Water for Elephants
By Sanuj Hathurusinghe Ceylon Today Features
The elephants these days, are the talk of the town. From the ever-existing humanelephant conflict and killing of tuskers for their precious tusks to using elephants in processions and the ownership dispute of ‘illegal’ elephants, these gentle giants are constantly making headlines; the most recent out of them being the case of elephant Sujeewa and her newborn calf.
The ownership of the domestic elephant and her calf has now reached the Courts and it is yet be clearly defined. While there are such disputes among environmentalists and elephant owners, ongoing, about the ownership of these elephants, there is also a considerable amount of elephants in Sri Lanka who belongs to none.
Baby elephants become orphans for various reasons. Some get separated from the herd and get lost, some become orphans because their mothers are killed courtesy the cruelty of humans, and some are disowned and rejected by their own mothers. Helpless and alone, the fate of these helpless calves in the wild is an almost certain death.
Fortunately for them, there are institutes in Sri Lanka that take them in and take care of them until they are strong and old enough to be on their own. The Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe is one such but the most popular elephant orphanage in the country has to be Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Founded over 45 years ago on 16 February 1975 in Kegalle District by the late Minister P. B. G. Kalugalle, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage originally had nine founding baby elephants who were orphans.
Their lives at the orphanage were planned to be semi-captive and for that the founders needed a large area. They found this area in Pinnawala, a 9-acre coconut estate adjacent to Maya Oya. However, as popular as it now is among the locals as well as foreign visitors, the idea of starting an elephant orphanage in Pinnawala wasn’t met with whole-hearted agreement.
Many residents of the area opposed the change that was about to be brought into the area but the plans went ahead regardless. Unfortunately, the inhumane acts of humans didn’t stop at merely voicing their disagreement of providing a home to the orphaned. The climax of these opposing opinions was the poisoning of the elephants at the orphanage, allegedly by a group of villagers.
Milk rice laced with poison was fed to the nine baby elephants out of which a few unfortunately died. Ones who were fortunate to come out of this predicament alive were Khadira, Vijaya, Mathali, Kumari, Komali, and Rasangi. After the unfortunate incident, the security was tightened around the orphanage and the baby elephants were kept under watchful eyes. Soon the orphanage saw more and more orphans being added and some were born in the orphanage as well.
The rapid decrease of elephant population in the country at the time prompted experts to look into the possibility of scientific captive breeding at the elephant orphanage and as a result, Kumari became the first elephant to give birth at Pinnawala in 1984. Today, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is not just a home for the homeless but also a nursery for baby elephants, a hospital for the injured and maimed, captive breeding ground for Asian elephants and the place where the largest herd of captive elephants can be witnessed.
Today, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is home to about 93 elephants. Handling that many elephants in a semi open ground by no means an easy task and it is achieved thanks to the experienced and kind veterinarians, directors, and mahouts.
The staff keeps the elephants unchained as much as possible to give them their freedom, they are chained only at nights and if an elephants is in his musth. At 8 a.m. on the dot every morning, the overnight chains come off and elephants are then taken to the Maha Oya in batches for their daily baths. The sight of elephants playing gleefully in the river, the sound of bells made by the eager elephants rushing towards the river through a narrow road filled with shops on both sides, and the visible affectionate connection they have with their mahouts undoubtedly is what Pinnawala elephant Orphanage is most popular for.
Visitors to the orphanage make it a point to arrive at Pinnawala just in time to see the elephants taking their baths since that is the most photo-worthy opportunity of the whole Pinnawala experience.
Apart from the daily bathing, Pinnawala elephant Orphanage also has a feeding programme for baby elephants and if you are lucky and brave enough, you might get the opportunity to get closer to the calves and feed them milk and fruits. Since the pandemic is still wreaking havoc in the country, the travel is restricted but once things return to a normalcy that allows travel, Pinnawala elephant Orphanage will again be swarmed by tourists.
When you are visiting the orphanage next, keep in mind that these are after all, wild elephants that are not completely domesticated. Don’t let the excitement get the better of you and get too close to the elephants. Be responsible, follow the instructions, enjoy your visit to the fullest, and if you can, don’t forget to support some local businesses by buying some memorabilia. (Pix by Sajeewa Chinthaka)