We stayed at Tangkahan, a small village on the border of Gunung Leuser National Park, Northern Sumatra to meet, wash and ride the elephants who patrol and protect the National Park from illegal animal poaching and logging. The elephants were original troublesome nellies involved in destroying fields and houses in surrounding villages, but they are now very much part of the community.
We were the first to arrive at the elephant sanctuary but as we waited with our guide Hans, more people turned up. Hans ensured we were in pole position when they released the eight elephants, including one very cute baby. They linked trunks with tails and formed an orderly procession down to the river. Before they were allowed in to the water, they had to do their ablutions to avoid polluting the river. Most of them complied but when they didn’t, the mahout put a plastic-bagged arm up their rear to either encourage them or if not, fish it out. Jobs done, they were led into the river where they began to play, submerging themselves like hippos. One of the elephants found a bunch of leaves, took them into the river and shook them in the water – Hans said she was washing her salad.
Eventually it was bath time and once again, Hans organised everyone, ensuring we were lined up first. I thought it might be a little frightening, but Uni was very docile and just laid on her side in the shallow water while we scrubbed. We were lucky that Hans, who had already proved himself adept with our camera, took control of it and clicked away as we scrubbed. Uni turned over until eventually she’d been scrubbed from trunk to tail.
On standing up, she rinsed herself, and showed her thanks by showering us and blowing in our ears. We then fed her with a mixture of fruits by holding them out and putting them directly into her mouth. It was a real feeding machine. Finally the elephants lined up and we all had photographs taken with them in turn. They then performed a series of trunk-blowing and knee-bending tricks.
We then followed them back up to the station where they were saddled up. Hans arranged for us to ride Uni on the one-hour trek through the jungle and river. Half way, we stopped to allow the mahouts to indulge in a smelly durian fruit. Hati, our mahout, asked whether I wanted to take his place and sit directly on the elephant. I politely declined as I was unconvinced I could (a) get up there (b) hold on or (c) get back off.
During dinner the previous evening, Hans had regaled us with elephant tales. Here is his story, in his own words.
The elephant gestation period is 22 months and then the baby is looked after by the Mama until 3 or 4 years old. Then Mama is ready to have another baby. Mama has to be 5 or 6 years before she has the baby but it depends on her condition. For the baby male, when it is 15 years old, the leader throws the elephant out of the group and then the elephant run away and try to find another colony and have a fight with the leader from the colony. Whoever is the winner heads the colony. The loser has to go away and become stronger so that he wins future fights. Elephants die around 75 years old when their teeth fall out because they cannot feed themselves and so they become weaker and weaker. But if they stay with people who feed them with milk concentrate, they may live longer. When they are fighting they can sometimes fight until they die (for 2 to 3 days). In one colony they may have up to 10 elephants. Normally they only have only one male in the colony but sometimes there are two. The elephant runs with the nail so if they have a problem with their nail, they cannot run. The brain is like a memory bank and they never forget – they remember who has tried to kill them from their smell and paths they have taken even years apart.
Some elephants never forget: neither will we.