Meet the Manila zookeeper who took care of Mali for 20 years

James Patrick Cruz

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Meet the Manila zookeeper who took care of Mali for 20 years

GENTLE GIANT. 43-years old Asian Elephant, Mali, bathes at Manila Zoo on January 22, 2019.


'Losing my ward is extremely painful. I can't bear it. She became my family, my life,' says Mali's caretaker Noel Co

MANILA, Philippines – For over four decades, Manila Zoo visitors looked forward to the gentle giant who would be the first to welcome them: Mali, the elephant.

On Wednesday, November 29, zoo visitors were greeted by different scene – a blue tarpaulin draped around the perimeter of Mali’s area, a sad reminder of her death just the day before.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story reported that Mali was aged 49 when she died. This has been corrected.

Many netizens shared their reminiscences of childhood moments with Mali, turning social media into a virtual wake for the beloved 43-year-old elephant.

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GONE. Visitors pass by the covered enclosure of Manila Zoo’s lone elephant, Mali, who died on November 29, 2023. Rappler

For seasoned zookeeper Noel Co who had dedicated two decades of his life to Mali’s well-being, her demise cut deeper than words could convey.

During a press briefing on Mali’s death on Wednesday, Co stood on the sidelines, quietly shedding tears for the loss of the elephant he regarded as a cherished member of his family.

Noel’s journey with Mali began in 2002, when he was entrusted with the responsibility of caring for the largest resident of Manila Zoo.

Meet the Manila zookeeper who took care of Mali for 20 years

After graduating from high school, he worked as a volunteer for TV personality Kim Atienza, an animal lover.

Atienza facilitated Co’s entry into the world of zookeeping. Initially tasked with caring for monkeys, Co eventually found himself caring for Mali.

Dahil ‘yung dating keeper niya [Mali] may edad na rin. Gusto na nilang palitan na dahil nga medyo may edad na, lumalaki na si Mali, nagiiba na ‘yung ugali kasi,” he said. 

(Her former keeper was getting old. They wanted to replace him because he was getting old, and Mali aged, her behavior changed.)

In 1977, the Sri Lankan government brought Mali to the Philippines when she was barely a year old, as a gift to then-First Lady Imelda Marcos. Mali was turned over to the Manila Zoo several years later.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals described Mali as one of the “world’s saddest elephants,” as she had no contact with others of her kind.

At the Manila Zoo, her caretaker and volunteers provided her care and company. In Co’s case, he treated her like a family member, but he admitted that taking care of a giant animal posed initial challenges for him.

Ginawa ko ‘yun halos five years, 10 years kong trinain si Mali na maging malapit kaming dalawa na kahit disgrasya ang inabot, hanggang maging close kami,” he said. 

(I did that for almost five years, 10 years, training Mali so that we could become close, even if I got into accidents, until we became close.)

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GENTLE GIANT. Noel Co takes care of Asian elephant Mali, at Manila Zoo on January 22, 2019.

Ang elepante kapag sinilang, may isang taong nakatoka na sa kanya. Parang sa Thailand, siya ‘yung tinatawag na mahout. Siya ‘yung mag-aalaga habang buhay at siya lang ‘yung rerespetuhin ng elepante. Siya lang ‘yung kikilalaning amo,” Noel said.

(When elephants are born, one person is assigned to each of them. It’s like what they call a mahout in Thailand. This person takes care of the elephant, and is the only one that will earn the elephant’s respect. They are the only ones that elephants will recognize as their master.)

Co started his day by cleaning Mali’s pen, and then giving her food – grass and assorted fruits – and vitamins. He constantly monitored Mali, and was in charge of bathing her.

This was their daily routine for the last 20 years. Co has not come to terms with his ward’s death.

Sobrang sakit mawala ‘yung alaga ko. Hindi [ko] kaya. Naging pamilya na, buhay na,” Noel said as he wiped his tears. (Losing my ward is extremely painful. I can’t bear it. She became my family, my life.) –

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James Patrick Cruz

Patrick Cruz is a researcher and writer for Rappler’s governance cluster. Before transferring to Rappler's Research team, he covered local governments focusing on Metro Manila.