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Bali Day 2: Sunday, August 6, 2017

Elephant hug

David Black hugging a rare sumatran elephant at the elephant safari park near Desa Taro, Bali, Indonesia.

On my second day in Bali, Indonesia I took the opportunity to hire a driver and tour guide (Gusti) to show me some parts of the island that are a bit off the beaten tourist path. We started in Ubud, and  after our ride through the rice fields, past temples and small towns, the rain finally let up and the clouds broke up. By the time we reached the Elephant Safari Park near the village of Desa Taro, the weather was nice and cooler now that we were higher up the mountain.

Rajah elephant

A sculpture of a Rajah riding an Indian elephant.

The Elephant Safari Park was established in 2010 as a preserve for endangered Sumatran elephants. A sub-species of the Asian elephant, about 80% of the population has been destroyed over only three generations (75 years) due to poaching and habitat loss or fragmentation. Almost 70% of the large areas of forest on Sumatra have been broken up for farming and the remaining pieces are too small to support viable wild elephant populations. Much of the poaching has been because the wild elephants trample crops, and bull elephants in heat are extremely dangerous. There have been many deaths of humans, too. In 1985, as many as 4800 elephants ranged through eight provinces in 44 populations. By 2003, 23 of those populations had disappeared or were no longer viable. Now, only 2400-2800 elephants remain in about 25 fragmented groups not including camps and zoos.

Elephant safari park

Riding elephants in the Elephant Safari Park. Paying to ride them helps to keep them fed (they eat 250 kg of food each day) and provides them with needed exercise. Four baby elephants have been successfully bred here in the seven years the park has been open.

The Safari Park holds 31 Sumatran elephants: 7 males and 24 females. Four of these are children and were born here, the youngest is about four years old. These elephants have been rescued from captivity or distress elsewhere and are treated with great care here and a island of preservation. It is also designed to be a sustainable preserve, and to this end the elephants interact with humans through having visitors feed them fruit and bamboo, watch them put on acts, wash them down, or even ride them. I had chosen this tour specifically to have the experience of riding an elephant, and especially to help support the feeding and care of the elephants.

Feeding elephant

Elephants eat many plants, including bamboo. They love fruit. I am feeding bamboo to a young elephant here, and was surprised at how dextrous the trunk is – it stored several pieces in its trunk before eating them.

Sumatran elephants require 250 kg of food per day, which is quite costly. The visitor attractions pay for these expenses. I know it sounds strange (and several of the other teachers had a strong negative reaction when I told them I was going to do this) to be riding around on a critically endangered species. But what an opportunity! And at least my money is helping to preserve the species. Asian elephants have had a long relationship of working with humans. Perhaps they have been mistreated and exploited in the past, but I could see that these elephants are well cared for.

 

Loading the elephants

The drivers sit behind the elephant’s neck, while the riders sit on chairs attached to the elephants’ backs. They come in to the feeding area and riders climb on and off at the level of the elephants’ backs. In the enclosure behind, I saw several elephants do a show – I took lots of video but no still photos.

When I arrived Gusti worked out my ticket (included in my tour price) and I walked to the feeding area. You can feed the elephants chopped up bamboo sticks or pay a bit extra to feed them fruit. They come up to a fence and reach over with their trunks, and I was surprised how dexterous the trunks were. Asian elephants have a single prehensile tip at the end of the trunk, and they can stack and manipulate quite a few pieces of bamboo. They were friendly and playful. One elephant had been trained to place a flowered wreath over people’s heads, then place his trunk on top of their heads. They seemed to enjoy interacting with us. I had Gusti take photos of me feeding the elephants and even giving one a hug.

Elephant ride

David Black riding Ardila, a female Sumatran elephant.

I stood in line for my ride and talked with a lady named Patricia who was originally from Wales but now living in Perth, Australia. She had come up to Ubud on a holiday. My name was called and I was asked if I would be willing wait until after the show to do my ride and I said yes, as I didn’t want to miss the show.

Traffic jam

An elephant traffic jam. They even have bungalows that people can stay at where the elephants come up to the balconies to be fed and then carry you to breakfast. For a price, of course.

They had three elephants who were trained to some fun tricks, such as kick a soccer ball (quite accurate really given how thick their legs are), shoot a basketball through a hoop with their trunks, do simple math problems, draw with chalk on a chalkboard (elephant art, anyone?), and spray the crowd with water. Perhaps I am putting human emotions int elephant expressions, but they really seemed to like spraying us.

Thumbs up

Thumbs up. I handed my camera down to Gusti, who took these photos of me riding Ardila the Sumatran Elephant.

As soon as the show was over they called my name for a ride and I hurried over to take my place at the head of the line. The elephant walked up to the fence so that I only had to step across onto the seat mounted to her back. Her name was Ardila and her driver sat on her neck behind her ears while I rode on her back. Sumatran elephants have a more dome shaped back than African elephants, so mounting the seat is tricky. As she walked, I swayed side to side in a rolling motion.

Elephant crossing sign

An elephant crossing sign at the Elephant Safari Park in Bali.

We followed a trail up and around the elephant paddocks and onto a trail system through a small patch of jungle. We had a continuous procession. The elephant ahead of me was obviously male and stopped to urinate part way along the pass. There was frequent elephant dung, and the elephants were trying to grab whatever bamboo they could reach as we walked along. They have to eat almost constantly.

Arpila showing off

Ardila showing off. At the end of our ride, the elephants walk into a wading pond and spray everyone with water. They seem to enjoy getting people wet, their idea of a practical joke.

Since I was by myself, I felt like quite the rajah riding on my elephant. We climbed up a small hill, then looped around and back toward the starting point. We passed a series of bungalow rooms with back porches. The people who stay here get to feed the elephants from the back porches, then ride the elephants to their own breakfast each morning.

Spraying water

Ardila enjoyed spraying bystanders with water.

At the end of the ride I handed my camera down to Gusti so he could take some photos of me riding. I had taken quite a bit of video on my way. They had the elephants circle back through a pool of water at the end and pose for the cameras. Gusti took some nice photos of me on Ardila.

Look, Ma, no hands

Look, Ma – no hands! The ride was a bit jarring on the spine as the elephant sways back and forth as it walks, but you do get used to it. But you can walk faster. Still, it was a great deal of fun.

I climbed off and we walked back to the car, which the driver brought up for us. We traveled back to the village of Desa Taro and continued on our way.

Flowers at safari park

Flowers at the Elephant Safari Park. The grounds and facilities were nicely maintained and beautiful.

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