On Elephants and Their Humans: Reflections from Sri Lanka

Sri Lankans love elephants. One could say that they are a cornerstone of Sri Lankan culture and religion. They are also significant for the country’s tourism industry, which is slowly getting back on its feet – eight years after the end of a lingering and bitter conflict that lasted more than twenty years.

Elephants in a row… at the beautiful Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. (My photo)

During a visit to this incredibly beautiful island recently, I came across elephants at every turn: wild elephants, domesticated elephants, retired elephants, orphaned elephants. And there were hand-carved elephants, elephant bags, elephant key-rings, elephant statues – why, even products made from elephant dung – as well as many elephants incorporated into the architecture and design of Buddhist and Hindu temples.

My traveling companion disappears among the trees, in the rain, on the back of an elephant. (My photo)

The Sri Lankan Elephant is one of three subspecies of the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus maximus). I subsequently discovered that it is listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which notes: “The species was once found throughout Sri Lanka, but today elephants are restricted mostly to the lowlands in the dry zone where they are still fairly widespread..The species continues to lose range to development activities throughout the island.” According to the World Wildlife Fund there are between 2,500 and 4,000 wild elephants in Sri Lanka. They are protected by law and there is a death penalty for killing one. Perhaps, in some respects, they are doing better than their African cousins; but rather than ivory poachers and trophy-hunters, the biggest threat for Sri Lankan elephants is deforestation, which shrinks their habitat into smaller chunks and disrupts their migration routes.

My first encounter with elephants was at the Millennium Elephant Foundation in Samaragiri, near the town of Kegalle. This is a family-owned non-profit organisation: a modest building on a quiet road with a river running by it. It is more than a tourist attraction, however. The Foundation tackles many of the issues affecting elephants (and humans) as described by its knowledgeable guides (ours looked about sixteen years old, but I suppose he was older than that) and on its website. It relies heavily on its volunteers, mostly from overseas.

Somewhere I have pictures of me scrubbing Lakshmi. Here are two others doing a clean-up job. You get the idea. (My photo)

The Foundation does not shy away from the cruelty and neglect that many Sri Lankan elephants suffer. They are often owned by rich people, for show; and by temples – yes, we saw two temple elephants standing in a rather dark shed. They looked lonely and somewhat stressed. They also do manual work. The Foundation cares for a herd of nine elephants currently. It also has a mobile veterinary unit, which can travel to treat other elephants.

Tourism interests also abuse the elephants; the Foundation campaigns against the use of howdahs – those contraptions used for humans to sit on the backs of elephants, which cause a lot of physical damage. While sipping one of my endless cups of tea in a roadside cafe, a couple of tourists passed by, seated on a howdah on an elephant’s back; I tried to imagine the pain it must be in as it walked slowly down the street.

The traditional mahouts (keepers, not owners) care for the elephants; traditionally, they virtually grow up with their elephant. I was worried about the stick – with a curved bit at the end – which they held. Just once I saw a mahout prod his elephant to make him move. However, they mostly shouted abrupt instructions to the elephants – “go down,” or “stop,” etc. With a twinge of sadness, the animals’ docility reminded me of elephants at the circus (yes, I am old enough to remember that). I think circus animals are almost a thing of the past, now; as a young child I did not understand the cruelty of it all. In Sri Lanka, we were also worried by the chains that hung loosely round the elephants’ necks; we were told these could be pulled on, as a last resort, if the animal became unruly. After all, it was explained, they are huge animals: on average, eight to ten feet at the shoulder and weighing 4,000 to 12,000 pounds. The males regularly go through a strange hormonal period called the musth, when their testosterone levels soar and their behaviour becomes erratic and angry.

The Millennium Elephant Foundation’s Mobile Vet Unit for pachyderms. There was quite an informative exhibit there. (My photo)

While some visitors to the Foundation did elephant rides – I watched my colleague, perched on an elephant, slowly disappear along a path through the trees – I was afraid of falling off, frankly. I opted for washing an elephant in the river – scrubbing her, in fact, with a dry coconut husk, while her mahout stood by and watched. “My” elephant was named Lakshmi – the Hindu goddess of prosperity – or was I “her” tourist, I wonder? Anyway, I think we both enjoyed the experience. She lay down on her side in the brown river, and I rolled up my trousers and waded in, the riverbed soft and sandy beneath my feet. We determined that Lakshmi liked a scrub behind the ears, so I worked the coconut up to her gently flapping ear (I took this to mean that she liked it). Her skin felt surprisingly soft, despite its incredibly deep wrinkles and ribbed contours.

The elephants are a matriarchal society, and Lakshmi is the matriarch of the Foundation’s herd, over forty years old. Her mahout had recently died, so she was getting used to a new one, who leaned on his stick in the water and shared jokes with his colleagues on the bank…while I scrubbed. Lakshmi is also a former movie star (her film credits include Tarzan the Ape Man) and the mother of a female named Pooja.

The eye of the gentle elephant. (My photo)

We also saw (and nearly saw) wild elephants. One, strolling at a leisurely pace by the roadside, towered over our little bus. There were also glimpses of elephants in the woodlands – the tops of their big grey heads among the trees was a wonderful sight. Our guide was disappointed, when driving along a lovely country road, to see fresh dung and broken bushes – a sign that a group of elephants had crossed the road barely five minutes earlier.

A tired expectant Mom at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. (My photo)

Another “elephant attraction” was the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. I was a little hesitant, as this place has been criticised for exploiting the animals for the tourists. There were a lot more elephants, walking around a large green area with sweeping views. I understood that the large males, who seemed to be in a separate area, would normally leave and be somewhat solitary, if they were in the wild; a regular herd would be headed by a female, with younger males and females.

Ah, but they are not in the wild; and they never will be. The “elephant orphans” cannot be released into the wild, for various reasons according to the owners. Some were born in captivity; I saw a very pregnant and tired-looking mother to be elephant. Others were actual orphans, or had been abandoned by their mothers in the wild. They had formed their own herd. They chewed on branches, and were then shepherded down to a wide river, where we tourists took pictures of them, and the keepers sprayed them with water. Nearby were stores selling elephant dung products. I bought some elephant postcards. Our small grandson in London thought we had been to the zoo, when he received his.

I began this article by saying: Sri Lankans love elephants.” But is it really love, exploitation, or is it just a kind of inter-dependency? The relationships between humans and animals – especially large animals like this – are complex. Who depends on whom, and for what? Sri Lankans have of course always used elephants. In Sri Lanka’s ancient culture, these relationships extend back centuries. While I was concerned about the welfare of all the animals I saw (including the wild ones) sensed there was some kind of bond. Something holds humans and their animals (or animals and their humans) together. And yet…

Me trying to carve an elephant’s head (a splendid, large carving under production by the master H.S.P. Karunarathna, who was trying not to look too amused by my pathetic efforts, at Karu Arts in Naula). The wood was very hard. Very.

The delicate balance can often tip the wrong way… An elephant “used for a safari” died on its way to the Millennium Elephant Foundation for treatment in September, reports Ceylon Today. Apparently, the elephants’ owners rent out the animals, with little regard for their welfare: “The minimum cost for an elephant is Rs 10 million. Most elephant owners are greedy for money and are only interested in getting the maximum income they can from the elephant. These elephant owners don’t care if the elephant is over worked, starved or sick. They just send them on safari rides and take the money. In some cases no proper medical care is given to the elephant when it is sick,” it was noted in the report.

We need to establish more loving relationships with “our” animals, especially those we keep near to us. And to protect those that we keep at a distance. After all, these relationships, whether close up or longer distance, are one-sided.

Humans benefit. Animals just put up with us.



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