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February 17, 2010

Elephant Tales

Tom McLaughlin

Tangkahan, Sumatra, Indonesia – The road from Bukit Lawang, where we were staying, to this village was moon cratered, flood gullied and suitable only for motorcycles or four wheel drive.


The cycles could pick their way using the good bits, while the 4WD’s could easily meander over and through most obstacles. Unfortunately we were riding in neither. The van and driver that arrived was no match for the road, even after we had been assured that both had navigated the distance in the past.


Although it looked only a short way on the map, it took us forever and a day to get there. We had to get out several times to lessen weight so it could negotiate some pretty rough spots .I cringed as I heard the bottom scrape the areas the driver thought he could drive over despite our protests.


We closed our eyes swearing wooden bridges would not hold a skinny leprechaun let alone a van with six people. We were all Asia hands and took everything in stride.


This particular nature reserve houses a herd of Asian elephants. According to the locals, the group was forced from the rain forest in Ache, very north Sumatra, because of logging. They then trampled and ate the crops of the farmers because they had no place else to forage.


Taken care of by forest rangers and tour guides, we found them wandering in a large pen surrounded by an electrified wire. Fourteen individuals, a large bull, his harem and some kids approached us, trunks waving over the electric strands.


Roaring capitalism had taken over. Tourists paid to give the animals a bath in the cool mountain stream. They paid for forest trekking for either a full day or 2/3/5 days. They paid for river riding on old car inner tubes – one or three or five hours. They paid for riding on the back of an elephant into the jungle for 1/2/3/ hours or four days. They paid for guides when they entered the forest. The only free thing was looking at them, both the guides and the elephants. Reminded me of Ocean City.


Unfortunately, many of the visitors were wonderful, young backpackers who spend their gap year traveling. (In Europe, a gap year is the time between high school and college.) They were on a very stringent budget and usually could not afford these ventures.


When we arrived in a large new van, the four of us, all middle aged and looking absolutely filthy rich compared to the youngsters, were descended upon to by individuals selling the services. Music from a large speaker was suddenly turned on as if we were deaf causing us to yell at each other. I could not recognize any of the noise, no Frank Sinatra here. We respectfully declined all offers wanting to just look at the pachyderms.


These Asian elephants at least have a place to go and I guess it’s better than a zoo, circus or other alternatives to their man-made displacement. They seem happy, although I wouldn’t know a happy elephant from an unhappy one. They threw dust over their backs, wallowed in mud and chewed on various grasses. The caretakers said they enjoyed their outings, implying if I wanted to make one happier, I would pay for a ride.


The wildlife center is a commendable attempt by the impoverished and corrupt Indonesian government to come to terms with the mounting worldwide pressure to protect wildlife.


Although idealists like myself would like to see the elephants roam freely in their jungle home, both humans and animals benefit from this arrangement.


At least it’s something. The very least.


…life is good.


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