At Kenyir Elephant Conservation Village, Alan Teh Leam Seng learns about the efforts made to protect our local elephant species
ZALIHA Zainuddin veers the car to the left and heads off in the opposite direction of Kenyir Lake Tourist Jetty, the jump-off point to nature-adventure trips in the vast man-made lake of Kenyir.
The State Director of Tourism Malaysia Terengganu is taking me to the renowned Kenyir Elephant Conservation Village.
Set up in 2012, the village covers 256 hectares of pristine rainforest, and only 20 per cent of this vast area is developed.
"The remaining land is left untouched. The 13 relocated pachyderms are allowed to roam the pristine jungle when it is cooler in the evenings. This gives them the opportunity to readjust to the natural surroundings. One day, when they are ready, the elephants will be released back into their natural habitats," Zaliha explains just as the imposing village signage by a small hill comes into view.
At the Visitor Welcome Centre, I get insight into the conservation programme conducted in this far-flung area of rural Terengganu. All the elephants in the village are sourced from within the state. While a majority of them were orphaned when their parents and family members were killed by poachers, there are several calves that were rescued when they accidentally strayed from their herd and got lost in the jungle.
"The staff depends heavily on information provided by the villagers. The team puts into action the most effective plan which causes the least stress to bring the animal to the village," Zaliha explains before telling me that there are still cases of wild elephants raiding sugarcane and banana plantations in the interiors of Terengganu.
"All the elephants here are from the endangered Asian species. The human population here in Terengganu is growing at an exponential rate. As a result, more land is being developed to accommodate this increase. Inevitably, the impact of reduced forested area is felt by the local flora and fauna, including the wild elephant population. Research has shown that the pachyderms are finding it more and more difficult to find adequate food and water supply,” she says.
Moving from one information board to another, it becomes obvious to me that apart from a large group of support staff, the village employs veterinarians and dieticians to ensure that its small herd remains healthy.
TOWER TO TOWER
Leaving the Visitor Welcome Centre and bidding a temporary farewell to Zaliha who has ameeting in nearby Kuala Berang, I head off to explore the rest of the village on my own.
"Check out the canopy walk before you go for the elephant education show. We will meet back here at 1pm for lunch. Be ready for some tantalising tempoyak ikan baung and other traditional Terengganu fare," Zaliha says with a twinkle in her eyes.
The canopy walk consists of a series of suspended bridges that give visitors a bird's eye view of the surrounding forested area. My favourite spot is the section that overhangs directly over Sungai Telemong.
The fast-flowing water crashing against the partially submerged granite boulders is indeed a sight to behold. The river water is slightly murky as I have been told that there was a thunderstorm the night before and the larger-than-usual volume of water has stirred up the sediments in the river bed. Otherwise, it is usually crystal clear!
While walking along the elevated pathway, visitors are advised to be on the lookout for trees branching out to the middle of the wooden walkway. This unique feature is a result of the non-evasive approach employed during the construction of the village. The builders tried their best not to cut down any trees. Instead, the structures are all built to accommodate the existing trees in the area.
Interspersed between these raised walkways are observation towers which act as rest areas. The towers are equipped with prayer rooms, snack bars and toilets. I like the easy to read information boards placed at these rest areas.
Apart from a brief introduction to the animals, the facts provided also help visitors identify the elephants lurking around the respective observation towers. Of particular interest are the life history about the animals and the stories leading up to their presence in the village.
Tears well in my eyes as I read the tragic tale of a young bull who lost his mother when she was poisoned. Going by the name Badol, this three-year-old male was very weak when it first arrived. Fortunately, the special diet and attention from the mahouts at the village worked wonders. Today, Badol is an integral part of the elephant herd here.
Lady Luck is on my side. A large elephant comes into full view as soon as I reach Observation Tower 3. The information board nearby reveals that it is Detox, a 6-year-old bull. Detox, with its trademark pinkish ear tips, is the latest addition to the village. The Wildlife and National Parks Department found it wandering near Felda Cherul in Terengganu's Kemaman district. Most other wild elephants in the village hail from Dungun, Setiu and Hulu Terengganu.
At 11.15 am, I start noticing people walking past me very quickly. My curiosity is aroused when the numbers keep increasing. Fortunately, I manage to find out from a European couple that the elephant education show is due in a quarter of an hour's time.
That is the exact same show that Zaliha had recommended earlier! Needless to say, I quickly join the crowd and make a beeline for the open air amphitheatre nearby.
A few minutes before commencement, an announcer goes on air giving a brief introduction to the biology of the elephants. The useful facts give me an insight into the lives of these gentle giants. We are also told that the aim of the show is to educate the public on the threats faced by elephants.
At the same time, this educational presentation gives the elephants an opportunity to earn their keep. The show only involves light work for these endangered animals and the message resulting from their demonstration goes a long way in helping conservation efforts to protect the species.
We are also made aware that maintaining the herd is very costly and labour-intensive. An adult elephant consumes up to 250kg of food daily while the calves require slightly less than half the amount.
Then, just before the show starts, the audience is reminded that elephants behave quite like humans and, like us, each has its own personality. Therefore, we are told not to expect the elephants to perform their tasks like clockwork.
The next half an hour is nothing short of amazing. I get to see how elephants behave while at work and at play. There is also a re-enactment of how Badol lost its mother and was subsequently rescued.
Towards the end of the show, the pachyderms head to the edge of the amphitheatre, dip the tips their trunks into receptacles filled with water and give the audience an impromptu shower! That act sends everyone running helter skelter for cover. All of ushave a good laugh.
A REAL BATH
We all head to a nearby stream after the education show. There, for the first time in my life, I get to see elephants enjoying a cool and refreshing bath. Owing to their thick hides, these pachyderms do not have sweat glands. As a result, they have to take frequent baths to keep their body temperature in check. At the village, the elephants take to the water thrice a day starting from noon, and at two-hourly intervals.
The elephants also use their time in the water to play among themselves. It is quite hilarious to see them behaving like children, frolicking and playing hide and seek by submerging underwater with only the tips of their trunks showing just slightly above the surface.
Speaking to a mahout standing nearby, I learn that the water level fluctuates depending on the season. "There is a lot of water today. That is why the elephants can submerge completely. Usually, there is only enough for them lie down and be about half covered," he adds, before heading off to give his charge a good scrub at the back of her large floppy ears.
Looking at my watch, I suddenly realise that it is almost time for me to head back to the Visitor Welcome Centre. The mere thought of a delicious lunch is enough for me to quicken my steps.
My visit to the village has been truly memorable. I have learnt so much about the efforts made to help protect the local elephant population and I hope to be back here again to check on the progress of Badol and his friends.
Kenyir Elephant Conservation Village
Sungai Telemong, Tasik Kenyir,
Kuala Berang, Terengganu.
Tel: 09-858 5588
Fax: 09-858 4848
HOURS Daily 9am to 6pm (ticket counter closes at 5.30pm)