We are at the Pinnewala Elephant orphanage about two and a half hours from Colombo. During the many years of civil strife, the Sri Lankan government started an elephant orphanage for the elephants that had lost their mothers or been separated from their herds or injured. Many elephants were injured by stepping on landmines as fallout of the civil war. The farmers in villages keep out the marauding wild elephants by means of deep ditches. Sometimes baby elephants get trapped here and separated from their herds.
Elephants are used on all occasions of pomp and pageantry like the Kandy Perehara. During the times of the Sinhala kings, the elephants were protected completely by a royal decree and the punishment for killing an elephant was death. An estimated 3000 elephants lived in Sri Lanka before the arrival of the British in 1815. In the 1960s this was close to extinction!
There are more than 60 elephants at the orphanage. There are volunteers here who learn the nuances of elephant care over two to three months like feeding, giving them a wash in the river and grooming them.
The little ones are fed infant formula; the others are fed about 75 Kg of green matter everyday. We watch the elephants trundle down the dusty road in disciplined rows to the Maha Oya River led by their mahouts. The road is lined with souvenir stalls and curious tourists who watch the elephants and their antics. Once they are in the river they splash and gambol in the waters and the mahouts scrub them. The younger ones are the crowd-pullers as they hide beneath their mothers or cover themselves with a mud-pack, eliciting cries of “Awww, he’s so cute!” from the groups of Japanese and British tourists!
We hear that the rehabilitated elephants and those born in captivity are sent to other wildlife parks in the country or gifted to temples. There are elephants which have even been sent to foreign zoos.
We see a board advertising elephant dung paper and intrigued we enter the shop. There are sheets of paper, gift bags, wine bags, gift tags and even small storage boxes all made out of the elephant poop. The friendly owner explains that since the elephants are poor digesters of their food like bananas, fruits and leaves nearly 60% of what they eat is excreta!