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Chewong Mahouts at Kuala Gandah


A news website called The Malaysian Insight published a photo story last week about the Chewong mahouts who work with the elephants at the Kuala Gandah National Elephant Centre.

Elephants at Kuala Gandah with their mahouts

Elephants at Kuala Gandah with their mahouts (Photo by suanie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The brief text that accompanies the 10 photos indicates that for 10 years, the Chewong have been trained as elephant keepers and mahouts at Kuala Gandah, located in Malaysia’s Pahang state. The training program there teaches the Chewong how to care for elephants and it gives the employees additional, useful skills. The training program also gives the Department of Wildlife and National Parks insights into working with the Orang Asli people.

Kuala Gandah currently has 25 elephants, some of which the author, Seth Akmal, photographed with their Chewong handlers. The ten photos that accompany the brief story include a Chewong mahout bathing an elephant, mahouts riding their elephants before a show, mahouts bringing their animals close to visitors, and so on.

According to Howell (2015), the National Elephant Conservation Centre was developed by Malaysia in the late 1980s right next to the village that the government had established for the Chewong at the edge of the Krau Game Reserve. The village was designed in an effort to get them to accept a settled, agricultural lifestyle. Elephants were then brought to Kuala Gandah from all over Malaysia as the natural forests of the country were cleared, mostly for palm oil plantations.

Visitors help to wash a young elephant at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre

Visitors help to wash a young elephant at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd class Joe Painter in Wikipedia, in the public domain)

Kuala Gandah is widely promoted as a major tourist attraction—as of 2009, Howell wrote, it hosted 150,000 visitors and the numbers were increasing. A paved road leads into the area, ending at the boundary of the Krau Game Reserve where the Chewong have traditionally hunted, fished, and gathered. At the end of the road, the pavement divides, the right fork leading into the elephants, the left into the “aboriginal reserve,” according to a sign.

In the early period of the elephant sanctuary, it did not employ any Chewong but as of the date of Howell’s most recent visit, several Chewong men, but no women, were employed as guards or cleaning workers. The government erected a small building as an exhibit space for the sale of Chewong crafts to visitors and as a place for them to sit and listen to lectures about the Orang Asli people, their beliefs and practices.

Howell wrote that she attended the public lectures several times, listening to presentations by a woman that were filled with inaccuracies. The same woman, the wife of another employee, also managed the shop where the Chewong crafts are sold. According to rumors, the Chewong only receive a small portion of the proceeds but, “true to form, no Chewong confronts her about this (p.70).”

A Chewong family

A Chewong family (Detail from the cover of the book Society and Cosmos: Chewong of Peninsular Malaysia, by Signe Howell)

Howell (2015) concluded that she has observed many changes in Chewong society over the decades that she has been doing fieldwork among them. Most of the changes are due to pressures from the surrounding, larger society. But she doubts that the Chewong will necessarily end up as badly as many other former hunter-gatherer societies have been doing. They may not become stricken with poverty as others have because of the modernization that surrounds them. In essence, she feels that they may be able to avoid that fate.

The Chewong are motivated by numerous different beliefs and local influences that will prompt them to make a variety of choices. Howell found it difficult to predict how well they will react to each new constraint, but presuming her article is an accurate guide, it is clear that they will make their own best choices for themselves. Ten of their men have chosen to accept employment as mahouts—but others may choose to go into the forest and forage for their food. It will be their choice.


Batek Change their Minds about Schooling


Some Batek living in a village called Kampung Dedari, located in Malaysia’s Taman Negara National Park, have changed their minds about the value of their young people getting a formal education. Ahmad A. Talib traveled up the Tembeling River to visit the village, interview some parents and children, and write a piece last week for the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times.

Two Batek children in the Taman Negara National Park

Two Batek children in the Taman Negara National Park (Photo by Fergus Macdonald on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

According to the writer, 16 years ago some Batek children from the villages along the Tembeling were enrolled in a school for about two weeks until they fled back home and never returned. He doesn’t say where but it was presumably a residential school in one of the towns on the periphery of the park, perhaps Kuala Tahan or Jerantut, commercial centers also located on the river.

The presumed reason was that getting an education had never been a priority for the Batek. Their schooling had consisted of learning to live in the forest, skills taught by a child’s parents and passed down through the generations. Attending school could be compared to serving time in prison, they felt.

Jerantut, Malaysia

Jerantut, Malaysia (Photo by Khairul hazim in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

But the 55 children in Kampung Dedari are now being exposed to an experiment. All of them, ages 6 through 16, have been grouped into a single class at a national school in Jerantut called, in Malay, the Sekolah Kegangsaan Kuala Tahan. The initiative was started by the school itself plus the JAKOA (the Malaysian Department of Orang Asli Development), the District Education Office, and an organization called the Kelab Pencinta Burung Taman Negara. That translates as “Bird Group Taman Negara,” an NGO that advocates for the study and protection of birds and their forested habitats in the national park. Roslan Abu Kassim, an experienced nature guide, is the major force behind the new program.

Roslan explained the reasoning behind putting all the children in the same class: the arrangement will last for six months while the kids are acclimatized to the environment of being at school. Then they will go into appropriate age classes. Their instruction in spelling, reading and math skills will be included in the coming months with such basics as appropriate discipline in a school environment, proper ways of interacting with other students and teachers, and how to use a toilet. In essence, it is a pre-school setup for kids who have never attended a school. After two months of the pre-school so far, the youngsters can do some reading and counting.

Batek children in Kampung Dedari used to stay at home rather than go to school

Batek children in Kampung Dedari used to stay at home rather than go to school (Photo by Cleffairy and posted on her blog “Over a Cuppa Tea,” Creative Commons license)

The author of the news report writes that the parents back in Kampung Dedari believe their children’s lives can be improved through formal schooling. One 12-year old, named Tahan An, has already been affected by the school. When the author asked him what he hopes to become when he grows up, he replied that he wants to be head of JAKOA. The picture of him that accompanies the article, surrounded by a group of admiring classmates, shows a cute kid wearing an orange jacket whom the reader can easily suspect may well achieve that goal.

Tahan’s father said, in English translation, “We have wasted many years. Now, we want our children to be able to communicate with the outside world and bring development to our village.” Another parent told the writer that they want their children to study, and to not be like their parents. A third parent said, “Let these children attend school. They can learn and be somebody.”

In 2016, while the Batek men in Kampung Dedari hunted, the women stayed home and cared for the children

In 2016, while the Batek men in Kampung Dedari hunted, the women stayed home and cared for the children (Photo by Cleffairy and posted on her blog “Over a Cuppa Tea,” Creative Commons license)

A news article just two years ago described Kampung Dedari after the community had recently opened itself to tourists. The village headman, Sena, told members of the visiting press group in March 2016 that none of the children attended school—they grew up learning how to hunt, fish, and gather forest foods from their parents. He told the journalist writing the 2016 article that “his community preferred to lead a simple and peaceful life, where the men go hunting and fishing while the womenfolk cook and look after the children.”

Other than the quotes by the parents, it is still not completely clear from the article last week why the people changed their minds about the value of preserving their traditional lifestyles versus accepting modernization. But the article does emphasize how strongly the parents in Kampung Dedari really are behind the initiative. Six parents have given up their foraging in the forest to staff the three boats being used to transport the kids along the river both ways every day from the village to the school and back.

A Batek boy in Taman Negara National Park

A Batek boy in Taman Negara National Park (Photo by Dracular on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Roslan, the spark-plug behind the initiative, secured funding from sponsors to get the program going and to pay the six people who are staffing the boats RM30 per day or 600 per month each. The total amount needed to sponsor the program is thus RM 3600 (US $920) per month. Ahmad A. Talib, the author of the piece, provides his email and Twitter contacts in case readers want to help. If enough sponsors don’t step forward, the program might be in danger. He can be reached via and Twitter: @aatpahitmanis. He was clearly impressed by what he saw.



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