They have an incredible memory and know exactly where to go. They crash through the farmers’ fields, trample down plants and devour the crops; and if the farmer gets in their way, the elephants will trample him down, too.
Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka (the administrative capital is Sri Javawardenapura Kotte), is a bustling city and a hopping-off point for beaches in the island nation's south. It has a long history as a port on ancient east-west trade routes, ruled successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. That heritage is reflected in its spicy cuisine as well as its architecture, mixing colonial buildings with high-rises and shopping malls.
At present, 22 million people live in Sri Lanka. The human population of this small island nation has doubled since 1963, which means the elephants are running out of room. On average, between 70 and 80 people are killed by elephants as a result of HECs (Human Elephant Conflicts) in Sri Lanka every year. Despite governmental protection, roughly 250 elephants are killed annually, sometimes brutally and inhumanely with little regard for the species’ survival. Guns, electrocution, poison, and “hakka-patas” (explosive devices hidden in elephant food) are the preferred methods for killing elephants. Hungry and desperate to carve out space for themselves and for their herd, the Sri Lankan elephants are becoming increasingly brazen in their attacks on farm villages and humans.
The famous Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in the center of the island was established in 1975 on a 10 ha (25 acre) coconut plantation. The orphanage, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Dept. of National Zoological Gardens, aims to educate, rescue and care for orphaned calves, to operate an elephant breeding program and to care for disabled elephants. Young elephants can lose their mothers because they are killed by farmers, they get separated from their mothers due to encroaching development projects or because the calves fall into pits or ravines and get injured.
Currently, approximately 80 elephants live at Pinnawala, including 30 males and 50 females from 3 generations. For the most part the females and their calves live in a natural range while the males do some light work and live in stalls. Twice a day, the females and calves are herded to the river where they can drink, play and bathe. Each adult elephant eats close to 90 kg (200 lbs) of green matter daily, far more than the few acres of the reserve can provide. For this reason large quantities of foliage and branches have to be brought in.
Calves, which have been raised to adulthood in the orphanage, are either sold to private owners, donated to temples or retained for breeding. The “disposal” of elephants has come under scrutiny recently. Often, the orphanage has to defend its practice of giving away elephants (e.g. to Buddhist temples for ceremonial purposes and to private land owners as working animals) as there have been reports of elephant abuse. There appears to be little or no follow-up with respect to the elephants’ welfare once they leave the orphanage. The animals cannot be released into the wild as they carry human scent and would be rejected by their peers.
It is well recognized that the work at the orphanage cannot be seen as the only solution to Sri Lanka’s elephant problem. Several projects are currently under way to minimize HECs, to educate farmers on how to deal more effectively with elephants on their land (e.g. fencing, early warning systems, relocation of animals) and to convince farmers to grow cash crops which elephants don’t like. Innovative ideas such as a manufacturing process that turns elephant dung into paper, may help people earn a living from elephants. The so-called “Maximus-Project”, a sustainable development enterprise, produces “Pachyderm Paper” that consists of 75% dung and is superior in quality to recycled and rice paper. Other products that can be made out of dung include note books, cards, boxes and bags.
At present, close to 6,000 elephants (or 10% of the global Asian elephant population) live in Sri Lanka. While this is a far cry from the 10,000 to 15,000 that roamed the island in the 1900s, the numbers are on the rise and look promising, and considering that Sri Lanka represents only 2% of the overall elephant range, this small country has an important role to play in the preservation of these beautiful creatures.
You can't leave the orphanage without a smile on your face. Seeing the elephants roam (almost) freely in the pasture and watch them squirt, being bathed and play in the Oya River, is a remarkable sight. If you pay attention, you can actually sense the joy and gratitude in these animals and forget the uncertain future they face as a species.