Elephants loom large in Sri Lanka and a controversial baby elephant walk delights tourists but has our writer contemplating the great yet endangered mammal that is losing its habitat and is coming into more frequent contact with humans.
At the stroke of 2pm, locals clear a wide path along the main shopping lane through Pinnawala, a village in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. “Elephants are coming,” explains a souvenir stallholder in an almost blasé manner, before grabbing my arm and wrenching me off the street as the first in a parade of adult and baby Indian elephants march past at a brisk trot.
This is a ritual that crowds come to marvel at — the second daily journey of about 50 elephants from the nearby Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, across Highway B199 to the Maha Oya river, for a two-hour session of drinking and playing in the water. Handlers spray them with water cannons, a few elephants push rubber vehicle tyres about, others jostle or loll in the water, as tourists at several restaurant balconies perched above the riverbank take delight in watching the animals at play outside the confines of their fenced sanctuary.
The Asian elephant is an endangered species in Sri Lanka, with numbers estimated at less than 3000. Their habitat is shrinking, and increasing contact with humans in the wild leads ultimately to more fatalities — up to three per week, according to some sources.
This highlights the significance of the Pinnawala orphanage, established in 1975 by Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife Conservation but now run by the Department of National Zoological Gardens Sri Lanka. Originally comprising a group of five abandoned babies, the orphanage grew to also include injured, maimed and other orphaned elephants — animals isolated or ostracised from their herd that could no longer survive independently in the wild. They find a new home on the 10-hectare former coconut plantation, which has become a magnet for tourists — and this has introduced its own complex set of problems.
Some visitors get upset to see leg chains on some elephants (males are chained in clearings during mating season to prevent violent clashes within the herd hierarchy), but keepers say such restraint is necessary as elephants learn to assimilate within the herd of more than 90 misfits. The animals I saw appeared content and in robust health.
However, this remains a highly contentious point, and a favourite target of bloggers making emotive statements about ethical behavior. Pinnawala authorities counter by saying these elephants would not be accepted by a herd in the wild, and are therefore dependent on the orphanage and its supplied food — with the public invited to participate in milk feeding of babies and fruit feeding of adults.
Agencies such as Responsible Travel are unimpressed, and have refused to take any visitors to Pinnawala since 2008, especially after concerns issued by the UK-based Born Free foundation about handling and sale of some elephants to private buyers. It argues there are better solutions, and encourage visitors to instead attend the Elephant Transit Home at Udawalawe in southern Sri Lanka. Established in 1995 by the Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife Conservation, it provides temporary refuge for young elephants, aiming to return them to the wild when they’re ready.
Elephants continue to loom large as an important symbol in Sri Lanka, still featured in religious festivals — most famously, with about 70 bedecked in jeweled fabric and lights during the annual Essala Perahera parade in Kandi — but they are also marauders in the wild.
While Sri Lanka is a compact island — 65,000 square kilometres, about the size of Tasmania — it is heavily forested. Much of the 21 million population attaches itself to the coast, with interior villages flanked by either forest or farmland. Admittedly, the land grab by developers is accelerating — noticeable by countless posters attached to power poles along lengthy stretches of the skinny, potholed highways — but corridors remain for elephants to roam, and they are often on the move at night, in the hunt for water.
They are notorious for trampling rice paddies in their haste. Farmers try to protect their crops with electrified fences, or hire young boys as lookout sentries to sit through the night on wooden platforms erected in trees, firing air pistols to scare the big beasts away. They are out on the open roads as well. Highway signs depicting elephants crossing look comical, but the threat is real, and results in all-too-frequent fatal traffic accidents. It’s far safer observing herds from open-top jeeps that scout Yala National Park, a vast wildlife sanctuary of almost 1000 square kilometres on the south-eastern coast, or Minneriya National Park — yet even here the elephants can take umbrage to vehicles encroaching on their terrain.
A herd’s behavior illustrates the instinctive protective nature of elephants; a mother constantly flanks an infant to make certain it is shielded from view at all times, and even when her baby makes an urgent dash over open ground to a lake, it is quickly encircled by another trio of females, protective aunts on keen lookout to ensure the cub in quickly concealed once more. Sri Lanka’s elephants are vulnerable — and they sense it more than anyone.