Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by viravira on 8 January 2015 • Destination
Riding an elephant? Sounds fun and interesting. But is it really recommended? I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t gathered enough information on the matter. However, I was excited enough just to visit an elephant conservation in Minas, Riau!
A while ago I was visiting Pekanbaru, the capital city of Riau, in Sumatra. Having one more day to spend, my friend Kandi and I agreed to take a short trip northward to Minas to see elephants. With a hired car and Bang Amri, a freelance photographer I knew through my fellow blogger Yudi, behind the wheel, we left Pekanbaru in that drizzly morning. An hour and patches of palm tree plantations later we arrived at the gate of the conservation.
PLG Minas, where the abbreviation stands for Pusat Latihan Gajah (Elephant Training Center), is the popular name for the conservation center. Wait. A training center? Is it where elephants are trained for entertaining shows and circus?
“All the elephants here were saved from human threats. They were considered as pests by the farmers, they roamed in villages, and were hunted down so as not to bother them again. So we took them in and treat them well,” was more or less what Pak Debi, one of the mahouts, told me.
Upon my visit in 2014, there were about 20 elephants in the 6,000 hectares conservation, officially named Tahura Sultan Syarif Hasyim. The elephants are usually free to roam in the forest the whole day, but on weekends and holidays usually a few are kept near the office for visitors to see.
We were lucky to have arrived there just in time for the elephants to take baths.
“Elephants like taking baths,” said Pak Debi. Visitors are welcomed to help the mahouts bathe the big-eared cuties in the river. Kandi and I gladly joined the baths, though we were a bit hesitant to come close at first.
“What if it suddenly rolled over and fall on me, or slapped its trunk on my head?” I thought. But the mahouts convinced us that it would be safe. So we stepped closer to Budi, the 15-year-old massive mammal, washed him with water we scooped with our bare hands from the river. His skin was thick and hard with sparse hair. I remember feeling the same when riding an elephant on the back of the neck in Way Kambas, Lampung, two decades ago.
At the PLG Minas, visitors can choose to ride elephants for at least 15 minutes long, for a fee. Upon this visit, I wasn’t sure if an elephant ride was a wise thing to do, so I chose not to. (Later on I read that a ride with chairs on its back actually hurts the elephant, but it would be okay to ride it on the back of the neck without chair, depending on the weight of the person compared to the elephant. I still need to be surer about this, though.)
So instead of riding the elephant, we chose to just watch the elephants bathing, squirting water from its trunk, crossing the bridge, eating grass and weeds. Seeing their kind faces and slow swaying motions, somehow I grew fondness to elephants. They are not just an animal with big everything except their squinty eyes, but they’re so adorable and lovable!
These elephants are cast out of their own habitat due to civilization. “Their home forests were turned plantations and villages. That’s also where they roamed to find food because there was no other place to go,” Pak Debi explained. “But because of that, they’ve become the villagers’ enemies.” What a sad and ironic story.
However, most people aren’t aware of what they’ve actually done to these elephants. People need to make living and build houses to live, and most think that everything in this world is for them to use.
“We take a few elephants on road shows from village to village, to educate the people that elephants are friends. Their seemingly unacceptable behaviors are actually the consequences of what we’ve done to them. So if we don’t want them to mess with us, then we shouldn’t mess with them and their habitat,” Pak Debi added. It’s an “eye for an eye” law, really.
Then, after having our photos taken with the four-legged teenager Budi, we decided to head back to Pekanbaru. I wished I could stay longer, but we needed to return the car. It was a visit that changed my views on elephant for the better. Having read some articles on elephant conservation just now, I’m even thinking of signing up for a short volunteering at an elephant conservation center somewhere. I want to get to know them more up close and personal!
Do you have any recommendation where I can sign up for an elephant conservation volunteering?