E: Up Close & Personal—Elephants @ Play

Elephants can feel your intentions. If you have contact with them, they can sense your heart rate; and similar to biofeedback, they can tell if you are frightened, angry or compassionate. If the elephants know that you are scared they will behave badly. That is why most tourists don’t get to touch the youngest, untrained elephants.

When we were in Malaysia last week we had an amazing elephant adventure at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary. http://www.myelephants.org/  Over 40 rescued Asian elephants live there. We had backstage tour of the place where we got to touch, wash, feed and play with the baby elephants.

Spot the difference between Asian vs. African Elephants
Asian Elephants are smaller in size. They have boney bumps on their foreheads (kind of like kneecaps). Their ears are smaller size and can have pink spotty skin not just wrinkled grey brown like the African ones. Both males and females have small tusks. They are still used in South East Asia as work animals in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. They are very helpful in the jungle for logging and transport. There are not too many left in the wild because human’s have taken much of their habitat.

I like the little ones best because I can sense their feelings. Also I preferred them because they paid attention to me not just their mahouts (trainers). The big ones were tall so I couldn’t look in their eyes. But the little ones each time I approached them their raised their trunk in greeting. They were like a little friendly kids sticking out their trunks as if to say “ooh, ooh hold my hand!”

Feeding Them Fruit
The keepers chopped up fruits (papaya, bunches of small bananas, and watermelons) with big machetes smooth like cutting butter. When they had a bucketful I took one piece and I held it under the elephant’s trunk. I was expecting the elephant gasp it, like a hand would pick up fruit. Instead the trunk knocked it to the ground. Apparently babies of any species are messy eaters! I tried a new strategy. I grabbed an armful of fruits from the bucket and put it in a small pile next to me.

Then I took a handful and moved his trunk out of the way and stuck food right into his mouth! Success! I fed him more and more and he got fruit slime all over his trunk. I was also covered in papaya and elephant slobber way up to my elbow. Elephants also eat banana trees cut into chunks. They like the tender bits best so we peeled off the outer layer for them.

Washing the Little Ones
The elephants get so excited like real babies. The little elephants don’t just sway back and forth; they shift their weight and swing their trunks. They show me they like their bath by putting their trunks up and rocking back and forth like a little elephant boogie. Because they were almost as tall as me it was intimidating to be close to them. I thought that he was going to spray when he sucked up water from his trough, but he was just playing.

The Littlest One
My very favorite elephant was only 10 months old and named Tipo. He was so cute with really big eyes and a furry head. His hair was all over his head and felt like thin wire. It was two colors—a rusty brown and black.
I think that like most mammals, they have oversized heads for their bodies and look adorable so their mama will keep them! But this little one was an orphan and needed lots of care from the sanctuary. When we saw him he raised his trunk out to greet me. It was always moving, no matter what. I like touching and holding his trunk. It felt rough, like dusty sandpaper. Our guide showed me how to put my thumb in his mouth and he started to suck it! IT was a really hard suck like he was pulling me in to a black hole of elephant slobber. Tipo closed his eyes when he was sucking my thumb!

Bottle-feeding the Baby
When we got the to the sanctuary there was no electricity. We were disappointed because without it we couldn’t boil water to make formula for Tipo’s bottle. The baby elephant needs to eat a mixture of bread, glucose, banana, cooked rice, and tinned milk. We helped the mahout mix a 5-gallon bucket portion. We were up to our elbows in warm mush. I tasted it and it was like banana soup—not so good but if you are a baby elephant it is a delicacy.

We were so happy when the power came back on and we were able to add hot water so we could bottle-feed Tipo. Each bottle was 2L and had a big nipple (just rubber tube so big that I could stick my thumb in it). The baby didn’t sip it exactly, more like I tipped the contents down his throat. When he was done I tried to get it out of his mouth, there was a little left in the bottle and it sprayed in the mahout’s face. Tipo drank 8L in less than 10 minutes. That baby has a big appetite!

It was an amazing experience to be able to help out at the sanctuary. I really felt connected to the animals in a new way. This was one of the best parts of our trip to South East Asia this year. I am definitely adding elephants to my favorite animals list!


3 thoughts on “E: Up Close & Personal—Elephants @ Play

  1. Dear Emma,
    That sounds so fun! I loved visiting the elephant orphanage in Nairobi and seeing the baby elephants roll around in the mud with each other, play wrestling. But we only got to watch them, we didn’t get to help out.

  2. Emma.
    Wonderful! Did Tipo get to recognize you? Steven has some papers showing that elephants are extremely intelligent (maybe more than dolphins even). I am so happy you could make friends and help one.
    Love Grammy

  3. Emma;
    You can add your elephant experience to your orangutan experience enjoying animal milestones in the various countries you visit. You are experiencing first hand what it takes to take care of animals. What a fabulous opportunity.

    Glad the electricity came on.

    I enjoy so much being a part of your experience.
    Love you lots,

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