Tuesday, August 11, 2009

of elephants, bears and two grown monkeys…

On a whim, a friend and I decided that we’d want to do something a little more adventurous last Sunday. We had heard of Kuala Gandah and the elephant sanctuary there, but were apprehensive about going ourselves because of the mixed reviews and opinions fed to us by various sources. What if it was like so many of these pseudo-conservation parks who exploit animals but don't keep them well?? But we decided that the best way to know for sure is to go find out for ourselves. And so we did.

Kuala Gandah is about an hour and a half from KL along the highway to Kuantan (exit at Lanchang), so it is a pleasant and easy drive, although passengers may feel differently about the winding roads from Batu Caves, all the way up to Bentong. All the same, that drive has some breathtaking scenery and is among my favourite stretches of road to drive in Malaysia.

Getting to Kuala Gandah, the first thing we had to do was ensure we had our passes for the elephant activities later in the afternoon. Arriving for registration at 10:30am, we were already #64 and #65 for the day; the sanctuary only hands out 100 passes a day for the three activities in the afternoon, which makes sense because one wouldn’t want the poor creatures to be hauling too many people for their cheap amusement. The sanctuary doesn’t charge for entry but it only felt right to leave a donation at their office.

After collecting the passes, we had time to spare before activities start at 1:00pm, so we went to Deerland, so called because of a large number of deers on its compound, but the name belies the fact that they have some other treasures as well – sun bears!

It’s a tiny little park but it is well-organized, well-staffed, kempt and clean… all this on a charge of RM5.00 per adult for entry. All this, amidst the bonus of lush green tropical jungle in a designated permanent forest reserve.

First, to the deer enclosure, visitors are given raw tapioca slices to hand feed deers with and being amongst so many of them can be an intimidating experience, since they all are capable of standing on their hind legs and in so doing, would be far taller than an average human being! They love their tubers…

There are a few types of pretty birds and colourful fowl which I cannot name now. Perhaps, the one thing noticeably missing is proper labeling of enclosures and information boards that you might find in zoos and such.

There are also rabbits (an entire family of angoras, complete with 4 tiny little babies), a young python, hedgehogs and one solitary juvenile sun bear named Hitam, frolicking in a large grassy enclosure. That’s the nice thing I found nice about Deerland is that the enclosures are open making the animals look like they are not in a cage.

Finally, near the exit, the final enclosure is for another two sun bears, a large male named Muda and his mate, I forget her name. Both are parents to Hitam. Visitors get to feed Muda condensed milk from their palm and he will dutifully lick it all off with his soft, pink tongue. He loves his handlers and his handlers obviously love him.

Some may argue that this sort of interaction shouldn’t be allowed but I think that the key is that there must always be respect and that this creature is allowing us to interact with it and not the other way around.

Deerland is tiny. You’d be done in 45 minutes tops! And that’s with a lot of time spent lingering and observing Muda.

Then it’s back to the elephant sanctuary and a picnic in the activity area is recommended (there are no eateries around the area, so you'll have to pack a lunch anyway). There are attap-shaded sheds where one can have lunch while elephants in the distance hover. Again, the openness of the sanctuary and the elephants seemingly free to roam the area is remarkable.

Another thing worth noting is the staff, especially the handlers; take time to talk to them and ask them questions. You'd be pleasantly surprised at how much they do know and how much they love what they are doing.

The sanctuary has 17 elephants on its compound. ALL were rescued and some are more used to the presence of humans than others. The sanctuary is managed by PERHILITAN, Malaysia’s wildlife and park authorities. The unit also works to relocate wild elephants, transplanting them from threatened or dwindling forest areas to more sustainable areas, such as Taman Negara. The sanctuary doesn’t collect money from visitors to the sanctuary but will accept donations at their office for support of their work in general.

A video-screening about the elephant unit relocation work is screened for visitors and that kicks off the activities for the afternoon. Visitors then proceed to hand-feed the elephants with fruits, after which, the elephants take visitors for a very short ride.

And then for the grand finale; visitors then get to ride on an elephant’s back into the nearby Teris River where the elephant will then take a dip… with visitors still on its back! Other elephants (especially the babies) are also frolicking in the water and visitors can bathe with them and if they’re lucky, the elephants will spray bathe the visitors in return!

Interaction and activity with elephants take no more than two hours and the visit is over by 4:30pm. Leaving Kuala Gandah for a short drive back to KL, and you’re home in time for dinner. In short, a very compact, yet eventful day trip. Highly recommended.