Monday, July 20, 2009

Pachyderm with personality

The Oriental Village, at the foot of Mt Mat Cincang, is home to a glamour-loving elephant which starred in Anna and The King.

Lasah is an Asian male elephant and, from what I hear, a star. His impressive credentials include appearances in Anna and The King – even walking alongside Chow Yuen Fatt and Jodie Foster in one scene.

He has also appeared on stage with Loris Alessandro Togni (a circus star) in Genting Highlands.

Before hitting the big time, Lasah was a favourite with local zoo-goers where he displayed his logging skills and performed other cute tricks.

Now, he is no doubt the star of Oriental Village in Langkawi, taking visitors on fun rides at the foot of Mt Mat Cincang.

When I met the star pachyderm, he was having a bath, luxuriating in the cool sprays of water shooting out of a hose. His handler, Jason Loh, 39, is strict man and makes sure his four-ton charge is treated like a lord (the animal has four people to attend to his needs).

“If you don’t want to feed the elephant, please stay back,” Loh says, while shooing me away. In what seems to be the hundredth time, Loh wearily explains that this is part of the safety procedure.

“After giving visitors a fun ride, Lasah will expect a treat from them. The feeding is a form of reward for his hard work. When the treats fail to materialise, he could decide to ‘remind’ you to feed him by flicking his trunk. Remember that the human body is only made up of 6,000 muscles whereas an elephant’s trunk alone has 40,000,” Loh lectures.

Needless to say, a “gentle” reminder from Lasah would be likened to being knocked out by 50 Mike Tysons in one go!

Lasah with handler, Johari. — Picture by GRACE CHEN
Meanwhile, Lasah is oblivious to Loh’s anxieties. The adorable brute heaves himself off the ground after a vigorous towel-drying from another handler, Johari.

“Look, how handsome I am,” Lasah seems to be saying. Then it starts to rain. Lasah expresses his delight by raising his trunk to the sky.

Lasah’s trunk must have sniffed out my camera because he proceeds to pose, lifting one massive leg up to ehxibit his dexterity. Meanwhile, Loh continues to watch over Lasah like an overprotective butler and makes no bones about being the strictest animal handler around.

“I don’t allow anyone to play with Lasah’s head. When someone is getting on him, the last thing I want is for the elephant to turn and look as the passenger still has one foot in the basket and another on the platform,” says Loh.

And remember, an elephant is at least three metres tall. A fall from that height will invariably break a bone or two!

As long as Lasah gets his daily feed of 150kg -270kg of grass, banana trunks, sugar cane (his favourite) and wild bananas, he’s happy. The pachyderm also has a fondness for the onion and basil bread from the Red Tomato cafĂ© in Pantai Cenang, about 30 minutes drive from the Oriental Village.

For now, Lasah has more important business to attend to – making mud balls and shooting them onto his back with his trunk. This vexes Johari no end as he is still puffing from the exertion of bathing the massive mammal. Lasah duly ignores his handler’s rueful stares.

“My trunk can easily suck up 14.2 litres of water which will clean up the mess in no time. Besides, mud makes a good sunscreen,” Lasah seems to be saying.

Though tough, an elephant’s skin is very sensitive. Without regular mud baths to protect him from the sun and insect bites, he will have skin problems.

But Lasah seems to be having too much fun to care as he uses his trunk to make patterns in the mud. When the art demo turns into what looks like the beginning of a mud ball fight, Jason gives Lasah a sharp “Hoi!’’

The pachyderm looks peeved and turns around as if to say, “Spoilsport!”

He then sashays over to a tree and proceeds to rub against it. W

Lovable Lasah

Lasah was found about 26 years ago near Kampung Lasah, Perak, hence the name. He was first sent to the Singapore Zoological Gardens as a gift from Malaysia to Singapore, but was returned to us in 1996.

Jason Loh, his handler, met him in 1997 when he was placed in charge of developing a theme park in Johor. The theme park idea collapsed but the pair had become inseparable.

“You just need a week with an elephant to notice his character. Then, you’ll fall in love with him, too,” says Loh.

And yes, Lasah has personality. Take, for instance, when Loh was teaching Lasah how to fetch – something to keep him occupied while waiting for customers for the fun rides.

“After I got tired of throwing the plastic bottle, he didn’t want to give up. He picked up sticks, cans, pebbles and stones (for me to throw) – one stone weighed at least 5kg. It was not me training him anymore, but him training me,” says Loh.

He recalls an incident in March which demonstrates Lasah’s abilty to count.

“We had just arrived at the Oriental Village and were familiarising Lasah with the new area. In the morning we made him do three rounds on the track. In the afternoon, when we wanted him to do more, he complained audibly,” says Loh.

Another instance that points out an elephant’s ability to rationalise is when it comes to backscratching – a session that Lasah obviously loves although it is a tiring task for his handlers.

“When I take a rest after scratching Lasah on one side, he will make a 180 degree turn, expecting the same treatment on the other side. And after that, he will turn to face me, bow down and expect a scratch on the head too! If I forget or don’t have the time, he will remind me audibly!” says Loh.

Does the hulk ever “bully” his handlers?

You bet! It is the junior trainer Johari who usually gets walked on (though not literally). Loh maintains that Lasah is very aware of who he can bully.

And Loh, who has more than a decade of experience working with animals, says that even elephants are prone to jealousy, especially when one gets more attention than the other. They can also be rather possessive over their food.

One bull elephant, he remembers, would hoard fruits placed between him and a slightly older female. Once he picked up a sugar cane and took a swing at her in an attempt to ward her off.

On the other hand, elephants have no real need to conduct their conversations so publicly. They can always revert to infrasonic mode, a level only audible to elephants as far as four kilometres away.

One of the perks about being a solo act at the Oriental Village means undivided attention. To date, Lasah has proudly carried people from 70 countries. But Loh reveals that things may change soon with the introduction of another elephant.

A mate for Lasah, perhaps?

Loh is still unsure. Not that Lasah has been deprived of female company as he is father to a male calf who is now living in the Johor zoo. And don’t worry about separation angst. Only female elephants spend their entire lives in tightly-knit family groups. Adult males, like Lasah, live mostly solitary lives. – By GRACE CHEN

o Elephant Adventures operates from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to noon, and 2pm to 6pm, subject to weather. Monday is a rest day unless it is a public holiday or there are prior arrangements. For more information, call Jason Loh at 012-6266633.


The elephant is a protected species in Malaysia under the Wildlife Act, 1972. There are fewer than 1,500 elephants left in Malaysian forests.

Malaysia lost its cultural heritage of using elephants in daily life, following World War II. History tells us that the Sultans kept and reared elephants for official parades, wars and as beasts of burden.

The loss of habitat is the primary threat to the Asian elephant. As a result of shrinking forests (since the 50s), elephants encroach onto farms and padi fields to find food.

Conflicts between human and elephants escalated and, in 1974, wildlife authorities set up the Elephant Management Unit to address the elephant-human conflict by relocating problematic elephants.

Published in The Star on Saturday, September 9, 2006

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