I am on a plane leaving Sri Lanka with my head spinning and heart smiling. This gem of a country has its challenges when it comes to both wild and captive elephant management but the people I met during my short stay give me hope. Friendly and dynamic, the people I met are dedicated and hungry to succeed in their effort to create safe and healthy environments for elephants.
These past nine days have been well spent. Not a moment was wasted as guardians appeared at every turn to direct and assist me. Looking back, I realize how truly blessed I am. Many thanks to all of the kind and dedicated people who made my visit productive and memorable, especially on such short notice!
This visit was to be a simple fact-finding mission to experience first-hand the elephant situation in Sri Lanka. Prior to my visit I heard so much about the dwindling wild populations, crowded orphaned calf facilities and elephant/human conflict. Honestly, I knew little about Sri Lanka’s efforts to rehabilitate and release previously orphaned calves and to fence in a multi-thousand acre national park area for problem (crop raiding) bulls. Sri Lanka has many seriously progressive people working on elephant welfare.
Elephant culture in Sri Lanka is ancient; elephants are a part of everyday life for many, from community festivals when elephants are dressed in lavish costumes and paraded through the streets on chains, to the simple farmer who is in direct conflict with crop raiding “wild ones.” Like most other Asian countries, elephants are big business. They are used in festivals, at temples, in processions and in many other public venues. They are money makers. Unfortunately, traditions that involve financial gain can lead to corruption.
On the first day of my visit I went to the Colombo Zoo. It is a beautiful botanical garden, very well laid out, with lush vegetation and mature trees. With such obvious attention paid to the design of the zoo, I was surprised to find the elephants standing side-by-side under a shade structure, chained on two legs. It was a difficult sight to see in such contrast to the surrounding beauty.
Next I went to see the elephants at the Pinnewala orphanage. I was saddened to find so many elephants in a small barren area. Large males were kept beyond the public area, chained on two legs on concrete. All the others were in an open area, which offered no shade from the blazing sun, while tourists were invited to have their picture taken with them.
The following morning I visited the Millennium Foundation, just down the road from Pinnewala. It is a privately owned elephant facility that is currently home to several elephants. Most are not permanent residents and, when not on grounds, appear in pageants and at temples. There is a beautiful stream that runs through the property where the elephants are bathed daily. Tourists and volunteers help scrub the elephants and are allowed to ride them without a saddle. The grounds are gorgeous and elephants are kept in the shade, which was a nice change from the Pinnewala, but they still spend their lives in chains.
It was after meeting with the government vets, Dee from Born Free Foundation and National Park staff that I saw another side of elephant management. The government has two projects that stand out: the Elephant Transit Home and an elaborate bull fence area in one of the National Parks. These established projects, with their successes and challenges, create a model for wild elephant management.
The Elephant Transit Home is a brilliant project. Open to the public in the most minimal way, the ETH provides a home to orphaned calves calves until several individuals form a bonded group, at which time they are released and monitored in the national park. The extent of keeper interaction is restricted to when the calves are bottle-fed every three hours. Their days are spent in the forest and they are tied by one back leg with a rope overnight. It would be fabulous if the calves could be allowed to be untethered overnight but limited space requires that they be secured. It was heartbreaking to see so many orphans, but they appeared healthy and content with their circumstances.
Later we drove into the park and were fortunate to observe one of the released herds of orphans wallowing in a mud hole. This group is of particular interest because one of the females recently gave birth and is raising a healthy baby girl. This is definitely a model project with a happy ending.
I’d heard much about the Bull Pen, a 5500-acre area within a national park, enclosed with electric fence for “problem bulls.” We drove deep into the park to look at the fence. When I saw it I had to laugh, remembering when we were trying to build a Flora-proof fence.
Working systematically a few steps behind us, Flora would figure out how to dismantle anything we erected. It seems the Park’s bulls are taking the same approach. It is frustrating right now, but in the end the bulls will be instrumental in designing their own pen, one that can be used as a model in other national parks.
I was most impressed by many of the wildlife officers, vets, NGO representatives and others I met who appear united in the goal to keep wild elephants wild. I feel quite fortunate to be invited to collaborate with these dedicated men and women. My hope is that their progressive attitudes and current projects will bring Sri Lanka much deserved recognition and the confidence to effectively address the serious welfare needs of their captive elephants.