A visit to the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka charms Madhumitha Ramanathan

While browsing through the net for a vacation in Sri Lanka, I stumbled upon a project at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage run by the government. I immediately registered as a volunteer for one week.

When I got out of the car at the orphanage gate, I had my eyes and SLR lens wide open to capture my first sight of a jumbo. Within two minutes, I was given my first task — to feed two cute baby elephants Waruna and Nilagai. As the mahout taught me the feeding technique, they stood there with their trunks held up, eyes filled with eagerness, and pink mouths wide open. I watched awe-struck as they gulped down six to eight bottles of milk in less than five minutes.

After signing the volunteer forms, I walked out of the office into the shed where Sama and Nooni were enjoying a shower. A mahout grabbed me by hand so that I could say hello to the giant three-legged Sama (she lost her leg in a landmine blast). My heart was beating in fear at being so close to an untamed elephant, but Nooni and Sama welcomed me with nodding heads and happy grunts.

My next task was to learn to give them a bath. At the orphanage, the herd walks up to the river for a bath but the injured or sick elephants stay back in the sheds and are washed down with hosepipes. The task seemed easy enough, to stand around showering water on them, until Nooni grabbed the hose from me with his trunk and the mahout had his work cut out to get it back. And then, suddenly, a huge blast of water knocked me down — Nooni had just spat water all over me. All the mahouts and Sama and Nooni, of course, had a good laugh.

The rain played spoilsport. The water levels in the river were high and we could not take the herd to the river, as the baby elephants could get washed away in the current. I spent the rest of the day getting introduced to the mahouts and each of the elephants in their respective sheds. I was then taken to meet the herd of healthy elephants that has now come together as a family after being rescued by the orphanage over the years. What a sight it was to see this herd of untamed elephants milling around showering slush on each other and enjoying the rain. By the end of the day, my SLR had already taken over a thousand pictures.

The next day was harder. I had to clean the sheds. The orphanage accommodates 84 elephants and feeds them 17,000 kg of fresh leaves and coconut tree trunks. At least two tractor loads were filled in cleaning out just one shed. Trust me, shovelling up elephant poop is no less a task than weightlifting. It took more than four hours for about 20 of us to clean the sheds. As we rested with a cup of tea, all of a sudden my camera strap was snatched up by a five-year-old calf. I clung on to my SLR in a desperate tug-of-war. What was I thinking! The calf gave one serious tug and I ended up with my face flat against his, like Sid on Manny in Ice Age and yes, his eyes were beautiful.

Next day was the real jumbo experience. I had to bathe Raja, a massive tusker, one of the oldest animals in the orphanage. Poachers had tried shooting him for his tusk and when they did not succeed, they tried digging his eyes out. Forest officials saved him on time but Raja still carries a bullet in his body. As I stood next to him, he cracked open watermelons as I would a walnut, sucking in all the fruity pulp at one go. As he relished his fruit salad, I got to give him a good shower.

The rain finally stopped and the water level in the river receded. I got the chance to accompany the herd to the river. The elephants trooped out of the orphanage and crossed the road at the zebra crossing, even as vehicles stopped with awe-struck passengers watching the jumbos make their way to the river. It was a sight worth seeing, especially the baby elephants, plunging into the water from one side of their mother’s leg and emerging on the other side. The river flowed, the elephants relaxed and played, there was lush green forest in the background and clear blue sky above — surely the word heaven was coined at such a scene.

On my last day I made a final trip with the herd to the river. As I stood on the bank, I guess one of the elephants thought I was now part of the herd and pulled me into the water. I went plunging in, my hands holding on to his trunk. As we readied to return to the orphanage, I turned back in time to see one elephant raise his trunk at me in a salute, almost as if he knew I was leaving. I immediately responded with a namaskaram.