Bathing the Elephants of Tangkahan



Petir Garda Bhwana

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - There is no more mysterious pleasure than when meeting elephants. This is the animal that scientists call one of the smartest. They are said to understand various languages, communal togetherness, mourning, and thank you. Their skin are thick gray, their steps are graceful, they've got ivory that grow for decades, all of them, like carrying a magical trail of the earth from ancient times.

    At the end of March 2019, I had the opportunity to meet up with elephants, up close and personal. In Tangkahan, the nature there is unpretentious and at the same time amazing.

    The journey to Tangkahan, Labuhan, North Sumatra, took three hours to drive from Medan. We stayed at a local-run guest house, next to the Tangkahan Elephant Conservation Response Unit (CRU) office, an elephant conservation center. Only 200 meters from the inn, a herd of elephants were heard playing. Lauren Hardie, our friend who has visited Tangkahan a dozen times, told us that, "Finding elephants is exciting. But, actually this is only 20 percent of Tangkahan's beauty. It is like the tip of the iceberg. "

    That morning we stood on the edge of the river, waiting expectantly for the arrival of the elephants. They were preparing to start the morning ritual across the river. From across, a group of elephants stepped gracefully. I was excited. This is the first time I have met an elephant so close, usually only seeing elephants in cages in the zoo. Each elephant is accompanied by a handler or mahout, who sits casually on the elephant's back. Johni Rahman, a mahout, sits on Theo's back, a male elephant, while playing a flute. It's really a surreal scenery for me.

    Arriving at the edge of the river, the elephants begin their morning ritual. Mahout yells and directed the nine elephants.

    Theo, Agustin, Ardana, Yuni, Sari, Albertin, Olive, Europe, and Kristofer, are these elephants' names. Europe and Kristofer, two toddler elephants, can't keep quiet. They both chased, tugging at the tree trunk. Just like toddlers. It takes extra effort to make this toddler elephant obey orders. "But, they are obedient and smart animals. They never forgot our instructions, "said Cece Suardana, one of the mahouts.

    After completing the morning ritual, Theo, the adult male elephant who led the herd, entered the river. His long ivory carries a commanding aura, "Hey you guys, follow me." Then the elephants play on the river. Europe and Kristofer chase and spout each other through with their trunks. Then, the handlers instruct them to sit and lie on the river. Mahout shouted, "Theo, Agustin, Bertin, Sari, lie down!"

    Once the position of the elephants are comfortable lying down, then the visitors can touch and bathe the elephant. Mahout distributes brushes to us. Without any bath soaps i guess.

    I bathed Sari, one of seven female elephants in Tangkahan. Sari's eyes were very beautiful. The lashes were thick and long blue. The scars above the circle of 35-year-old elephant eyes make it look characteristic. Her eyeballs, dark brown, felt deep and mysterious. "If it's lusting, the liquid will come out over her eyes," Suardana explained. "So if the elephant is lusting, guests can't get close. She can go berserk. "

    Once there was an elephant whose name was Agustin, 50 years old, the most senior elephant in Tangkahan. Together with Medang (who died a few years ago), Agustin was brought in from Lhokseumawe, Aceh, in 2003. Both of them were brought in at the request of the Tangkahan people who wanted to move from illegal logging centers to ecotourism villages. "We asked for two elephants, to help us patrol, so that illegal forest loggers are afraid to act," said Juan Ika Sitepu, one of the ecotourism activists in Tangkahan.

    The manager of Gunung Leuser National Park fulfilled this request and sent Agustin and Medang. "I accompanied them from Aceh, using a truck," said Tejo Sudiono, a senior mahout. "The elephants were very obedient. They were also easy when taking a truck for a long trip. "

    For many people, the perception imprinted on the mind is that these elephants were rescued from the conflict area in Aceh, which at that time was a Military Operation Area (DOM). Agustin and Medang were saved from a shootout which often happened in the middle of the forest. These elephants were saved from the threat of extinction, the Sumatran elephant population lives in 1,500 in its habitat.

    Fortunately, elephants and Tangkahan residents were saving each other. "Without these elephants, we might still be trapped in illegal logging, still cutting down trees. Maybe now our forest had gone. We could be doomed already, "said Ika Sitepu.

    Agustin and Medang were then followed by the arrival of other elephants from other regions in North Sumatra. One by one the elephants arrived, completing the large family of Tangkahan CRU until now it has become nine. There were five baby elephants born in the last ten years. The birth of an elephant was considered a big event by the mahout. Understandably, it took 22 months for the elephant's mother to conceive, with extra care. Pregnant elephants cannot be climbed on their backs by humans, so that they do not bear heavy loads.

    Unfortunately, three of the baby elephants died at the age of five. They were named Tangka, Namo, and Amelia. "They catched herpes virus that specifically attacks elephants," Tejo said. "There is no cure for this disease. Drug manufacturers are lazy to produce, maybe because it isn't profitable. ”Kristofer and Europe, two elephant toddlers, are now all mahout's favorites in Tangkahan.

    Currently the mahout is waiting for the birth of one more baby. "We are observing it. Is it Ardana or Sari who is pregnant, because it is not easy to ensure the pregnancy of an elephant, "said Tejo. Every three months, the elephants undergo a medical examination, including by inserting a tool through their anus. Whether it's to check pregnancy or to check digestive health because the elephant's digestive system are sensitive.

    The time to play with the elephants has run out. The elephants must return to the forest. Together with the handler, they will walk along the river and the Tangkahan forest. "It's time to thank the elephants. Please share the food, "said the mahout. Raw bananas and pumpkin pieces were handed to us. It felt amazing when we feed the elephants. "Thank you, Sari. Thank you, Europe, here is your food. "

    I could not imagine what these elephants felt. Hopefully they enjoyed our company.  Slowly, they walked towards the river, going to cross into the forest area. Then, Sari raised her trunk and sprayed me. She then stroked my cheek. Suardana said, "This is how Sari said thanks."