Feeding Elephants Durian

After nearly two months looking for the fabled elephant drop durian, Rob and I have started wondering if it really is just an urban (or jungle) legend. Why on earth would an elephant would swallow a durian whole? Wouldn't the spikes bother their intestinal tract? Why wouldn't an elephant just crack it open and slurp out the gooey goodness?

We wanted to see for ourselves how an elephant might eat a durian. So Rob contacted Mr. Zulfiki at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Orphanage and Sanctuary and asked if we could feed their elephants some durian. My friend Rachel was visiting K.L. from Singapore so we decided to make the trip together.

Kuala Gandah is near Lanchang, an easy day trip from Kuala Lumpur. We loaded my backpack with cheap durian and took the LRT (Light Rail Transit) from Chinatown to Pekiling Bus Station, where we caught the bus towards Temerloh. I was nervous the whole time that someone would complain about the sulfurous odor that was leaking out of my backpack, but no one said anything, and after a 1.5 hour ride we arrived in Lanchang with our cargo intact.

The refuge was founded in 1989 as a refuge for elephants who were injured or orphaned due to human-elephant conflict. Elephants essentially view cultivated areas as supermarkets well-stocked with their favorites: oil palm shoots and durians. Just two weeks ago, a giant male elephant in Perak was caught stealing durians out of an orchard. As the human population in Malaysia has expanded into formerly unpopulated areas and converting jungle to oil palm fields and orchards, conflict with the elephants has increased.

When we arrived the elephants had just finished being fed papaya and bananas by visitors and were about to head off to their 4 hectares (10 acres) of enclosed jungle. Routine helps the elephants stay calm, so the mahouts at Kuala Gandah run a tight ship. We were a little late, so Mr. Zulfiki hurried us backstage to feed the elephants.

Rob pulled the durians out of my backpack while I got the camera ready. Then the action started. It wasn't quite as hectic or scary as when we fed durian to the monkeys in Bali, but the elephants were faster and greedier than I expected. Their eyes brightened and their ears flapped as they watched Rob approach with the durian, lifting their trunks excitedly to reach toward him, grasping for the spiky fruits. He tried to give one at a time, but the elephants moved in, stretching out their trunks to massage the rough exterior. Rob was visibly shaken by the encounter. We had planned on feeding the elephants one at a time, or all the durians to one elephant, but as Rob said, "You don't say no to an elephant."

Rachel filmed the event while I tried to take a few photos before it was all over. Two older elephants immediately dropped their durians to the ground and squashed them with one foot, squirting  cream on the pavement. Then they methodically chewed each segment of the fruit, rind and all! I guess the spikes didn't bother them. When they finished they used their trunks to vacuum the goopy white mess off the asphalt.

The young one didn't quite know what to do with his durian, but he wasn't about to put it on the ground and forfeit it to one of his mates. He put the whole thing in his mouth and kept it there, working at it with his huge pink tongue. It was too large to swallow, or even to effectively chew. A few times he moved it around with his trunk, before finally cracking the husk with his giant molars and chewing the entire thing up.

Baby elephant decides to see if cement tastes good
Our main event was over in less than 5 minutes and after chatting with Mr. Zulfiki, we had the whole day to relax and enjoy the Elephant Sanctuary. First, we watched the video showing, a great 30 minute film which explains how Malaysia is dealing with conflict between its human citizens and its 5 tonne inhabitants, and the purpose of the Elephant Sanctuary.

Malaysia has chosen to deal with human-elephant conflicts by removing the elephants from the equation. All elephants and herds that cause problems in human populated areas are transferred via truck and barge to Taman Negara National Forest, which boasts the largest population of Asian elephants in Malaysia. Moving elephants cross country is a big deal. It's traumatic and dangerous for both workers and elephants.

"Les Elephantes! Les Elephantes!" shrieked this little french girl. In 2009 elephants were banned on French beaches. Probably due to human-elephant conflict.
After the video we went to the elephant feeding, where a large crowd of European and Asian tourists had gathered. First, each elephant demonstrated a trick while an interpreter shared a few fun facts in English, Chinese, and Malay. I was impressed to learn that elephants go through six sets of teeth during a lifetime! Then buckets of papayas and bananas were distributed throughout the crowd, and the elephants approached to be fed.

The interpreter, an older man known as Pak Ngah, or "Middle Uncle," announced that each elephant at Kuala Gandah eats around 50 kilos (110 pounds) of food every day. Feeding the 27 wards costs the Sanctuary about 2,700 RM ($849) every day. I asked if the elephants feel stressed with so many people crowding around them. He laughed and said they enjoy this part of the day. "So many people, they know 'Oh! Can get so many food!'"

Before leaving, Rachel and I rode one of the elephants around the short, 30 meter loop. I'd never ridden an elephant before, always feeling when I'd had the chance that this was somehow insulting or abusive to the world's largest and very likely most intelligent land mammal. But I was curious.

Sitting atop the elephant brought home just how enormous the animal is.  Falling off would have been like toppling off the roof of a building. The animal's hard, wiry hair tickled my legs, while its slow gait had us swaying crazily from one side to the other. Rachel said it was like riding a really big, really slow horse. I had nothing to compare it to, not having ridden a horse since I was 11 years old.

Thanks to the Kuala Gandah sanctuary and staff for being so helpful with our durian project and for all their hard work on behalf of the elephants! If you're in the area, visit them, have a swim with a baby elephant, and consider giving a donation (or a durian).

For more information, or to give a donation to Malaysia's elephants, see the Kuala Gandah website.