Should you visit the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary? Yes. And for a few reasons. Not only are elephants just plain awesome, the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary cum National Elephant Conservation Centre in Pahang, Malaysia is the first (and main) elephant sanctuary in Malaysia. The conservation efforts by the center and the Malaysian Government to improve life for Malaysia’s declining elephant population need local and tourist support (more than our criticism).
I’ll offer both in this post, but I’m hoping my criticism will be viewed as constructive. Because that’s my intent. This was not my first time to visit an elephant sanctuary, as I was privileged to visit the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in April 2019. It was there that I learned a lot about proper management as well as the ‘grey’ areas of elephant sanctuaries, which you can read about HERE.
My Experience Visiting Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary
Once you arrive at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, you may be surprised to find there is no entry fee. I certainly was. Especially considering the price tags attached to those fancy private and group tours touted on Trip Advisor. One can only hope that a generous percentage of those tour fees are being shared with the sanctuary.
However, the sanctuary does accept and appreciate donations. The onsite guides, I was told, are ‘volunteers’ and not on payroll (for some reason). Most are sourced from the surrounding Kuala Gandah community and are familiar enough with elephants that they can answer most of the visitor’s questions. They too rely on the generosity of visitors’ donations, and they take it one step further by sharing a percentage of their donations with the sanctuary.
At any rate, the visitors’ (tourist) side of the sanctuary is pretty straight forward. Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary is open daily from 9:00am to 4:30pm and a suggested daily schedule is offered to visitors:
10:00am: Registration for entrance pass (You will be giving name, passport or IC number and signature)
10:30am: Visit the Interpretive Centre (The center is interesting and the displays are well done)
10:40am: Observation of elephants at the grazing/exercise area. (Surrounded by electric wire)
11:40am: Elephant bathing by the mahout (Monday-Thursday)
*No bathing on Fridays and public holidays
12:30pm: Hand feeding of young elephants
1:00pm & 1:30pm: Video show on the elephant translocation process
*2:15pm (2:45pm on Fridays): Informative ‘show’ by the elephants
Handfeeding and photo session with elephants
Bathing the baby elephants
For the most part visitors are allowed to wander within the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary at their leisure and participate in the scheduled ‘activities’ if they choose. I saw groups with guides as well as individuals without guides. Guides, again, rely on ‘donations’ to justify their volunteer time in lieu of a more-steady form of income for their families. So, if you are encouraged to follow a guide, do keep that in mind.
I can personally recommend the guide service of Mira, who you can request on arrival or possibly arrange for her services in advance via WhatsApp +60 11 1238 6669 .
My Two Cents:
- It is up to the visitors on how ‘invasive’ they want to be with these elephants.
- It is up to the visitors to remember that these are captive wildlife that are subjected to a barrage of daily visitors eager to touch and feed them.
- It is up to the visitors to consider the educational value of this experience and not see it as ‘entertainment’.
- It is up to (you) the visitor to be an example of a responsible tourist.
I personally have no interest in bathing baby elephants nor seeing elephant shows of any type. And certainly not riding one. But what initially prompted me to visit this elephant sanctuary was to see Lasah, an elephant I am very familiar with. Lasah, you see, spent a significant part of his life in Langkawi, Malaysia and his well-being became somewhat controversial. It took great effort by concerned citizens to #savelasah, and now Lasah lives at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary. But I’ll get to that later.
In my research, I discovered a few things about the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary that surprised me. In fact, the whole topic of Elephants in Malaysia is very different from other Asian countries I am familiar with.
History of Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary (It’s Complicated)
The history of the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary and Peninsular Malaysia’s relationship with elephants is quite interesting. It apparently all started in 1957 with the Independence of Malaya. The need to ensure a livelihood for all Malaysians led to a lot of land being opened for the development of the newly independent country; including land that was known elephant habitat.
Thousands of hectares of elephant habitat were taken over by oil palm and rubber plantations as well as infrastructure developments; highways, dams and new settlements. This resulted in serious conflicts between man and elephant, and the cost of property damages by elephants escalated.
Seventeen years later, in 1974, the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary was started in Kuala Gandah, Pahang. In 1989, the National Elephant Conservation Centre was also established in Kuala Gandah. This may be why there is some confusion with its name as there has been an Elephant Relocation Team based at the same Kuala Gandah, Pahang location since 1974; 45 years ago. Long before elephant (and other wildlife) sanctuary political correctness became highlighted around the world. Also, long before Malaysia passed the Wildlife Conservation Act of 2010.
In 1974, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) established the Elephant Management Unit (aka Elephant Relocation Team) to address the continual problems between humans and elephants. The interesting part is that they decided to ‘domesticate’ some of the elephants to be used in capturing and relocating the wild elephants. This also led to the introduction of elephant mahouts (jobs) in Malaysia.
When the DWNP set up the Elephant Management Team they hired six mahouts and four Khoonies from Assam, India to train the local Malaysian elephant rangers. The Malaysians were taught to catch, ride, train and manage the base camp elephants. As it was an alien skill for Malaysians, it was considered more of a job than part of their culture.
According to a 2019 National Elephant Conservation Centre (NECC) brochure, the relocation team is (still) “Dedicated to locating, subduing and then translocating problem elephants from areas where their habitats are constantly being encroached on by plantations, to other suitable habitats throughout Peninsular Malaysia.”
We are talking wild elephants, by the way. Not necessarily elephant hold overs from the logging industry whose jobs were replaced by machines, but Malaysian elephants who were born and raised in the jungles and forests of Malaysia. Wild Elephants can wander onto major highways and cause serious accidents. They can trample humans. They can also destroy property. Not because they are evil beasts, but because they are just doing what elephants do; looking for food and living their lives.
According to a report posted in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The care and management of domesticated elephants in Malaysia – Mohd. Shariff Daim
‘It was reported by B.H. Weiss (The Strand Magazine Vol. IX.1895 London) that a Malay Chief of a district in Perak, a state in Peninsular Malaysia, used the services of a pawang (traditional spiritual medicine man with supernatural powers) to capture 12 wild elephants. The whole operation involved 50 Malays and Sakais (aborigines) and a few khoonkies (elephants trained to help in the capture or relocation of wild elephants). The wild elephants were restrained in a kubu (stockade) and then taken to a chelong (the stop where the elephants undergo training).’
The article also mentioned that this catching and training method originally used in Malaysia was similar to the kheddah method used in India. Not the more horrific ‘crush’ we have come to equate with Thailand’s elephant capture and training programs.
Today, wild adult elephants are not captured and put into zoos. More commonly, it is only the babies who are taken from their mothers and ‘domesticated’. Some stolen babies are relabeled ‘orphans’ to garnish sympathy from unsuspecting tourists who might be inclined to donate to their well-being cause. Or perhaps be less judgmental when visiting the ‘orphan’ area of future entertainment elephants.
Elephant entertainment is not as common in Malaysia as it is in Thailand and other countries. Or at least not that I am aware of. In 2000 only 36 elephants were in DWNP approved captivity. 8 elephants were kept/owned by the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary and 2 of those elephants were privately owned by Malaysia’s last true mahout (who is in his 70s). See the 2000 statistics chart below.
*Do note that Malaysia now apparently has the Sungai Deka Elephant Sanctuary in Terengganu and the Johor Elephant Sanctuary in Kota Tinggi, with plans to add a fourth elephant sanctuary in Perak. So, obviously those DWNP statistics will be changing. (I’ve also not heard of these places before and could find no information about them beyond this news post in The Star).
Historically, more than a few displaced Malaysian logging elephants in Malaysia ended up being used on movie sets, in circuses, put in zoos and used as entertainment by giving rides to tourists or performing tricks. How else does one afford to feed and care for them? They are costly to feed and provide veterinarian services to. You cannot simply release ‘domesticated’ elephants to the wild. Maybe eventually, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Thus, the birth of the Elephant Sanctuaries movement and a rather lucrative industry for some.
Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk
Which brings me back to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary turned National Elephant Conservation Centre and the 24 strong relocation team (who I assume are not volunteers, but on some sort of payroll). The ‘team’ has relocated over 800 wild elephants in the past 30 years (according to their brochure). That’s great that they have ‘saved’ over 800 elephants, but unfortunately images of the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary on social media and Trip Advisor show images of mahouts and tourists riding elephants as well as large groups of tourists gregariously bathing elephants (very up close and personal).
Do I believe those tourist friendly hand feed-able and bath-able elephants are relocated and rescued ‘wild elephants’? No. Most likely they are the ‘domesticated’ crew typically used to assist with the capture and relocation of the wild elephants. And some may even be rescued or relocated elephants from previous tourist venues. But for what reason? So, they can continue ‘entertaining’ and being ridden by hook carrying mahouts? If a trainer needs to carry a sharp weapon, then obviously those elephants are already familiar with what that hook can do.
This is where I see the need for improvements. This hook business. And at this point I will throw in those small cement floored pens the elephants are enclosed in. Is that considered cozy quarters? Beats chains I’m sure but I think an operation as large and important as the National Elephant Conservation Centre can do better.
**Do note that Kuala Gandah no longer offers ‘riding’ and they state that on their social media accounts. Unfortunately, ‘old’ images are still visible on Trip Advisor and their social media accounts of hook carrying mahouts doing elephant shows on a stage and of visitors riding elephants. These images do not articulate the message of Kuala Gandah’s ‘new and improved’ education and conservation goals. Trip Advisor also states that the elephant riding has been ‘temporarily’ stopped. So, what does that actually mean?
Getting There (The DIY Cheap Way)
Getting from Kuala Lumpur to the Kuala Gandah National Conservation Centre (aka Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary) looks like a daunting task. Especially for us tourists who are without their own transportation and unfamiliar with the back roads of Peninsular Malaysia. And those convenient-looking tour packages being touted on Trip Advisor? They look very appealing at a glance, but with a two-person minimum and a price tag of over RM800? No thanks.
After a little research and helpful tips from local friends, I decided to embark on the journey to and from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Gandah via public transportation. I typically avoid public transportation out of sheer laziness and bad bus karma, but I made an exception this time. And I’m glad I did, because my roundtrip transportation costs came to less than RM55!
The DIY journey starts at KL Sentral, where the MRT #8 will get you to the Titiwangsa Station. Next door to Titiwangsa is the Pekeliling Bus Station. Public buses destined for Temeroh or Mentakab (KL Express) leave every hour 0700, 0800, 0900, 1000, 1100, 1200, 1300, 1400, 1500, 1600, 1700, 1800. The journey takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Ask the driver to drop you in Lachange, and from there it is 14KM to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre. The elephant feedings are at 10:00am and 1:00pm, so keep that in mind when timing your trip. The bus is RM10.40 each way and it is in your best interest to buy a roundtrip as you may well find yourself standing on the road well past sunset as the passing buses are already filled to capacity. You can also pre-book bus tickets online HERE
For getting a ride to and from Kuala Gandah you can call Mr. Hussein at 017 9200 284, either pre arrange or take your chances on his availability once you arrive. As of this writing Mr. Hussein is often in the area of Restoran Singggah Sini at No Lorong Jalan Mempateh, which has a bus drop stop. Nearby, official Bus Stop #4 was still under construction when I visited.
More About Lasah
I’ve been keeping tabs on Lasah since he left Langkawi in January 2019. I knew that he was having difficulty readjusting but had hoped in my heart that life would improve for him. After learning that he ‘was doing better’, that is when I decided to come visit him at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary.
After my arrival to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, I was handed a (past) event brochure (by a well-meaning staff member) that declared Aug 12, 2019 as World Elephant Day. This brochure included a paragraph inviting visitors to ‘meet’ 6 of their rescued elephants; Selendang, Sanum, Che Mek, Lokimala, Abot and the now (one-tusked) Lasah. *Lasah had two tusks when he left Langkawi, as you can see in this tear-jerking relocation video below.
Unfortunately, I was unable to see Lasah. Not even from a distance. First, I was told that he was moved farther into the jungle due to the rain, then I was told that maybe if I had a telephoto lens, I could see him from the edge of the forest. Then I was flat out told I should write a letter to the ministry to ask permission. Huh?
There are several possible reasons I was unable to see Lasah (even from a distance). Maybe Lasah was going through that male elephant ‘thing’ and they were limiting human contact to one ‘keeper/mahout’. Maybe Lasah’s relocation fee came from a wealthy donor and that was part of the agreement; that Lasah not be on display (even for busy body bloggers with good intentions). Maybe Lasah was undergoing a new scientifically based phase of freedom that could be disrupted if he got scent of.. well, me.
But none of that was explained to me. Which is indeed how suspicions can be raised and misinformation can be spread. But I’m sure that the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary has Lasah’s best interest at heart, so I’ll leave it that.
I do recommend that you visit the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary/ National Elephant Conservation Centre. Although it’s not perfect, it is very educational and an opportunity to see Malaysian elephants up close and in an almost natural environment. But please be aware that many of these elephants have spent their lives ‘entertaining’ or ‘working’. It is very hard to resist the urge to touch and squeal at them, but just remember that you are one of hundreds of such encounters they endure monthly. And after the show is over, they are put back in their cement floored pens until the next day when their services are again required. It’s your choice whether you clap and cheer or just choose to get a photo of an empty stage.
How You Can Help
You can help spread the word about elephant conservation and animal rights, through your own social media accounts, by endorsing that wildlife should not be used for tourism entertainment. If you see animal abuse or captive wildlife living in poor conditions in Malaysia, please report it to the Malaysian Wildlife Department.