Walking among gentle giants

UMBRELLAS pop open amid peals of laughter, as visitors to the Singapore Zoo try to avoid getting sprayed with water from the trunks of Asian elephants.

The beaming audience applauds. They are having such a great time that they could be forgiven if they think that the work of an elephant caretaker is all fun and games.

That's only half the truth.

Yes, it is gratifying work, but my paper's visit to the elephant stables shows that one must always be vigilant around these gentle giants.

Mr Ng Chin Hup, 53, a deputy head zookeeper who has been working with the elephants daily for the past 20 years, bellows "Pijit" - which means "stop it" in Sinhalese - whenever an elephant trunk ventures too close for comfort. It is one of about 18 verbal commands used by the mahouts, or elephant keepers.

Sinhalese is a Sri Lankan language that has been used for commands since the first elephant, Anusha, arrived at the zoo in 1973.

Mr Ng says matter-of-factly: "The elephants can kill any of us any time, if they want to."

Size matters, he says, explaining that "when you are new, you are small and the elephant is big, so there is this fear".

"But when you work with them every day, you slowly become 'bigger' and the elephant becomes 'smaller'," he adds.

Then comes the swift qualifier: "The fear becomes smaller, but having a little bit of this fear is good because it helps you to be careful at all times."

A near-fatal incident happened 10 years ago, when a zookeeper was gored by a male elephant at the Night Safari.

Since then, a protected-contact system has been implemented when it comes to bull elephants, whereby there is always a protective barrier between the elephant and its carer.

Away from the public eye, the elephant stables at the Singapore Zoo house Komali, Jati, Gambir, Intan and Aprila, each weighing between 2 and 3 tonnes.

They are all females, as males tend to be more aggressive and are not suited for activities such as token feeding sessions and elephant rides, which involve contact with visitors.

A typical day for the zookeepers starts at 8am, when the stables are cleared of food from the night before.

The elephants' combined diet comprises 500kg of grass and leaves, and 100kg of fruit and vegetables, so one can imagine the amount of elephant poop that has to be cleared.

During this time, Mr Ng observes the elephants' trunks and tails. "The tail tells a tale," he says, as the elephants might use their appendages to soothe parts of their bodies that are hurting.

Next, the elephants have their daily full-body scrubs. This not only ensures their physical well-being, but also serves as a chance to strengthen the bond between zookeepers and their charges.

Intan and Aprila undergo training, during which they carry three zookeepers on their backs, so that they will one day be ready to give visitors rides. When an elephant does well, food rewards such as bananas, apples and carrots are given.

Then, the elephants leave the stables for a series of public appearances within the zoo.

Clearly, this job is not for everyone.

Says Mr Adil Hakim, 33, who has been working with the elephants for the past eight months: "This is a 24/7 job. When the elephants are sick, we stay overnight to look after them as well.

"It doesn't mean that, if you love animals, you can do this job. When working with animals, you need to have a lot of patience."

However, what makes the effort worthwhile is the strong bonds formed with the animals.

"You form strong bonds with them and they become like part of your family. You know, because you cry when an animal dies."

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