On the 31st of December 2016, my cousin and I visited the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary in Pahang, Malaysia. It was my first time at an elephant sanctuary. Before this, contact with wild animals was in zoos or tourist areas. The last time I actually saw an elephant was a few years ago in Cambodia, and I didn’t just see the elephant – I rode on it.
That was obviously before I had any knowledge of the act of Phajaan or breaking the elephant’s spirit where humans would torture the animal so that it becomes submissive. And that’s how tourists are able to ride on elephants without being killed by the otherwise mighty elephants.
Zoos vs Sanctuaries
When learning about animal abuse, I also learnt about the existence of animal sanctuaries, which are somewhat different than zoos. An animal sanctuary is purely a place for animals to live in their natural habitat, be it forest, savanna, or even just a grassland for domesticated animals that have been liberated such as cows and pigs.
Zoos are commercialised places that keep wild animals in cages for display to the public. Depending on the management system, zoos can be beneficial or destructive to the animals. There are zoos that have a more open concept with large land space and may act as sort of a sanctuary for injured animals. But most zoos are places where wild animals are purposely caught and kept in cages to be publicly displayed for “education” purposes.
I’m not condemning all zoos, as there are ones that actually care for the animals. But the fact is that the universal concept of a zoo is more on exhibition rather than conservation. So until there’s a certain universal law on zoos to make sure the animals are not abused or starved for our viewing pleasure, then I will continue to be sceptical about zoos.
In fact, not just zoos but any establishment that claims to care for wild animals, as this visit to the Elephant Sanctuary has taught me. I understand that a sanctuary may have fences installed for the safety of both elephants and humans. Sanctuaries are mostly under-funded and so they do need donations from tourists. Therefore, certain safety measures are needed to put in place so that humans do not disturb the animals and the animals do not freak out and injure humans.
And what I expected at the very least was that there would be no elephant rides or shows. To my surprise, there were both. The rides were at least limited to only the rangers who take care of the elephants. I could see that this was necessary to guide the elephants, say, from their feeding area to the river for bathing (as you can see in the pictures). One of the rangers also told me that some “breaking” were done but not in a cruel way. He didn’t say exactly how but I just have to take his word that not much torture was imposed.
Well, at least rides were not allowed for tourists anymore, I believe. Before this, I think they did have elephant rides for tourists because if you google this place you may see pictures of tourists riding on elephants.
There was an elephant show, but my cousin and I didn’t stick around to watch because we needed to leave and I couldn’t bear to see it. It’s obviously purely for the entertainment of the tourists. And who knows maybe the rangers had allowed a couple of people to try to ride an elephant during the show.
Relocate or Get Killed
It’s kind of a tragic conflict really. I do believe that the rangers and caretakers of the sanctuary are doing their best to protect the Asian elephants, hoping that they’ll breed and grow in numbers. The rationale for keeping them in enclosures within the sanctuary and not letting them go into the adjacent forest is to protect them from poachers and development. Due to human development, the elephants had to be taken away from their homes which will be destroyed, and if they do not relocate the elephants, there may be a high chance of them being killed by poachers, as the cleared areas become means of access for poachers.
I guess it all comes down to governance. This country puts a much higher priority on economic growth rather than conservation of wildlife and forests. Poaching is a huge issue here and the laws and their implementation are not strict enough, in my opinion. And as the ranger pointed out, funding from the government is scarce, which shows how much care they have on the welfare of wild animals. The people, too, are not entirely faultless. I believe in people power and when there is demand there will be action. Unfortunately, there is not enough demand for conservation as perhaps not many cares about this — it doesn’t relate to them.
But of course, there is still hope. I know that there are people who genuinely care and are doing their parts in wildlife conservation. Things are happening behind the scenes that even I may not know about it. But I know that work is being done. It’s just whether other parties would cooperate or not. My hope is for the majority of the people in any country to just be educated about how our collective actions have impacted wildlife, understand why conservation is important, and develop empathy towards animals.
“There is not an animal on earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings – but they are communities like you.” (Qur’an, 6:38)