Hello everyone and welcome again to another post in my Sri Lanka 2014 series which covered a three month trip from January to April of that year. It has been quite a series of posts as the sequential number in the title indicates and if you want to read the entire piece you can do so here.
In the previous post my mate Jo and I had spent an interesting if slightly sombre day visiting the recently de-commissioned Bogambara Prison in Kandy, which I hope you enjoyed, and I also promised you a magical day for this post so if you want to find out about it then please read on.
27th March, 2014.
Jo had promised me another great day out and she certainly delivered although it did not start too early as I am not usually great with dawn rises and it was lunchtime by the time Jo had turned up. We organised a tuk-tuk and got on the road for the journey to Rambukkana along the busy A1. There was another reason for the late start, of which more later.
As tuk-tuk journeys go it was quite lengthy, perhaps 20 miles although it as uneventful, well as uneventful as any Sri Lankan tuk-tuk ride can ever be. The only thing of note and totally unknown to me at the time was that we had entered Sabaragamuwa Province, another one for me to tick off my list if I bothered about such things.
Partly to provide some some uniformity to my posts and partly to practice my newly acquired ability to do such things I have included images of the Provincial flag and a map (© commons licence). I am in serious danger of becoming almost competent at this blogging lark! By area the Province is the second smallest of the nine and is named for the Sabara people indigenous to the area but that is probably enough geography for now.
Our destination, as you can see from the image was the Millennium Elephant Foundation where Jo, true to form, knew someone, a young lady who worked there full-time as a volunteer co-ordinator and whose name I regrettably do not remember. My old memory was never that good but it really is fading badly now.
We went into the pleasant reception area and the lady was duly summoned from wherever she was, greeted us warmly and her and Jo did a bit of catching up whilst I had a quick look round the small but interesting Museum.. Our guide asked us would we like a look round and that was a fairly redundant question, of course we would.
I warn you in advance, there are a few “aaawwwwww” images in this post as everyone loves elephants, don’t they? Well, you would think so but sadly that is not the case and many are mistreated in various ways which is where the Foundation comes in so let me tell you about it.
The reserve stands on a mere 15 acres of land which was the family home of the Samarasinghe family for generations. Whilst researching these posts I had discovered that the Bogambara Prison I had visited the day before was a 13 acre site so in the grand scheme of things the MEF is not exactly huge but they make best use of the limited area they have.
The Samarasinghe family owned working elephants and the former head of it, Sam Samarasinghe, was a great animal lover so he set up Club Concept in 1979 as an educational facility to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by captive elephants.
Sadly Sam died in 1991 but his widow set up the MEF in his memory in 1999, hence the name and it continues to this day under the guidance of the family. It was established with the assistance of the World Society for the Protection of Animals which has now branded itself World Animal Protection and is a long established and respected organisation.
MEF remains the only accredited Non-Government Organisation in the country dealing with the problems of captive elephants and they are many. Captive elephants fall into three broad categories, working, temple and tourist.
Working elephants are mainly used in the logging industry and are often treated very badly as are the tourist elephants kept solely for the purpose of amusing visitors who want elephant rides etc. Whilst the MEF still offers rides as it simply cannot survive without the revenue, it is trying to wean tourists off them and to stop them eventually. Instead it offers elephant walks which are a much more natural way to see these magnificent creatures and their behaviour rather than merely sitting on the back of one.
I must admit that I have ridden elephants before and even “drove” one on a wonderful day in Nepal many years ago but in light of what MEF has taught me I think I shall rethink that policy now should I ever be in a position to do so again. The mahout even allowed me to use his ankus (goad) which I think showed a faith in me that I did not possess!
Elephants are completely bound up with the culture and religions of Sri Lanka and many are owned by temples, often gifted to them. They are used in pera heras, literally processions, the most famous of which is the Esala Pera Hera in Kandy where the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha processes through the city accompanied by a herd of richly adorned elephants. You may have seen the images.
The problem is that when it is not pera hera season the animals are often not treated as we would like. Much of the problem is in the huge cost associated with keeping an elephant as a large bull can eat up to 200 lbs. of food daily and it is reckoned to cost $50 US a day to keep one. There was one elephant at MEF who was there purely because the temple could no longer afford the upkeep.
There is a lot about the situation regarding captive elephants and the Foundation that I do not understand. For example, some elephants are brought to here to be cared for and the Foundation has to pay the owner for the privilege, that confuses me.
Another matter is the modern procedure of paying to volunteer although I know it is standard practice now. Many years ago when I was a young man and before gap years were popular you could go and volunteer somewhere for a worthy cause and you got bed and board and even perhaps a very modest allowance in return for your labour. Now you have to pay handsomely to do so and naturally there are middle men taking their cut to “facilitate” such engagements.
I have nothing at all against cash-strapped charities making as much as they can for their respective good causes but it still seems a little odd to me.
Time to go walking now and I cannot understand why I did not take more images, I suspect I was walking about open-mouthed at the sight of these huge adorable remnants of pre-history and distant cousins of the mammoth which our ancient ancestors knew and hunted.
In my current gorging on TV documentaries whilst confined to my home I recently discovered that mammoth existed until a very recent 3,700 years ago, a blink of the eye in world terms. Man had invented writing, the wheel and pottery amongst other things and was living in societies in Egypt, Sumeria and many other places. These lovely ellies are not so far removed from that long-extinct creature.
Because of the time Jo’s friend had told us to visit we had the place more or less to ourselves, except for the lovely couple you see in the image who were clearly enjoying their visit, as were we.
When I visited there were nine elephants and 13 mahouts at MEF. Mahouts form an incredible bond with their charges and because elephants can live to 70 years old mahout and beast often spend an entire lifetime together. Many mahouts “pass on” their elephant to a son when they can no longer manage. It was obvious how much the animals and mahouts here loved each other.
We were shown the night beds, where the elephants are tethered to stop them wandering off, the day beds where they relax and seemed to be completely content and all the other parts of the compound and then it was back to the river Kanda Oya for a light lunch and bath time.
Lunch was not us but for the elephants and what you see is indeed a light lunch as I have already told you how much they eat. It is incredible just how gentle these jumbos are for all their huge strength, I just don’t feel threatened by them at all although a healthy respect is obviously in order.
Again, I have bathed elephants before and I hope I do not sound blasé saying that, I really would never tire of scrubbing down these wonderful huge yet docile animals, it surely is one of life’s great pleasures.
The elephants being bathed here today were indeed docile but they are not always so and that is another reason they are brought to the MEF. Bull elephants have a period called musth when they are ready to breed and their testosterone levels go through the roof which can lead to problems.
The testosterone is so powerful that it can cause painful pressure headaches for the animal which can lead them to become aggressive and a creature so large and powerful in an aggressive mood is a dangerous proposition. One of the Foundation’s goals is to create a dedicated pen where all the bulls in musth can be kept together safely.
Breeding has happened at the Foundation and when Lakshmi gave birth to Pooja in 1986 she was the first elephant born to a domesticated elephant in Sri Lanka. Although she is now 34 (almost 28 when I visited) now she is still regarded as the “baby”.
Don’t ask me which elephant Jo and I were scrubbing down in the shallow waters of the lazily drifting river (more a large stream really) as I am afraid all ellies look much the same to me. All I know is that it is every bit as much fun as it looks and the elephants seem to enjoy it as much as the visitors, they just lie there completely content.
I know I have mentioned before about Virtual Tourist flag images which were taken for submission to that sadly deceased website and this was simply too good an opportunity to miss.
I could tell you a whole lot more about the MEF and their C2C (Conflict to Coexistence) scheme, their branching out into marine ecology in Trincomalee and much else but the linked website above does it so much better than I can, do have a look.
Also have a look at the Maximus Elephant Dung Paper Company, and I am not joking about that. 200 lbs. of a daily herbivore diet has certain natural consequences, about 100 lb. daily, and a process has been developed fairly recently for turning this into high-quality paper. We did not visit but apparently your admittance ticket to the MEF gets you a tour of the paper facility as well.
We didn’t actually have admittance tickets as Jo’s friend was showing us round as a favour but we did make a decent donation to this excellent charity and it was worth every rupee. When you consider that the Sri Lankan elephant population has declined by about 50% over three generations (70 years or so) and the Asian elephant is now listed as an endangered species we need to do all we can to protect them.
We bade our farewells to the mahouts and Jo’s lovely mate before tuk-tuking our way back to town for dinner and a few well deserved drinks before bed.
In the next post I get a bit of local history under my belt and then have to loosen said belt with another great meal so stay tuned and spread the word.