The Jakarta Post
Ervina and her friends screamed with fear and joy as their rubber tubes were rocked by the currents of the Serangan River in Langkat regency, North Sumatra. The river divides Tangkahan village and originates in the North Sumatra part of Mount Leuser National Park.
The group of tourists from Sibolga, North Sumatra, calmed down when four Sumatran elephants approached from the opposite direction. Several fair-haired foreign tourists were riding the mammals.
'Aaaaa!' Ervina and her friends yelled out hysterically as the elephants sprayed the girls with water from their trunks, soaking them all over and evoking laughter from the foreign riders.
The elephants kept going in the upstream direction and after half an hour they halted to join another herd already waiting. Then they all lay down in the river. 'Come on, it's time to bathe the elephants,' said a mahout. The tourists promptly gathered to rub the bodies of Sumatra's largest animals.
'It's amazing. I'm bathing an elephant,' remarked Elyn Remy, a Belgian tourist, while scrubbing the tough skin of the pachyderm. There was also some excitement not far from Remy's place. An elephant took its turn to bathe several tourists by spurting river water over them.
Matthijs van der Spek from Holland said he had first planned to bathe Tangkahan elephants in 2014. 'But last year the elephant package was fully booked. Finally, I got this year's package. It's a great surprise that I can now bathe and be bathed by elephants,' he added.
Ervina's group and the foreign visitors were enjoying themselves in the 'hidden paradise' of North Sumatra in Tangkahan. The ecotourism village is situated on the fringe of Mount Leuser National Park and some four hours' drive west of Medan, the North Sumatra provincial capital.
Although little known in Indonesia, the village is very popular abroad. 'Up to October this year alone, nearly 5,000 visitors had come from 47 countries, mostly from the Netherlands, Germany and Australia. For 2016 the elephant package has been sold out,' said Rudkimat, 46, chairman of the Tangkahan Tourism Institute (LPT) managing the zone.
'We also have a waterfall, cave, warm water pool and forest,' he said. The park's forest can be explored by tubing along the river. 'On their way, tourists may catch sight of orangutans, monkeys, gibbons and other animals. They can also ride elephants for the cruise,' he added.
Bathing elephants has become Tangkahan's prized package. 'Usually our package combines the bathing spree and forest trip, a favourite of foreign tourists in spite of its fairly high price,' said Rudkimat.
To organize this program, the LPT cooperates with the local Conservation Rescue Unit (CRU), which is especially tasked with managing elephant-related tourism. At present there are 11 elephants in Tangkahan, including three young ones.
The LPT employs around 130 local residents, who act as rangers, guides, interpreters, porters, administrative and financial staff members. 'The majority of these employees are former illegal loggers,' revealed Rudkimat.
Rudkimat admitted he used to be an illegal logger himself with a number of followers, felling trees and taking logs out of the forest. But later he realized his activity caused damage to the Mount Leuser National Park and harmed community interests.
Darwis, now a guide, also worked as a logger in the 1990s. 'My grandpa and father were indeed loggers and we did the job until 2000,' he said, claiming he had earned a good income from illegal logging. 'But I just spent the money and remained poor, quite apart from the risk of being struck by falling trees, which severely injured and killed some of my peers,' he recalled.
One day by 2000 a number of students from Medan aroused their awareness of the need to end illegal logging. However, most villagers were opposed. 'A small part of the community supported the students' suggestion. There was a tense atmosphere among villagers,' he noted.
However, after the ecotourism program started yielding a lot of money, villagers were attracted. Finally, they were willing to quit their old job and join the LPT. 'Now my income is quite substantial, Rp 3 million [US$217] per month. When it's a holiday period, I can earn Rp 5 million or more,' he added.
'The total income of the LPT has amounted to over Rp 9 billion annually in the last several years,' said Rudkimat. According to him, some residents have built guest houses or homestay facilities. 'There are about 20 such homes with no less than 300 rooms. Others have also opened restaurants in the tourism zone,' he proudly said.
CRU Manager Edi Sunardi expressed his relief for the Tangkahan tourism activity as his unit shared its earnings. 'Minus operational costs, we share around 57 percent. We spend the funds on elephant care and the salaries of 14 mahouts,' he said.
With the sharing of local tourism income, the government doesn't need to provide a budget for elephant maintenance in the conservation area. 'More importantly, Mount Leuser National Park's environment and forest remain well preserved now. We're proud of the Tangkahan community,' he concluded.
' Photos by Muhamad Usman
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