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News-Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, Pahang, Malaysia



Elephant Sanctuary  in the spotlight


The National Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah, Pahang is in the news again after a mishap involving an elephant under its care, and the public are demanding better work practices among staff of the centre, reports HILARY CHIEW. 


THOUSANDS of people visit the National Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah, Pahang annually since it was opened to the public in 1989. 


They ride, bathe and feed the elephants. Many also dip into their pockets to donate cash or purchase a souvenir or two in support of the effort to protect the elephants. And they leave with fond memories of the rare opportunity to interact with these giant mammals.  


Better known to the general public as the sanctuary rather than its official National Elephant Conservation Centre, the facility at the edge of the Krau Wildlife Reserve in Lanchang, central Pahang, was set up as the base for the elephant translocation unit in 1974 when human-elephant conflict became rife as the country experienced rapid deforestation. 


Over the years, the translocation programme moved about 450 displaced elephants from their fragmented habitats to other remaining contiguous forest blocks especially to the Kenyir region at the edge of Taman Negara. The renowned Smithsonian Institute had even at one time sought its collaboration in satellite-tracking several relocated elephants. 


Managed by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan), the sanctuary houses some work elephants used in its translocation assignments as well as provides a home for orphaned elephants.  


Lately, it has been making headlines albeit for the wrong reason.  

A male calf, Mardos, was seriously injured while being transported together with another adult elephant to a school in Temerloh on July 1. The 17-month-old elephant fractured both its hind legs near the knee region when it slipped on the truck flooring that had become slippery after the animals defecated on it during the journey. 


Apparently, animal transfer protocol that required a minimum of two personnel including the driver, was not adhered to and the animals were left unsupervised on the truck. 


Veterinarians are at their wits' end as the injuries are deemed too difficult to be treated. Mardos was taken back to Kuala Gandah in the hope that its injuries would heal with time. 


Coming close on the heels of the death of Mat Chepor, the latest incident created a public outcry.  


(The 18-month-old orphaned Mat Chepor died during its relocation to the sanctuary. Critics had pointed to the lax attitude of both the elephant translocation unit and the department on saving endangered species such as the elephants.)  


Again, they questioned the competency of the handlers and cast doubts on the sanctuary’s role. Vocal animal welfare activist Shoba Mano even called for the sanctuary to be shut down. 

“Don’t call yourself a sanctuary,” she charged inher letter to the newspapers. Others echoed her sentiment in the various English dailies. 


She wrote: “Obviously, something is very wrong at this sanctuary. If it is incapable of even looking after the elephants there, then it ought not to be called a ‘sanctuary’ in the first place.” 

While many people enjoyed the elephant rides and splashing good time at the sanctuary, some were less enchanted by the circus-like nature of the “bathing time” where the elephants made repeated trips to “tip” visitors into the river. 


It’s as though the animals had to earn their keep, opined a member of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) in the Selangor branch online discussion list. 


Another flabbergasted observer questioned the practice of taking the animals out for shows. 

“Perhilitan should stop treating the elephants like exhibition material. The public should go to the elephants and not the other way round. Isn’t that already provided by all the bathing and feeding activities in Kuala Gandah?” he queried.  


Public criticism was also levelled at the veterinarians who handled the case, for it was felt that the ill-fated Mardos was being continuously subjected to poor treatment.  


After it was rescued from a well in Jemaluang, Johor, visitors had complained of its “all skin and bones” state at Kuala Gandah. Although it was subsequently nursed back to health, it was sent back to the sanctuary, which turned into a living hell for it following the latest mishap.


Emotionally-charged members of the public reckon that it would be more humane if Mardos is put down to end its misery. It is now propped up with a “sling and splint” to assist it off the beddings that it has been lying on since returning to Kuala Gandah. Even if Mardos survives this ordeal, it will walk with a permanent limp. 


In fact, there is fear that if Mardos refuses to feed, it would not pull through and it would be best to put it to sleep. 


However, a news report quoting Perhilitan’s veterinarian Dr Abraham Mathew suggested that it is recovering although he qualified himself by saying that “it was too early to gauge the recovery rate and an evaluation would be made in six weeks.” 


Responding to the criticism, veterinarian Dr Heng Hock Gan writes in his e-mail reply: “Most members of the public are not aware of the workings of University Veterinary Hospital. Many factors have to be considered before an animal can be euthanised. Dealing with an injured elephant is not as straightforward or easy as with a cat or dog.” 


It is learnt that the veterinarians had sought the assistance of the famed Elephant Hospital in Thailand but were advised that there isn't much that could be done given the condition of the injuries. 


For the good work that the elephant translocation unit had achieved in the past, the centre attracted public donation that was channelled to the Elephant Trust Fund.


Another animal activist, who declined to be named, wishes that donors would be more discerning in funding the centre in light of the endless complaints of poor animal care and questionable awareness activities that are not in line with animal welfare principles. 


“They should demand an investigation and accountability from Perhilitan in view of the recent mishaps. Any organisation or campaign that supports Kuala Gandah must explain to their supporters how such a horrible thing happened to the very animal that they had given money for upkeep,” she suggested. 


In its early years, Boh Plantation Sdn Bhd was a major funding source through its “New Homes for Elephants” campaign to turn the centre into a sanctuary and conservation education facility. 


Upon checking, the campaign was mentioned on its website with no indication that it ended three years ago. 


An employee said the listing of the campaign material was “maintained for record purposes so that the public (will) know what we’d done before,” adding that the company had moved on to another campaign focusing on the orang utan. 


A more recent donor, the Awareness of Preservation of Elephants (Apes), which donated RM10,000 for adopting the orphaned Siput aka Embun for a year, will continue its support as it is convinced that the centre is doing a good job. 


“The main reason is that many of us (who are) involved have been to the sanctuary and have seen the passion that the handlers have for the elephants there. The emotional link that we saw and felt at our first visit last year convinced us to set up the organisation,” said Apes co-founder Jau Chan. 


Instead of criticising and threatening withdrawals of donation, a solution needs to be worked out, for example, a push for more resources and a permanent veterinarian, Chan said. 


Repeated calls and a voice message left on the centre’s mobile number published in Perhilitan's website were not returned. 


The centre chief Nasharuddin Othman was reported as saying that it received a grant of RM700,000 but did not distinguish the source of funding. Questions on public donation and the finances of the Elephant Trust Fund which were faxed to Perhilitan went unanswered. 


One may argue that the so-called sanctuary has fulfilled its role in raising awareness and instilling love for the elephant but, sadly, the same value appeared to have eluded its own personnel; the very people entrusted with the duties to save these ill-fated creatures, especially when funding doesn't seem to be a problem. 


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