elephant rides. These rides are common attractions all over Southeast Asia.

Kuala Gandah has NO tourist elephant rides and seeks to educate guests about the harm rides cause.

Harm? Yes, Asian elephants are big and strong, but their spines aren’t made for riding. In addition, they have to go through some brutal training to give rides. We didn’t know that. We’ve ridden an Asian elephant in the past. We were shocked and felt very guilty. We just didn’t know the damage we were doing. It was a tough pill to swallow, but it was a lesson we were glad to learn.

We’ll never do it again, and we don’t recommend riding elephants. We’re not elephant experts, and we hate moralizing. But if you’re planning on riding an elephant, you may want to research the actual impact on the elephants before you ride. We didn’t and we really regret it.

Kuala Gandah seeks to educate guests about the harm elephant rides cause.Click To Tweet

Elephant Feeding

Kuala Gandah Sanctuary offered other more sustainable elephant encounters that we really enjoyed. The first encounter was feeding an Asian elephant. Fruit for the feeding was included in the ticket price. For the health of the elephants, the sanctuary provided all the food and outside food was forbidden.

The Travel Ninjas enjoying feeding fresh fruit to the Asian Elephant.

There were 2 fences and 4 feet between the elephants and us, but they felt very close. 4 feet wasn’t that far considering how huge they were. Feeding the elephants was an odd mix of thrilling and intimate. These are massive and powerful animals, but they took food from our hands with delicate precision. It was a simple moment, but we loved it.

Observing Elephant Playtime

Next we watched the elephants bathe in the river. We’ve always heard that is was bad to swim after a meal, but apparently that doesn’t apply to elephants. They were having a great time. We guess some of their enjoyment was merely practical cooling off, but other behavior seemed like pure play. Either way it was fun just to watch them.

Asian Elephant getting ready for his bathThey couldn’t wait to get in the river. They jogged over and quickly plopped into the water.

Asian Elephant playing in the river

Asian Elephant playing in the river

All the elephants did a lot of spraying, but this one was the most active. He kept dousing himself with water and spraying like crazy.

Asian Elephant getting his daily bath

Asian Elephant getting his daily rub down by the staff

The elephants also got a nice rub down and bath from the handlers.

Bathing an Elephant

 

Then it was our turn to play in the river. We got to bathe an Asian elephant! This was the absolute highlight of the visit.

Vanessa and Steve, The Travel Ninjas, bathing a baby Asian Elephant

 

Both of us were so caught up in this magic moment. We didn’t even notice how the handler was mouth feeding the elephant. It was quite clear that the handlers really cared for their elephants, but we didn’t realize how much until we saw these photos.

The Work of Kuala Gandah Sanctuary

Kuala Gandah Sanctuary has done some great work. They have rescued and relocated more than 700 Asian elephants. You don’t see the wild elephants at the sanctuary. These elephants are relocated to wild areas like Taman Negara. Taman Negara is a huge protected rainforest in Malaysia.

When Kuala Gandah says “rescue,” they mean it. Many of these elephants literally have guns to their heads. The Asian elephant has lost its home to the omnipresent palm oil plantations. With nowhere to go, the elephants often destroy large swaths of the plantations and people have been trampled. In retaliation, so many elephants have been shot and killed.

This loss of habitat is why the Asian elephant is an Endangered Species. Luckily, the Malaysian government founded Kuala Gandah Sanctuary, and hundreds of Asian elephants have been saved.

The Asian elephants that we encountered were domesticated elephants rescued from harsh conditions. It’s a smaller part of the work, but the sanctuary rescues some domesticated elephants from abusive situations. Like most government projects, the sanctuary is underfunded. It helps raise money for the rescues and relocations with the Asian elephant attraction. The real job of these domesticated elephants is helping to relocate the wild elephants. We saw videos of them helping to soothe the wild elephants who were fighting the transition to safety at Taman Negara.

Are All Elephant Attractions Bad?

We don’t think all elephant attractions are bad, but it’s an important question that prospective visitors should take seriously. In the end, we think Kuala Gandah Sanctuary is a good place that does good work. We were happy to support this sanctuary with our visit. In addition to saving hundreds of endangered Asian elephants, they strive to educate visitors. Their message certainly changed our minds about elephant rides and palm oil.

From what we saw, the domesticated elephants were indeed “rescued” and now seemed to have a good life. Instead of trunk-breaking work, back-breaking rides, or circus shows, these elephants are hand-fed fresh fruit and get bathed in a river. The sanctuary boasted about having only one encounter experience per day. They said that frequent feeding and bathing are bad for the elephants. The elephants also have a huge natural habitat and plenty of other elephants to socialize with. We think these encounters are sustainable for the elephants and a great way to raise money for their (very expensive) care.

Of course, we could be wrong. We certainly don’t want to participate in any more harmful activities, so we have open minds on this thorny issue.

What do you think? Have you been to Kuala Gandah Sanctuary? Can some elephant attractions be ethical?

* This article was originally posted at thetravelninjas blog.

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